Web Search Tools: Here Are the Basics

Three basic search tools to help you find what you're looking for

A tablet held up to a chalkboard with lines connecting to books, photos, people, etc.

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Search tools help you browse the web. If you're just getting started using the web, it can definitely get overwhelming as you understand just how much information there is out there. You know that you're connected to the internet, but what's next? How do you actually find things online?

There are three basic search tools you should know about as you begin your web searches:

  • Search engines
  • Web directories
  • Metasearch tools

None of these search tools let you search the entire web because there isn't a single catalog of the entire web. However, you can still use these web search tools to scour various parts of the web and find specific types of information.

You need a web browser on your computer or mobile device before you can use these search tools. The one you're using now is probably just fine, but see our picks for the best internet browsers for other options.

Search Online With a Search Engine

A search engine is usually the preferred way to browse the web. It's a tool that crawls the web to find new web pages to index, and the search bar provided by the search engine is your way to peek inside the index and quickly find things online.

Most search engines work by having you enter text into a search box. Google Search, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Yahoo Search are a few examples, but there are plenty of other search engines to pick from.

DuckDuckGo search engine home page

What makes a general search engine so useful is that when you run a search, you're looking for all kinds of information. You're not restricted to just images, videos, web pages, sounds, etc. A simple search will find all of those things and more, and it takes only a second or two to get the results.

However, specialized search engines find really specific things while at the same time filtering out all the unnecessary results that you aren't looking for. Once you know which search engine you should use, you might decide on an image search engine, for example, or a people search engine.

Web Directories Are Another Online Tool

Subject (or web) directories are kind of like search engines because they catalog web-based information, but they're much different from a normal search engine because they're really just handmade lists.

Instead of providing a search box that lets you scour large parts of the web, a web directory is a list of categories that you can click through to find web pages curated by a real person instead of by an algorithm.

Alive Web Directory, Best of the Web, and Hotfrog are a few examples.

Best of the Web directory home page

You might use a web directory if you're looking for something really specific. For example, if you want the best chat room sites on the web, you could use a search engine to find nearly all of them, or you could trust a web directory provider to find the best ones for you. When you visit the web directory, you're browsing just the chat rooms sites that they've vetted and listed on their website.

Web directories are usually not as cluttered as a search engine, so if you're looking for a search tool that's relatively easy to use but can still be useful for finding websites, use a trusted subject directory.

Search the Web With a Metasearch Engine

Metasearch engines get their results from another search engine, sometimes several at once. When your search tool is a metasearch engine, you're getting the best hits for your keywords from each search engine, all at once.

Dogpile is one example of a metasearch engine for finding web pages, images, videos, and more. If you're looking for torrents, a search tool like Torrentz can search across dozens of torrent sites at once.

Torrentz2 search tool

Metasearch tools are a good place to start for very broad results, but don't usually give the same quality results as using each search engine and directory individually.

Other Search Tools

The idea of a web search tool is really broad, so the three mentioned above aren't the only forms. They're great for beginners and almost everyone else, but there are other ways to search the web that might come into play if those basic search tools aren't enough.

For example, you might need to search the invisible web, in which case you can use invisible-web search tools. There are also advanced search options built-in to many search engines that let you narrow down your searches. Bookmarking tools and RSS feeds are other ways to use the web.