Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Thrill of the Hunt

Looking at the nuts and bolts of search engines.

By Ann Mulhearn

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  You finally succumbed. The snazzy TV spot and splashy magazine spreads fished you in -- the PC, the software, the modem. Even Internet access. The hype promised instantaneous access to a world of knowledge and trivia. Cool -- but how do you find anything?

Even though the Internet is newfangled technology, the basic principles of research you learned in 10th-grade English still apply. Step one -- decide what you want to find. Step two -- decide which tools will aid you in your search.

Instead of musty old encyclopedias and crusty card catalogs, search engines and Internet directories help you sift through the billions of up-to-date sites scattered across the globe. But not all search engines are alike. Technically, some aren't even search engines.

The term "search engine" has become a catch-all for any Internet search tool. A true search engine (also called a "spider" or a "crawler") is a program that scurries across the Web, gleaning information from each site it finds. This information is then stored in an index on the spider's home server, updating it after each crawl. When you use a search engine to find a recipe for apple brown betty, the index is compared to the words "apple brown betty" and presto! a list of culinary sites appears that may actually be helpful.

Theoretically, a spider will eventually hit and index every site on the Web, no matter how obscure. That's the difference between a true search engine and a directory service. A directory such as Yahoo! only compares "apple brown betty" to sites that have been submitted, approved, and categorized on the directory's server, rather than the contents of the entire Internet.

So how do you decide which tool is right for you? If you want very general information about a broad topic, say Southern desserts, then a true search engine such as Alta Vista or Infoseek is a good choice. But if you are specifically looking for apple brown betty recipes, then a directory such as Yahoo! would probably be faster, giving more focused desserts.

The trick is finding directories that have what you're looking for. Sites such as Search Insider and Search Engine Watch explain, rank, and list hundreds of engines and directories, including everything from personal homepages to medical terminology. But using these tools to search the Internet isn't always as easy as pie. Sometimes, you actually have to have a plan. Brett Henley, a director of communications for Magibox, a local internet service provider, explains.

"The key to getting the most out of a search engine is knowing what kind of search engine you're dealing with and how to phrase a query to get the results you want," Henley says. "The most common mistake I have seen is where people expect the computer to interpret what they mean instead of what they type. It's the difference between going to a library and asking a person at the help counter and going to a card catalog to find what you want. No search engine can divine what the user means, only search for what is asked."

When you do find that obscure directory devoted exclusively to dessert recipes, the phrasing of your query or search terms can make all your efforts for naught. Depending on the engine, the terms can be separated by operators such as "and," "or," "but not." Instead of recipes containing the words apple and brown and betty, you may get hundreds of hits containing the words apple or brown or betty. Talk about one wormy apple!

Many engines such as HotBot and Excite have options that allow you to determine the operators used in your quest for that crusty piece of heaven. Refining a search by using operators is sometimes called "power searching" or an advanced search. Some engines even let you search for words that are near each other. That's pretty neat -- you might find the site of a cook named Betty Brown from Appleville, Washington!

But you'd probably have better luck finding her and her e-mail address using a directory such as Four11 or WhoWhere. You can search the database of registered users by names, domains, city, state, even hobbies. You might find that black-sheep cousin or high-school sweetheart by accident!

Web pages and e-mail addresses are just two of the searchable components of the Internet. Usenet newsgroups and file servers such as ftp and gopher are also out there, waiting to be tapped. The volume of information available on the Internet is growing exponentially. Now that you can search and find what interests you, the world is truly at your fingertips.

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