Find It on the Web

The best thing about the Web? Information. The worst thing? Chaos. If you sometimes feel that your search for truth online is a hopeless quest, here’s help.

From the June 1999 issue of PC World magazine

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 tosift through every field, fortress, and farmyard…

Needles? Haystacks? Nay, sirrah. Searching the Web makes winnowing strawin search of a bodkin child’s play by comparison. The glittering skein holdsso much information–and misinformation–that nothing short of an heroic questwill enable you to find the silver chalice you seek in the ocean of digitalDixie Cups. Verily, we’d as lief search for the Holy Grail by picking pagesat random from the medieval books section of Ye Olde Barnes and Noble as seekinformation on the Net by blind errantry in the murky depths of an unknownWeb search site.

The information is out there, right enough, but you have to wade througha lot of shining armor, drama, and sorcery just to get to it. That’s wherewe come in–consider us the Merlin to your gallant Arthur. We’ll avail youof strategies to reduce your searching times, summon the most from the searchengines you already know, and wield indispensable–and often overlooked–searchtools.

So if you be pure of heart, pray you saddle up, and with a shrewd PC World squiring by your side, mount a quest.


General Searches

Your quest should begin with general search tools such as those offeredby AltaVista, Dogpile, Excite, GoTo.com, HotBot, InfoSeek, Lycos, and Yahoo.These sites–Yahoo in particular–are the best places to conduct searcheson general topics.

A powerful general-purpose search engine, Compaq’s AltaVista has been aroundlonger than most other search sites on the Web. Though it lacks some of thequery-construction niceties of other sites, such as drop-down boxes for buildingBoolean expressions, it offers a few unique tools. One useful feature letsyou type simple questions into the query box; then, along with providing thesearch results, AltaVista will guess at several related questions you mightwant answered. For instance, a search on “dog” netted us “How are hot dogsmade?” and an Answer button that linked to pertinent sites.

AltaVista’s basic search form lets you specify in which of 25 languages–notOld English, alas, but how about Icelandic or Lithuanian?–you’d like yoursearch results to appear, a nice feature that other sites generally includeonly on their advanced search forms. And check out the Tools and Gadgets page for such handy accessories as theStress-O-Meter, the Calorie Calculator, and Find Polluters Near You. Of specialinterest is the Babelfish tool, which lets you translate phrases or entire Web pages toand from English, French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages.

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.

Think of Ask Jeeves as your very own, very knowledgeable librarian. Ratherthan searching by keyword and presenting you with links that may or may notbe relevant, Ask Jeeves lets you type your questions in plain English andpresents 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 similarlyphrased questions (for example, “Where can I find pasta recipes?”) with linksto their answers.

Have a bit of the voyeur in you? Watch the questions fly by in the “Here’swhat others are asking right now” box. If you want to delve more deeply intoother users’ queries, visit the Most Popular Questions page. If you’re newto 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 lookingfor, metasearch sites such as Dogpile come into their own. Metasearching isthe online equivalent of sending a whole round tableful of knights out tobring 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 metasearchesdifferent types of sites: You can choose from among searches of the Web, newswireservices, 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 arrangedby the search engine that found the information. This isn’t the handiest wayto sort through information (the software Copernic 99 does it better; see “The Magic Toolbox” ), but it’s very fast. And the site provides searches of newsand news releases under its BizNews section, sensibly sorted by date.

Use lots of Boolean terms in a Dogpile search. Putting phrases in quotes orusing a minus sign to exclude a word can make all the difference when resultsfrom different search engines aren’t sorted for duplicates.

A single Excite search provides all kinds of results–not just Web pagelinks. Search for, say, the Rolling Stones, and you’ll get news stories, schedulesof events, encyclopedia articles, and sound clips. When you search for a publiclytraded company, the first results you’ll see are links to its financials andto the company’s Web site. For a quick overview of a subject, it’s hard tobeat these categorized results. Excite also has handy tools for making adjustmentswhen 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. Ifonly 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 thatresult.

If your search yields lots of irrelevant items, pick out a few key words fromthe “Select words to add to your search” list below the search form on theresults 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 rapidlygaining 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 matchfor your search. Click Search Google and you’ll get a list of sites rankedand sorted by your keyword.

A closer look at this list reveals two links, one of which leads to a cachedcopy of the page. Click the Cached link and Google presents you with a copyof 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 otherhand, Google’s cache feature allows you to view Web pages that no longer existon their native servers.

