Find it on the Web
May 12, 1999
by Matt Lake and Dylan Tweney
(IDG) -- And it came to pass that the knights began their quest for the Grail. To traverse the length and breadth of the land was a perilous undertaking, yet they had no choice. So with great diligence and courtesy they began to sift through every field, fortress, and farmyard...
Needles? Haystacks? Nay, sirrah. Searching the Web makes winnowing straw in search of a bodkin child's play by comparison. The glittering skein holds so much information--and misinformation--that nothing short of an heroic quest will enable you to find the silver chalice you seek in the ocean of digital Dixie Cups. Verily, we'd as lief search for the Holy Grail by picking pages at random from the medieval books section of Ye Olde Barnes and Noble as seek information on the Net by blind errantry in the murky depths of an unknown Web search site.
The information is out there, right enough, but you have to wade through a lot of shining armor, drama, and sorcery just to get to it. That's where we come in--consider us the Merlin to your gallant Arthur. We'll avail you of strategies to reduce your searching times, summon the most from the search engines you already know, and wield indispensable--and often overlooked--search tools.
So if you be pure of heart, pray you saddle up, and with a shrewd PC World squiring by your side, mount a quest.
Your quest should begin with general search tools such as those offered by AltaVista, Dogpile, Excite, GoTo.com, HotBot, InfoSeek, Lycos, and Yahoo. These sites--Yahoo in particular--are the best places to conduct searches on general topics.
A powerful general-purpose search engine, Compaq's AltaVista has been around longer than most other search sites on the Web. Though it lacks some of the query-construction niceties of other sites, such as drop-down boxes for building Boolean expressions, it offers a few unique tools. One useful feature lets you type simple questions into the query box; then, along with providing the search results, AltaVista will guess at several related questions you might want answered. For instance, a search on "dog" netted us "How are hot dogs made?" and an Answer button that linked to pertinent sites.
AltaVista's basic search form lets you specify in which of 25 languages--not Old English, alas, but how about Icelandic or Lithuanian?--you'd like your search results to appear, a nice feature that other sites generally include only on their advanced search forms. And check out the Tools and Gadgets page (www.altavista.com/av/content/tools) for such handy accessories as the Stress-O-Meter, the Calorie Calculator, and Find Polluters Near You. Of special interest is the Babelfish tool, (babelfish.altavista.com) which lets you translate phrases or entire Web pages to and from English, French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages.
Tip: To search a specific site, type host:domain keyword. For example, if you're looking for CNN's coverage of Bosnia, type host:cnn.com bosnia. For info from a specific country, type domain:country keyword. For example, domain:uk football will take you to British sites dedicated to soccer.
Ask Jeeves (www.ask.com)
Think of Ask Jeeves as your very own, very knowledgeable librarian. Rather than searching by keyword and presenting you with links that may or may not be relevant, Ask Jeeves lets you type your questions in plain English and presents answers in an easy-to-follow, almost conversational form. For example, ask it "How can I cook angel hair pasta?" and you'll get a list of similarly phrased questions (for example, "Where can I find pasta recipes?") with links to their answers.
Have a bit of the voyeur in you? Watch the questions fly by in the "Here's what others are asking right now" box. If you want to delve more deeply into other users' queries, visit the Most Popular Questions page. If you're new to searching online, a little help from Jeeves may be just what you need.
When one search engine's index doesn't yield all the data you're looking for, metasearch sites such as Dogpile come into their own. Metasearching is the online equivalent of sending a whole round tableful of knights out to bring back results from the four corners of the Web. Many sites perform metasearches, but Dogpile puts a different spin on this trick. For one thing, it metasearches different types of sites: You can choose from among searches of the Web, newswire services, Usenet, FTP sites, and other sources such as maps, weather reports, and stock quotes.
The results aren't collated. Instead, they're served up in groups arranged by the search engine that found the information. This isn't the handiest way to sort through information (the software Copernic 99 does it better; see "The Magic Toolbox" (/current_issue/article/0,1212,10727+1+5,00.html) ), but it's very fast. And the site provides searches of news and news releases under its BizNews section, sensibly sorted by date.
Tip:Use lots of Boolean terms in a Dogpile search. Putting phrases in quotes or using a minus sign to exclude a word can make all the difference when results from different search engines aren't sorted for duplicates.
A single Excite search provides all kinds of results--not just Web page links. Search for, say, the Rolling Stones, and you'll get news stories, schedules of events, encyclopedia articles, and sound clips. When you search for a publicly traded company, the first results you'll see are links to its financials and to the company's Web site. For a quick overview of a subject, it's hard to beat these categorized results. Excite also has handy tools for making adjustments when the first search yields few relevant results. By simply clicking a button, you can change the sort order so that the output is listed by Web site. If only one result seems relevant, click the words More Like This beneath it, and Excite will re-search the Web based on the words and concepts in that result.
