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The Internet Jungle

By David O. Dabney

July 14, 1997:  The Internet has a dirty little secret and nobody wants you to find out: Many times it's nearly impossible to find what you want when you want it. Sure, if you want more information than you can possibly use about the latest computer gizmo or maybe that episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" you missed, you're sure to find all you're looking for. But if you're just trying to find information about the Battle of Bull Run, you're probably out of luck when it comes to just simply looking around and stumbling across what you need. The answer is knowing how to use search engines and subject indexes effectively.

Subject indexes are sites such as Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com) that create what are essentially library card catalogs. Every site is under a main heading and multiple subheadings. This is very helpful if you know exactly what you're looking for and where to start looking. For example, in looking for the Battle of Bull Run might start under Arts and go down through successive layers of Humanities, History, U.S. History and then to Wars. Yahoo! also has a rudimentary search engine that lets you search only in its site. It comes in handy when you are looking for information for our Bull Run example, since there are several categories in the U.S. History grouping, like 19th Century and Regional History, that could also contain information about Bull Run. One handy thing about the Yahoo! search engine is that it allows you to narrow your search automatically to the subheading your in. For example, once you've gotten to the U.S. History, you can narrow your search for information to just that section. Two other good subject indexes are also Magellan (www.magellan.com) and the A2Z Directory on Lycos (www.lycos.com). But it has been my experience that when it comes to an easy to use, up-to-date directory, Yahoo! really has no competition.

But if you want to do some serious data-mining you simply can't beat a search engine. Two of the best are Alta-Vista (www.alta-vista.com) and SavvySearch (www.cs.colostate.edu/~dreiling/smartform.html). Alta-Vista is probably the largest and fastest of all search engines and has the most sophisticated tools for limiting your search to exactly what you want. On the other hand, if you're searching for information on a fairly common topic and you get lots of hits, Alta-Vista does a poor job of ranking the sites it finds by their relevance. Sure, the word or words you looked for are probably on the pages somewhere, but pages containing the most frequent occurrences of the word or words you looked for are many times not at the top of the list. SavvySearch bills itself as an all-in-one search page allowing you to submit your query to several search engines at once. The up-side is that they have very good options for refining searches and sending your searches to various related engines. The down-side it only allows 50 hits per engine and can be slow at times.

If you're going to be doing anything more than occasional searching, it always pays to read the special searching hints that all search engines have on their pages. Judicious use of operators like "not," "and" and "or" can come in very handy. The Spider's Apprentice (www.monash.com/spidap.html) is a good guide for beginning searchers with detailed how-to guides, news and evaluations of various search engines. Its pretty text-heavy but worth it. Finally, if a search tool exists, its probably mentioned on the All-In-One Search Page (www.albany.net/allinone). It can be hard to use because of its length, and it can only handle one query at a time, but it's one of the only places I know that has such a wide selection of tools.

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