This site is great at locating Web pages posted during a specific periodof time. The basic search form’s excellent controls, in drop-down list boxes,cover a lot of ground. You can search for phrases, page titles, people, andlinks to a particular URL, and restrict results to any of nine languages.Keen on finding the very latest? Prefer a more generous time frame? Narrowthe results to pages updated within the week, or broaden the period to severalmonths. And you’re not restricted to seeking Web pages: Check boxes let yousearch for JavaScripts, images, audio files, and video files.

HotBot’s advanced search form spells out a few of the Boolean options youcan type into the regular form, and adds some new options such as restrictinga search to a particular domain (like pcworld.com) or top-level domain (suchas .com, .gov, or .edu). This is useful for scouring sites that lack a goodsearch tool. And if HotBot fails to get results (as it did in a few of ourquests), there’s a button that reissues the search on Lycos.

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 ofWeb 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 specifywhether you want to search for Web pages, news stories, newsgroup messages,or companies. Like HotBot and Lycos, InfoSeek has an advanced search formfor constructing Boolean queries or searches by category. There’s also a handyfilter you can use to screen out content unsuitable for children; it’s calledGoGuardian and can be turned on with a single click.

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-sensitivesearch bar lets you refine searches with ease: Once you’ve entered an initialsearch, Lycos lets you run a second query on the first set of results, orwithin 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.

Search Guard is an optional service that screens out content such as pornographyand possibly objectionable language; using it can limit your access to chatrooms and bulletin boards through Lycos. Once you register for Search Guard,you can specify the content you want to screen out.

Like its browser-war opponent Netscape, Microsoft maintains a search sitein which it bestows regal favor on other Web search sites that pledge theirfealty to the kingdom–in this case, AltaVista, InfoSeek, Lycos, and Snap.The Microsoft Network search site also provides a proprietary MSN search, capable of handling mixed phrase andoperator searches (like “King Arthur” -Guinevere for citations of the king without his consort). And www.msn.com provides anall-in-one page that includes more search options, from Web-wide searchesat GoTo.com and Northern Light to specialty searches of Corbis’s art collectionor of Dictionary.com. Internet Explorer 5.0 users who follow the More Searcheslink find more than a long list of search sites. For them, the page providesthe chance to customize what appears when they click their browser’s Searchbutton–including the option of adding their own favorite search sites.

Netscape’s NetCenter collects half a dozen different Web search sites undera single URL–seven sites if you count Netscape’s branded version of Exciteas 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).

If you know which sites you like to search, go directly to them and avoidgetting mired in NetCenter’s interface.

Aside from being a top-notch search engine and the most popular portalon the Web, Yahoo is a carefully constructed, laboriously maintained subjectcatalog 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 locateentire sites and their index pages. This tactic is especially useful whenyou’re interested in finding a certain page but don’t know exactly what you’relooking for within it. Because Yahoo enables you to search by categories orby sites, its results tend to be more manageable than those from other searchsites.

Be sure to take advantage of Yahoo’s well-organized categories to narrow downyour search. First browse to the general category you’re interested in, andthen enter a query and specify that Yahoo should limit its search to just this category.


Specific Searches

If you’re on the trail of a specific type of information, a general searchat a site like Yahoo or AltaVista may not be the best stratagem. Instead,you might want to decamp to a site with a special focus, such as discussiongroups, personal information, news, company data, published articles, techsupport, or products. Choose wisely, and you’ll find the task easier thanpulling a sword from a Styrofoam stone.

Companies/Organizations

And Arthur welcomed Mordred to Camelot, and accorded him much respect.But Mordred conspired with the sorceress Morgan LeFay to overthrow the kingand usurp the throne…

King Arthur learned by bitter experience whom he could trust and whom hecould not. If you want to know which companies, clients, and customers youcan rely on, you need to know a little more than the comeliness of their visage.And the Web is a veritable dragon’s hoard of such information.

For quick lay-of-the-land data on a public company, try entering its nameat Excite. The site will provide a company address and links to the corporateWeb site and to stock figures–and it will throw in links to news storiesabout the company, if any show up.

One of the easiest ways to track public companies is to register–for free–at CompanySleuth. You’ll get dailyupdates of all news, stock performance, and postings on investor bulletinboards. While not a search site in the orthodox sense, CompanySleuth doesroot out information and publish it on a personalized page.

