What if you wanted to find documents on the web from before September 11, 2001 that mention Osama Bin Laden? What if you wanted to find the web’s earliest mention of Beck Hansen? You can’t do this on Google, but you can on AltaVista’s advanced search page (Bin Laden, Beck).

In between Yahoo first popularizing the idea of a web search engine and Google becoming the dominant one, AltaVista had its fifteen minutes as the trendy one among geeks. I now mostly use Google, but when I had free access to my former employer’s otherwise non-free search engine, I grew to appreciate the ability to limit a document search by date, especially when an unqualified search yielded an unmanageable amount of hits. (A simple AltaVista search for “Osama Bin Laden” gets 23 million hits, and a Google search gets 28.5 million.)

alltheweb’s advanced search page also offers this, as does Ask.com’s advanced search page. For some odd reason the Ask.com main page doesn’t link to their advanced search page, but their Search Results page does. (www.teoma.com links to an Ask.com page that does include a link to the advanced search page.) When I filled out the date fields of Ask.com’s form, their system inserted the keyword betweendate: into the query. It also suggested that the keyword it inserted was a spelling mistake, and that perhaps I had meant to insert the two words “between date.”

The search engines’ date range constraints don’t always work perfectly, but they’re often helpful. For example, as with similar searches on the Google Groups advanced search page, it’s fun to look for the earliest available mention of a term or name. I once saw an article decrying what the author called “nexis journalism,” in which someone simply used one of my former employer’s products to track the use of a term over time and then wrote an article describing their results; now you can do the same!