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Build Your Skills: Tips to help you search Microsoft's online Knowledge Base like a pro

Get better Microsoft Knowledge Base search results with these tips


The Microsoft Knowledge Base (MSKB) is by far the most comprehensive resource for troubleshooting Microsoft products. It’s a database of support information that encompasses the entire range of Microsoft software and hardware. Love it or hate it, the MSKB is a masterpiece of documentation, and once you familiarize yourself with it, you can harness its power to make your support tasks easier.

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. With the TechNet program, 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. The online MSKB is free.

Although the local and online MSKBs contain basically the same information, their search mechanisms are quite different. Here, I will explain how to efficiently use the online version. If you'd like to learn more about the local MSKB, check out my previous article.

Accessing the online MSKB
Microsoft's Support Web site, shown in Figure A, allows you to search the MSKB in several ways. You can search by entering a word or phrase in the Search The Knowledge Base text box to the left of the page, or you can perform a more detailed search by clicking Advanced Search And Help.

Figure A
Microsoft's Support Web site is your gateway to the online MSKB.


The site’s exact layout is determined by your geographic location (and so are the types of search options available). The U.S. site often defaults to the Advanced Search options, while the UK and Middle Eastern sites default to displaying only the Simple Search options.

Since I've found that the Advanced Search options more often provide the information I need, I recommend you use them. These options may appear either on the left side or center of the screen. The layout of these options is also determined by your geographic location, but both sets of options (shown in Figure B and Figure C) work equally well.

Figure B
These Advanced Search options will be displayed in the center of the screen.


Figure C
These Advanced Search options will be displayed to the left of the screen.


Tips for international users
I guess the term international user refers to any user outside the United States (myself included). To accommodate international users, Microsoft's Support Web site should automatically adapt itself to the language and locale currently configured on your computer.   If this doesn't happen and you are presented with a site you cannot understand, you can manually change the site's language by clicking the International Support link located on the bottom-left corner of the page. This configuration will be saved in a cookie on your machine, and each time you access Microsoft's Support Web site, it will be displayed in the language you chose.

Searching the MSKB
Let's look at various ways to locate the information you need quickly and effectively. If you're lucky, you may already have an article's Q-number (e.g., Q123456). Every MSKB article is assigned a unique Q-number, and this unique identifier is the easiest way to find a specific MSKB topic. If you have a Q-number, simply enter it into the text box under Search The Knowledge Base and click the green arrow button.

But often, it's likely that you won't have a Q-number when you begin your search and will have to start from scratch. The easiest way to do this is by searching for a word or phrase.

Use exact phrases
You’ll usually want to search for exact phrases when attempting to troubleshoot an error message, error code, log entry, memory address conflict, and even cryptic hexadecimal codes. Searching for exact phrases is fairly straightforward; simply enter the text as your search string, select The Exact Phrase Entered from the Using drop-down list, and click the Go button (the green arrow). For example, searching for the exact phrase WINWORD caused an invalid page fault in MSO9.DLL yields several workarounds for this problem.

A word of caution: Do not use quotation marks to group search terms into a sentence. Unlike Internet search engines, such as AltaVista, Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft's own TechNet InfoViewer, the online MSKB completely ignores quote marks contained within the search string.

Write it down
The first rule of troubleshooting error messages is to write down the message. Save yourself some time; don’t rely on users’ vague descriptions of alerts. Having the exact wording can turn a potentially exhausting troubleshooting nightmare into a neat, quick fix.

When a problem yields no error message
There are always times when you just can’t provide one exact, fully formed sentence that describes the information you need. This is particularly true when the problem you’re trying to fix isn’t accompanied by an error message, or you’re trying to find out more information about a general issue rather than a specific error message.

This is where the Select A Microsoft Product drop-down list becomes handy. Before entering your search terms, select the product to which your search relates. This feature narrows the results by filtering out irrelevant topics. For example, if you're tracking down a Windows 2000 user access problem, select Windows 2000 from the list to prevent your results list from being flooded with articles about Microsoft Access.

Don't limit yourself to individual applications
You’ll find product suites and specific applications in the products list. For example, the MSKB article “XL: Error Message: Too Many Different Cell Formats” (Q213904) applies to any version of Excel 97 or later, including Mac editions. Hence, it would be listed under each of the following products: Office 97 for Windows Suite, Office 2000 Suite, Excel 97, Excel X for Mac, Excel 2000, and so forth.

Use creative search strings
Describe the problem's observable symptoms. Avoid overly technical descriptions; instead, describe the problem from the user’s point of view. Refer to interface items, menu items, window titles, and so forth. If a particular search string fails to yield the information you need, rephrase the string using synonymous words until the results become relevant. For example, use the words stops responding instead of hangs, or use set up instead of install.

Some symptoms can also be described with several different terms, all of which are equally valid. The terms greyed out, grayed out, and disabled can all be found in various MSKB articles describing similar conditions.

Try various word forms
One of MSKB's most annoying shortcomings is that the search engine doesn’t provide stemming. In other words, it doesn’t have the capability to search for alternate grammatical forms of search terms. For instance, the article “Remote Access Service (RAS) Error Code List” (Q163111) won’t be returned if you queried titles only for RAS error codes, because the word code appears in the article's title instead of codes. To get around this problem, you often have to use various forms of your search terms, such as display, displays, displaying, and displayed.

Fine-tune your searches
As with any search system, two factors control the number of hits: the number of search terms provided and the search scope. The search scope can be set by selecting the appropriate radio button, Title Only or Full Text, which narrows or broadens the results, respectively. Also, try adjusting the search string. Unless set to Any Of The Words entered, the search engine treats search terms as if they had the and operator between them. So more search terms impose more limitations on the search engine and yield fewer results.

Browse your search results
There are various ways to browse the results. At the top of the results page, you should see the tabs shown in Figure D. Using these tabs, you can browse the search results page in three views: Refine Your Search, Preview Articles, and View Results Only.

Figure D


If you have a relatively fast Internet connection, I recommend using the Preview Articles mode, which provides a split-screen interface. It allows you to skim through articles without losing touch with the result set. Alternatively, you can press [Shift] and click the articles’ title links to open the articles in a new window for a quick peek.

Express search using Google
My final search tips come from my fellow TechRepublic members. In response to my previous article, member Uber Geek suggested setting Google to search Microsoft's Support Web site, superseding TechNet’s internal search mechanism. Because Google usually provides the results considerably faster than Microsoft’s search, this little trick can save you loads of time. Member Gbakken posted a follow-up and offered a link that leads directly to a Google Web page that is set to search Microsoft's support site.

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