If you’re keen on tracking companies you’re investing in or competing with,get CompanySleuth to e-mail you a daily update that lists the new materialon each page. The updates come out even on weekdays and holidays, and theyprovide live links to the pages for each company you’re tracking.

For free information about public and private companies and their officers,try Hoover’s Online. You can learn a company’s size, location, financial details, history, andprincipal officers by entering its name or ticker. The compact results screenincludes links to the firm’s competition, subsidiaries, stock charts, andposition on the Fortune, S&P, and Hoover’s top 500 lists. If that’s notenough, you also get links to news stories, press releases, and key areason company Web sites. For access to Hoover’s company profiles–which add evenjuicier tidbits such as chief officers’ salaries–you’ll have to pay a $15monthly fee.

Many small companies, however, fall outside Hoover’s scope. To get muchinformation on those, you may need to address public records, which includea wealth of legal details. KnowX is an excellent source of public records–though you may have to pawn thecrown jewels to get all the information you’re looking for. KnowX can disinterany history of lawsuits and bankruptcies from its public-record sources. Needto know the principals of a company, whether they’re licensed to practicetheir trade in your state, or whether they do business under any other names?Find the bodies here.

News Stories

As the knights sat down, each in his place about the Round Table,and the great repast began, a minstrel sang ballads telling of intrigue andmayhem in a land not far away.

The Knights of the Round Table had to rely on wandering minstrels for news,whereas we–less poetically but more usefully–have the Internet. Our onlyproblem is choosing the best source.

Yahoo News providesa well-organized, easy-to-browse collection of the day’s news stories in variouscategories (Top Stories, Business, Technology, Politics, and so forth). Onelevel deeper in the site, you get the lead sentence of each featured storyalong with its headline, for quick scanning. News sources include Reuters,AP, and ABC news wires; and a “photo gallery” collects news photos. You canaccess news from the previous ten days through links at the bottom of thepage.

To filter the day’s news automatically, create your own customized news pageusing My Yahoo.

The news page that’s run by HotBot dispenses with the packaging and cuts to the chase with ano-nonsense news search engine. This is the site to use if you want to findeverything pertaining to a current topic, rather than catch up with the day’sevents (Yahoo’s specialty). HotBot searches such news sources as the WashingtonPost, the Los Angeles Times, wire services, Wired News (for technology coverage),CNN, ESPN, and several other special-interest news providers.

Other search engines also offer news services. Lycos,Go Network, and Excite, for example, all provide searchable and customizable news pages similar toYahoo’s. Since the content they contain is more or less the same (mostly APand Reuters newswire stories), the one you’ll find the most useful is largelya matter of personal preference.

For links to all the news you can possibly read, take a look at TotalNews, which maintains a comprehensivelist of dozens of general- and special-interest news sites. TotalNews doesn’tpublish any stories or let you search through them–it’s just a one-stop newssite that serves up a customizable page with links to major news sites suchas the New York Times, Wall Street Journal Interactive, and the San Jose MercuryNews, along with some smaller-circulation and international sites.

Peer-to-Peer Discussion Groups

Sir Lancelot fared forth among the common people, for he fain woulddiscover the wisdom that rumour swore dwelt in their midst. But he found therenaught save halfwits and fanatics, mumbling nonsense and shouting anon inanger. Then did he despair, for he saw plainly that he tarried in the landof Usenet.

Usenet has been around far longer than the Web, and its thousands of discussiongroups harbor a wealth of collective wisdom, as well as a lot of nonsense.If you seek wisdom among the Internet’s many discussion groups and forums,you need a keen blade to cut through the chaff and chatter.

What Excalibur was to King Arthur, Deja News is to the Usenet searcher. Interested in the latestchain-mail armor? Search Deja News and see what people are saying about it.Not only does Deja News give you powerful tools for searching Usenet, it letsyou browse postings and even post some of your own–all through your browser.

If you’re desirous of increasing the number of gold pieces in your purse,consider joining a discussion forum dedicated to financial and investing matters.Two excellent sources of information are Yahoo Finance and The Motley Fool. Just remember that those who proffer investment adviceare not always the most chivalrous of guides. Keep your wits about you asyou peruse the information displayed in these and other Web discussion boards.

Personal Information

At a crossing in the wood, Sir Kay found his path barred by a darkknight astride a fearsome black steed. Without a word, the stranger loweredhis lance and, at a gallop, neatly unseated Sir Kay. As the knight rode off,Kay bethought himself who had smote him so discourteously.

