In last month’s column, I discussed how search engines find and catalog information on the Internet. Most search engines use automated spiders that constantly crawl around websites and follow links, indexing the content on each of the website pages. So how does knowing how search engines work help you find what you’re looking for? Well, let’s say you’re a tax professional in Akron, but you have a client who relocated from California and you want to find out how that state handles AMT.
Okay, go to your favorite search engine (probably Yahoo!, Google, MSN or ASK) and type in California AMT. I received 1.8 million hits from Google. Why? Because even though I typed in two phrases, the search engine is basically returning all websites and online documents that its spiders (little web-scouring computer programs) have found that contain the word California or AMT or that have either word in their title or in the hidden “Meta tags” that are supposed to explain what the site is. That means that the pages you get as hits for your search might not even contain either word. So what now? Be overly specific.
California is pretty self-explanatory, but the acronym AMT, with a clearly defined meaning in the tax world, can mean a whole lot of things to other people. The website www.acronym finder.com lists more than 250 definitions for AMT. What you really want to tell your search engine is that you want pages that have the word California and the acronym AMT, and that also have to do with income tax. The best way to do this is to spell out what the acronym stands for and use inclusive and exclusionary search terms, search phrases and other techniques.
To most search engines, the plus symbol (+) means that the search you are performing must have the word following it. So instead of typing California AMT in the search field, typing +California +amt +tax reduces my results to only 921,000. Not quite the time to cheer yet. Let’s make the search more specific using phrases. Simply typing quotation marks around two or more words, along with the plus symbol (+) ahead of the phrase, can change results drastically.
Now, a search for +“California alternative minimum tax” brings up only 49 hits. While this is a more manageable number, it might be a little too restrictive, since many good references might not use that exact phrase. So, if after looking at the results, you don’t find what you need, it’s time to fine-tune the results by backing up to +California +“alternative minimum tax” and using other important search words.
Looking for income limits? Then add +“income limits”. Now the number of hits has gone back up, but among the top 10 are many government websites that should be reliable. Is your client single, married or filing separately? Include that in your search. The more terms you use, and the more that are mandated by the plus symbol (+), the fewer hits you will receive. Also consider including the source of the document, like FTB (California’s Franchise Tax Board), or IRS, SSA, etc.
In addition to the plus symbol (+) denoting words or phrases that must be in a search return, the minus symbol (-) can be used on many search engines to filter pages out that contain the specified word. This would be useful if you were looking for information on a company in California named AMT, but that had nothing to do with income tax. Most of the major ones also offer advanced options that can be used to search for words, phrases and even numeric ranges in specified areas of web pages (like titles, headers, tags, etc.), or to search language-specific sites, or those with a dot-gov, dot-edu or other specific domain suffix.