Tip:If your search yields lots of irrelevant items, pick out a few key words from the "Select words to add to your search" list below the search form on the results box.
Currently in beta phase (whatever that means--the site is up and running, and that's all that counts), Google is quick and to the point and rapidly gaining fans among Web searchers. Below the search box there are two buttons. Click I'm Feeling Lucky and Google picks one site it guesses is the best match for your search. Click Search Google and you'll get a list of sites ranked and sorted by your keyword.
A closer look at this list reveals two links, one of which leads to a cached copy of the page. Click the Cached link and Google presents you with a copy of the page from its server--since it's been cached, it'll load very quickly. The caveat is, it may not be the most recent update of the page. On the other hand, Google's cache feature allows you to view Web pages that no longer exist on their native servers.
HotBot's advanced search form spells out a few of the Boolean options you can type into the regular form, and adds some new options such as restricting a search to a particular domain (like pcworld.com) or top-level domain (such as .com, .gov, or .edu). This is useful for scouring sites that lack a good search tool. And if HotBot fails to get results (as it did in a few of our quests), there's a button that reissues the search on Lycos.
Tip: Don't create too long a Boolean string to narrow a search. After two or three NOT statements, HotBot throws up its hands and gives zero results, even when hundreds of sites actually satisfy the specified query.
InfoSeek is the search engine component of the Go Network, an array of Web content sites affiliated with Disney and ABC. Like other search sites, InfoSeek uses a simple one-box search form: Just type your query and hit Enter or click the Search button. Use the drop-down box to specify whether you want to search for Web pages, news stories, newsgroup messages, or companies. Like HotBot and Lycos, InfoSeek has an advanced search form for constructing Boolean queries or searches by category. There's also a handy filter you can use to screen out content unsuitable for children; it's called GoGuardian and can be turned on with a single click.
Tip:Use the pipe character ( ) to search within subject categories on InfoSeek. For example, type dance tango to search for the word tango within the category dance.
An attractive, convenient search site, Lycos combines news, product offers, and other consumer niceties with its Web page search results. Its context-sensitive search bar lets you refine searches with ease: Once you've entered an initial search, Lycos lets you run a second query on the first set of results, or within a Lycos category such as Weather or sites that have won the Top 5% award.
Lycos's Pro Search page lets you look for specific content, such as images, MP3 files, books, or newsgroups.
Tip:Search Guard is an optional service that screens out content such as pornography and possibly objectionable language; using it can limit your access to chat rooms and bulletin boards through Lycos. Once you register for Search Guard, you can specify the content you want to screen out.
Microsoft Network (www.msn.com)
Like its browser-war opponent Netscape, Microsoft maintains a search site in which it bestows regal favor on other Web search sites that pledge their fealty to the kingdom--in this case, AltaVista, InfoSeek, Lycos, and Snap. The Microsoft Network search site (search.msn.com) also provides a proprietary MSN search, capable of handling mixed phrase and operator searches (like "King Arthur" –Guinevere for citations of the king without his consort). And www.msn.com provides an all-in-one page that includes more search options, from Web-wide searches at GoTo.com and Northern Light to specialty searches of Corbis's art collection or of Dictionary.com. Internet Explorer 5.0 users who follow the More Searches link find more than a long list of search sites. For them, the page provides the chance to customize what appears when they click their browser's Search button--including the option of adding their own favorite search sites.
Netscape's NetCenter collects half a dozen different Web search sites under a single URL--seven sites if you count Netscape's branded version of Excite as a separate entity. Certainly, it can be beneficial to have access to Excite, InfoSeek, Lycos, Snap, and LookSmart--plus a news search called NewsTracker (also from Excite).
Tip:If you know which sites you like to search, go directly to them and avoid getting mired in NetCenter's interface.
Aside from being a top-notch search engine and the most popular portal on the Web, Yahoo is a carefully constructed, laboriously maintained subject catalog of the Web. This makes it an ideal instrument for your first search. Rather than zeroing in on specific pages within a site, Yahoo lets you locate entire sites and their index pages. This tactic is especially useful when you're interested in finding a certain page but don't know exactly what you're looking for within it. Because Yahoo enables you to search by categories or by sites, its results tend to be more manageable than those from other search sites.
Tip:Be sure to take advantage of Yahoo's well-organized categories to narrow down your search. First browse to the general category you're interested in, and then enter a query and specify that Yahoo should limit its search to just this category.
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