Q: I never seem to be able to find exactly what I'm looking for. How can I make my searches more effective?
A: The right search can mean the difference between finding that perfect whatchamacallit you've always craved, and missing it while someone else buys it for a pittance.
Each auction site's search tool works a little differently. Some offer complex search options that can befuddle Mensa members. But the simplest searches often work the best: one- or two-word searches can yield great results. Try searching for "milk glass" or "Harley Davidson".
Sometimes keeping it simple works a little too well: unless you have time to slog through 2,113 listings that match milk glass, you'll want to be more specific. Try adding words, one at a time, until there are a more manageable number of specific hits: typing "milk glass bottle" or "Harley Davidson Barbie" will hone the results nicely.
Effective searching sometimes means moving beyond the simplest searches, opting for slightly more complex queries. This is where the differences between each site's search tools really show.
Placing more than one word in quotation marks will force eBay and Yahoo!Auctions to show only items that match that exact phrase. Those two sites also offer the useful + and - modifiers, which you can use to include or exclude certain words from your search. At either site, a search for "Titanic -movie" will show Titanic-related listings, but none with "movie" in the title. On the other hand, "Titanic +movie" will only show listings with both words.
Both sites also allow "wildcards," which will show items that match partial words. To try it, tack an asterisk to the end of a search word. Searching for "Barbie*" will hit upon Barbie, Barbiedoll, and Barbies. Wildcards can uncover items with plurals in the titles that you might otherwise miss: searching for "Devo poster*" will uncover "Devo poster" and "Devo posters," for instance. Use wildcards sparingly, because they can cause spurious hits.
Where are the handy tips for Amazon Auctions? There aren't many to share: its search tool is what-you-see-is-what you get, without fancy options for power users. Although it lacks handy keyword searching extras, Amazon's Advanced Search page (http://auctions.amazon.com/exec/varzea/subst/search/search.html) does let you search for items that are located in, or can be shipped to, a particular ZIP code or country.
Read the search tips that each auction site provides: eBay's tips are at http://pages.ebay.com/help/buyerguide/search.html, Yahoo!Auction's are at http://search.yahoo.com/search/syntax, and paltry search help for Amazon Auctions are at http://auctions.amazon.com/exec/varzea/ts/help/search-for-auction-or-seller/. I know, these pages aren't the most thrilling reading, but they can give you valuable insight into how each site's search tool works.
Whatever you're searching for, double-check your spelling. A simple typo can make a search tool exclude plenty of interesting listings. If you're feeling especially anal retentive, try your searches more than once, with different spellings and description styles.
I try to think of the many ways different sellers might describe an item: searches "Muppets t-shirt" and "Muppets tee shirt" can reveal different items for sale, while searching for "Jim Henson" (creator of the Muppets) can yield completely different goodies.