There are hundreds of millions of Web pages on the Internet, and somewhere in that data haystack is the information, product or service you seek. The problem is finding it.

To try to solve this dilemma, "search engines" evolved--sites such as AltaVista , Lycos and Google . They are automated programs that scour the Web, indexing every page they come across; when you type in a query, the search engine tries to find indexed pages that match your keywords. A related category of sites, Web databases such as Yahoo and LookSmart , work on human-gathered collections of Web pages, which are then computer-indexed (Yahoo also includes regular search-engine data in its searches). It's confusing, yes, but when all this works, it's remarkable; out of the immense accumulation of Web data, you are almost magically pointed to the information you wanted.

When it doesn't work, it's maddening. And some of the worst problems with search engines--they don't and can't cover all of the Internet, they're often badly programmed, they're sometimes too busy to process your search--can't be solved.

But others, the ones on your side of the screen--not knowing how to request the exact thing you want, and mismatches of definitions between you and the search engine--can be worked on. A few simple tactics can cut down on the amount of time you spend waiting for an answer from a search engine.

Be specific.

Most people make the mistake of entering a broad subject, which can only yield overwhelming results. You can avoid this common pitfall by doing some critical thinking upfront: For a specific answer, ask a specific question.

Let's say you're planning to go to San Francisco for Thanksgiving and you want to make a secret detour to the 49ers vs. Green Bay football game on November 26. You decide to go to the team Web site to get information about tickets, the kickoff time, and player statistics. How can you best find that information? Be specific. The table at right shows the results of searches that relate to the 49ers using Yahoo . As you can see, broad queries yield broad results and specific queries yield answers you can actually use.

Use quotation marks.

Quotation marks force the search engine to limit your search to only those Web sites that use the exact phrase as specified within them. Typing "San Francisco 49ers" in quotes gets Yahoo to cough up one category and 19 highly relevant sites; the 49ers home page is the first listing.

Spell correctly.

Most search engines don't compensate for spelling errors, so if you're having trouble finding what you want, double-check the spelling and try again.

Beware of punctuation.

Some search engines don't recognize punctuation marks such as apostrophes. If you have a problem with a search and you used an apostrophe, for example, abbreviate the query by removing the apostrophe and the letters that follow it.

Get help.

All search engines feature a help section designed to help you search more efficiently. It's too bad that so many of them speak in language that can only scare off Web civilians. For example, most of them make references to Boolean operators ("and," "or," "not"); the proper use of these syntactical wrenches is foreign to anyone other than a reference librarian.

Increasingly, companies offering two types of help files related to searches. One is usually just referred to as "search help," while the other is called "advanced search help." The regular help page is written for people who don't know and don't care about Boolean operators, while the advanced help is for search-engine gearheads. The choice is yours.

If none of the available help is useful, try another search engine. No two search engines will yield the same results, because different people designed them.

Ask Jeeves to find it.

Our current favorite search engine is Google (disclosure: The Post's Web site has signed up Google as a partner), but it's not infallible and its bare interface may not be particularly friendly to technophobes. Another option worth considering, especially if you're new to this, is the Ask Jeeves site . This service, which allows you to ask questions in plain English ("How much should I weigh?"), automatically queries multiple search engines simultaneously. That means you don't have to go to Yahoo, then AltaVista, then AOL. Jeeves searches them all for you, then displays everybody's results as pull-down menus on one page.

Follow the information tree.

Many search-engine sites have set up their own directories of sites, along the lines of Yahoo, that sort sites into topics and subtopics. AltaVista offers one example of this. Let's say you want to find information about amateur photography. Click on "Hobbies and Interests," which opens up a list of options including photography; a click on that topic yields another menu, which lists magazines, tips and tricks, and products and services. Under any one of those subtopics AltaVista will present you with a list of (hopefully) relevant sites. And so if you choose magazines, you'll be able to click through to Amherst Media's site, where you can learn about basic photography, wedding photography, equipment and more.

Try independent search tools.

There are companies who produce software specifically designed for searches. One of these is SearchPad, from Satyam Spark Solutions . If you regularly search for information on a grand scale, you might consider using one of these. Unlike search engines themselves, searching software allows you to be extremely specific about your objective, schedule automatic searches and save results for review offline.

Words used in search:

# of categories:

# of web sites:

Words used in search: Football

# of categories: 409

# of web sites: 3609

Words used in search: Football teams

# of categories: 98

# of web sites: 1497

Words used in search: NFL teams

# of categories: 3

# of web sites: 356

Words used in search: SF 49ers

# of categories: 0

# of web sites: 7