To begin with, the process for performing a backlink search differs a little from engine to engine. On Yahoo, simply type "linkdomain:yoursite.com" in the search box. The results will show all links to any page within your domain. For a more exact search, type "link: http://yoursite.com.page.html." This search will show only links to that specific page. If you want to exclude internal links from within your site, try typing "linkdomain: yoursite.com-site: yoursite.com." That way you'll only see links that originate from outside your domain. You can even chain together multiple "-sites" if you want to isolate a particular set of incoming links.
The same commands will work on MSN. Because MSN Search's index is still relatively small, you might expect that it would produce a smaller set of results than Yahoo, but one recent backlink search I tried produced nearly twice as many. Looks like the smiling folks in Redmond have quietly been growing their index, in some areas, at least.
On Google, you can search for "link:yoursite.com" to get an idea of the quality of links you have on the engine. Keep in mind that because of Google's tendency to under-report, the value of the information you'll see will be limited at best.
The procedure for checking the number of pages from your site that are indexed is the same on all search engines. To see how thoroughly your site is being crawled by a certain engine, just type "site:yoursite.com" in that engine's search box. More to the point, to see if specific pages on your site are indexed and showing certain keywords, type "site:your-site.com keyword."
On a more rarefied and esoteric level, if you want to get an idea of what anchor text different sites are using in their inbound links, type "allinanchor: keyword." Once again, this is just a guide, but the idea is that the top result for this search has the best links for the specified term. This allows you to research those links and try to mimic the champion site's distribution and anchor text variances.
Last but not least, there's the ever-popular "inurl:keyword." This can be useful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is brand protection -- finding out if other sites are using your brand illegally in their domain names.
While you're out there researching content for your site, type "feed: keyword" on msn. You'll see a list of topical RSS and XML feeds you can link to. To find out whether a specific site has a feed, type "hasfeed: www.yoursite.com." The results will show pages, which have links to feeds.
Want to learn more? If so, you're in luck: There are detailed instructions available on how to use all of the advanced search features on MSN (search.msn.com/docs/help.aspx?t=search_ref_AdvSrchOperators.htm&form=htdd#2), Yahoo (myweb2.search. yahoo.com/web/advanced?ei=utf-8), and Google (www.google.com/advanced_search? hl=en).
With these resources, you can make yourself an advanced search expert with just a few clicks of the mouse. Indeed, search engines can tell you a whole lot more than where to buy enlargement pills and locate the latest ringtone downloads. You just need to ask the right questions.