1. Computing

Reverse Search Engineering: How to Find What You Want By Searching Backwards

By

Most of us are accustomed to searching for things in forward gear; i.e., entering a query, moving forward to the search result list, and moving forward once more to pages that look like they will deliver what we are looking for.

However, if we can look at our searches from another point of view, we can create search queries that have a reverse gear, so to speak. These kinds of searches can be very handy for finding certain kinds of information, or for backing out of those all too frequent dead-end searches. This is called reverse searching: deliberately re-engineering your search query to work backwards instead of forwards.

Basically, reverse Web searching is similar to a reverse telephone look-up, in which you enter a telephone number and you get the name and address of the owner (in addition to potentially even more information). With reverse Web searching, you enter a Web address (URL), and the results are Web pages that have linked to the URL you entered. There's a lot of information you can potentially glean from these results.

Google makes it very easy to search for information this way. To shift your search query into reverse, you simply need to preface your target URL with the special link: operator—for example, "link:websearch.about.com" (note: you'll want to omit the "http://www" part of the URL for best results).

Why is this kind of search so useful? If you have your own Web page, and you'd like to see who is linking to you, this is the easiest way to track down that information. However, that's not the only interesting information you can find out with a reverse search: it's also an extremely useful way to assess the popularity of a website, analyze credibility, track down similar sites, and even perhaps discover previously hidden relationships that might not have been found otherwise.

Popularity

A reverse search can tell you how many links are found to your site, which gives you an immediate sense of how link-worthy your site might be. The more people who have taken the time and energy to link to a site, the more popular that site will be in search results (for the most part).

Put it this way: links are like votes for a website that have been cast by fellow members of the Web community. It's somewhat like an informal peer review process for Web pages, with only pages that pass the review getting rewarded with links from other sites as a stamp of approval.

How many links you have from other sites is certainly a useful indicator of how popular a website might be. However, popularity reveals nothing of the site's credibility or reliability, which ultimately are the most important criteria for judging a site. Fortunately, reverse searching can also help you assess credibility.

Credibility

Reverse search results can give you clues as to a website's true worth. You can get a good sense of credibility by quickly scanning through reverse search results to see where they originate. Good, credible links will come from familiar sources that you trust, such as search engines, major media, or other trusted sources, such as government entities or educational institutions. If reverse search results contain links from several truly credible sources, then it's likely your target URL can be trusted as well.

The opposite applies here as well. If a reverse search turns up many links from sites that feature more ads than content, questionable legal material, or are in some way dangerous to your computer, then you'll need to do a little more digging to truly get a sense of credibility. Links do really make a difference as far as whether or not a site is worth that all important click.

Related Sites

Websites focused on one specific subject matter tend to link to other high-quality sites covering the same subject. This makes reverse searching a great tool for quickly finding more websites that are of high quality and in the content area that you're interested in.

Basically, a reverse search can reveal sites created by people with the same interests that are a natural fit for your topic search. These sites might not have been found by you in a simple search engine query, which is why reverse searching can be so valuable. In order to find related sites in Google, all you need to do is type in this search operator, followed by the URL of your choice: related:.

Digging Up Hidden Information

Reverse searches can also reveal information that can be difficult or impossible to discover in other ways. For example, a link that points to a personal Web page can potentially contain additional information about the author of the target URL: social networking profiles, business affiliations, names of mutual friends, etc.

This is also true if you're looking up business-oriented information. A company's Web site usually features links to people and companies that they do business with as a way to build their credibility. A reverse search on a company's URL shows you other sites that consider that company important enough to link to so you can see both sides of the story. Viewing the entire big picture with these links can often give you a more rounded viewpoint of the company.

More Advanced Searching Techniques

Using the "link:" operator to reverse search is just one way you can restrict your search queries to search a specific field of information. There are many more ways to use this kind of specific field searching to focus your Web search queries. The links below take you to articles and tutorials on using a variety of these advanced search tools:

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.