Supporting Microsoft products is often easier when you feel at home with the Microsoft Knowledge Base (MSKB). From deciphering a cryptic Office error to configuring an IIS server, the MSKB can save you time and effort once you familiarize yourself with its search engine.
The MSKB comes in two forms: an online version, which you can find at Microsoft's Support Web site, and a local version, available to Microsoft TechNet subscribers. The TechNet program lets individuals and organizations pay an annual fee to have the Knowledge Base, Service Packs, Microsoft Resource Kits, and other support tools sent to them on CD or DVD. For pricing and subscription information on the TechNet program, check out this PDF.
Although the local and online Knowledge Bases contain basically the same information, their respective search mechanisms are quite different. In this article, I’ll concentrate on explaining how to search the Knowledge Base in its local form. In my next article, I'll cover the online version.
Getting started with TechNet
When installed, the TechNet software configures its own internal search engine and browser, called InfoViewer (also known as TechNet Application or Technical information). Once you launch the InfoViewer application, you can begin searching by clicking Tools | Search. The default Search dialog box will appear. To reveal more options, click the Advanced button. I recommend selecting All Text as the Search Scope and the options Find Alternate Word Forms (Stemming) and Always Show Advanced Options. It's been my experience that these options produce the most useful search results. The Search dialog box (shown in Figure A) is your primary tool for searching the Knowledge Base. You can use the keyboard shortcut [Ctrl]S to quickly access this search window.
Now that you know how to start TechNet's search engine, let's look at the various types of searches you can perform and how best to perform them.
The first rule of searching for an error message is to write the message down. Having the exact wording makes searching easier. To search for the phrase, simply enclose the error message in quotes and use it as your search string (e.g., the common Outlook error message "Out Of Memory Or System Resources"). The search engine will return several possible causes and workarounds.
Include the application name
If you’re troubleshooting an application crash, make sure to look at the details—in what module did the Invalid Page Fault/General Protection Fault occur? Search strings that contain the name of the application and the problematic module usually yield appropriate results (e.g., "Outlook Invalid Page Fault Mso9.dll.").
When searching for information about what made an app crash, search for log files that may have been created or Windows NT/2000 application logs. These often contain error codes and/or event descriptions that may be relevant to the problem you are troubleshooting.
Error codes, memory addresses, and other hexadecimal creatures count as error messages as well. A client of mine once experienced a very annoying Outlook Express problem; the only clue was an odd error code of 0x800CCC63 that periodically appeared in the Send/Receive window. Quite impressively, searching for this exact number revealed the Knowledge Base article "OLEXP: Error Message: An Unknown Error Has Occurred" (Q176869), which outlined how to solve the problem.
Describe the problem's symptoms
When a problem yields no error message, your only real option is to describe the observable symptoms. However, I would avoid an overtechnical description of the bad behavior, and instead describe the problem from the user’s point of view. Try using search terms that will answer these questions:
- In what program did the problem occur?
- Is the problem related to any particular dialog box or feature?
Think user—always refer to interface items, menu items, window titles, and so forth.
For example, how would you search for Word Insert Object "Equation Editor"? Don’t use Word Insert Object Equation Editor, because the quotation marks are needed around terms you want TechNet to treat as two words in one search term. Also, don't use Word Eqnedt32.exe, because it is too technical and will return irrelevant results.
And one more tip: Terminology matters, so try synonymous words and abbreviations, such as IPF—short for Invalid Page Fault; Stops Responding vs. Hangs; and Setup vs. Install. Some terms have even more possibilities (e.g., Greyed out, Grayed out, and Disabled are all used in different Knowledge Base articles).
Use KBKeywords to avoid language pitfalls
While free-text queries are convenient and self-intuitive, these simple searches may be misleading. Let’s look at a few scenarios in which simply describing the problem could get you into a mess.
The search engine cannot distinguish between English verbs and proper names. Say you’re experiencing an error with Microsoft Access. Using the word "Access" in the search box will not only return items about Microsoft's Access database program but also many articles concerning Access Denied messages. Unless you're troubleshooting Access security issues, these Access Denied articles are totally useless to you and will only obscure the relevant articles.
To avoid this pitfall, you should introduce a KBKeyword to your search string. KBKeywords—words from a large closed list—classify specific topics in the Knowledge Base. All Microsoft Access 2000-related documents are marked with the kbAccess2000 keyword. Include this in your search string, and you will only receive Access-related results.
Although KBKeywords are listed in a separate section of the topic’s text, they should be treated just like any other search term. There is no separate field in the Search dialog box for them. That’s why the Search Scope must be set to All Text when you're using KBKeywords. For example, you could use kbAccess2000 Subform Display to search for articles related to Access 2000 Subform Display errors.
This example also emphasizes the importance of the Stemming option in the Search dialog box. Stemming ensures that TechNet finds other forms of the word display: displays, displayed, and so forth.
Every article in the Knowledge Base is marked with one or more KBKeywords. The most useful and easy-to-use ones are those specifying the product the article relates to. These are referred to as KBSubcategory Keywords in Microsoft documentation. For instance, Word 2000 articles are marked with kbWord2000, so searching for KBWord* returns only Microsoft Word articles, for any version.
Microsoft has turned KBKeywords into an entire philosophy. There are actually four types of them. Unless you’re about to spend hours searching MSKB, you don’t really have to master the art of KBKeywords, but a rudimentary knowledge of them does help. I’ve learned about KBKeywords by simply keeping an eye on the keyword list on the bottom of every article I read. If you want to know more, perform a search of the term KBKeyword, and you’ll find some comprehensive topics about them along with KBKeyword lists.
Filter out irrelevant information
If your search returns a lot of irrelevant results, you can filter them out by using the Exclude Topics Containing, field shown in Figure A. Simply double-click this text box and enter either a text string or KBKeyword.
Fine-tuning your searches
You're trying to save time by using the MSKB, so you don't want to spend your whole day performing multiple searches that yield useless results. Likewise, you don't want to waste hours sifting through hundreds of articles. Once you've performed a search, immediately check the number of articles returned. If you received only one or two, you're either very lucky and have found exactly what you need, or your search is too narrow. If your search returned more than 100 articles, you should consider narrowing it. Try the following refining techniques.
Too many results
- Limit the search to Title Only.
- Use the NEAR operator to make sure two different terms are adjacent in the article text.
- Add more search terms or KBKeywords.
- Choose Previous Search Results from the Filter drop-down menu to search within the current result set.
Too few results
Try the obvious first. Search All Text and omit a few search terms. If simply rephrasing the search scope doesn’t do the trick, it’s time to employ some more creativity to your search.
On one occasion, I found documentation of a certain feature of Word 97 in an article discussing Word for Macintosh. Even more common is to find topics listed under Explorer 5.5, for example, that also apply to Explorer 6, or vice versa. So sometimes you need to ignore the official version number listed in the beginning of the article. Do this with care, however, as registry entries and other delicate settings may differ considerably between versions.
You might also find an answer (or at least a hint) to your problem by reading related articles. Spend a few moments skimming articles that are related but not necessarily about your particular problem. This little technique may take you a few steps closer to finding a remedy.