So you’re looking for the black knight who knocked you off your horse?With a little patience and some Net servers, you can find just about anyone.

The most effective and up-to-date database of telephone information is AnyWho, a searchable nationwide telephonebook from AT&T. It contains white-pages listings for individuals; businesslistings; a “reverse” phone number lookup (supplying the name of the personlisted for any telephone number you enter); and a Web page directory.

If e-mail addresses are the quarry you pursue, try Yahoo People Search and Lycos’s WhoWhere People Finder. Both sites let you searchfor e-mail addresses or telephone numbers by name. One warning: Because manypeople change their e-mail addresses frequently, these databases tend to berife with anachronistic addresses. Check several directories when in doubt.

If you know the city or state the person you’re seeking lives in, or the domainhe or she uses (the part of the e-mail address following @), you’ll have muchbetter luck finding the right address–especially if you’re trying to hookup with your old college roommate John Smith.

Switchboard offersthe same phone and e-mail searching as the above sites. But once you finda person’s listing, Switchboard lets you look up attractions in their neighborhood,along with other local information.

Published Articles

The Lady of Shalott read all that she could, but perforce when herbooks were exhausted, she yearned the more avidly for further knowledge. Alas,such wisdom was kept from her, cloistered within the walls of the monasteries,whence it had no egress.

Information may want to be free, as the homily assures us, but many publishersof information have no wish to give it away. And Web-based advertising doesn’tcover the cost that some wish to charge for the information. While you canfind a lot of information gratis, you’ll have to cross the publishing companies’palms with silver to get articles from professional journals or a wealth ofother proprietary information.

Premium sources of pay-per-view information on the Web are Dialog Web, Lexis-Nexis, and Dow Jones Interactive, all of which started as information aggregatorsin the 1970s and 1980s, before the Web existed. Each offers a number of subscriptionservices over the Web, focused on databases relevant to general business audiences,and legal and other professions. But beware: They hit you up for money often–forthe subscription, for connection time to proprietary databases, and againevery time you view an article. Dialog Web even charges for “DialUnits,” itsname for each term or operator you use in a query. The fees for these sitescan sting, too. The subscriptions can be as low as $69 a year (for Dow JonesInteractive), but most articles can run $3 apiece. They merit the investmentif time and accuracy are crucial to you. Otherwise, consider other Web-basedsellers of published material first.

Many databases accessed by Dialog, Lexis-Nexis, and Dow Jones Interactivecharge connection-time and per-article fees. To avoid unpleasant surprises,find and print rate sheets before you search.

Inhabiting the middle ground between Web freedom and access to premiumpublications, Electric Library charges a $10 monthly fee (or $60 for a full year) but provides unlimitedaccess to articles without levying any extra charges. Northern Light takes a different approach: It’s a generalWeb search site that also gives you access to premium information such asarticles from periodicals that can’t be found on the Web. And Northern Lightintegrates these results with regular Web searches, so if you don’t find theinformation free, you don’t need to rekey a search term. Be cautious aboutwhich special collection items you purchase, though. With some, you’re payingnot for the information, but for the convenience of metasearching a category:The $1 PR Newswire press releases, for example, are available free at www.prnewswire.com. (Note, however,that they’re available for only the past 30 days.)

Reference Works

Merlin revealed to Arthur where he might find the one whom destinyintended to save the kingdom and find the Grail. Thus apprised, the king summonedthe lord of that castle. But he who came forth was not blameless Sir Galahadbut the profane father of the same.

When you skimp on background research, you risk making glaring mistakesand opening yourself to ridicule or disaster. So look up a reference sitebefore you leap. Sometimes you’ll find free access–the excellent dictionarycollection OneLook andthe short version of Encarta are two good starting points. But many sitescharge some kind of toll, whether in the form of the price of the EncartaCD-ROM, which gets you full access to the online version, or the monthly feefor Britannica Online or ElectricLibrary.

The best sites to visit before embarking on your quest are the free ones.OneLook is an epic index of dozens of Web-based dictionaries, ranging fromgeneral references like an online version of Webster’s to specialized medicaland technical word lists. For fans of Arthurian romance, OneLook also containsBrewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. For more encyclopedic information,the free-access articles at Encarta offer decent provisioning, but they’re abridged to entice you to buy the CDand gain full access.

What happens when you combine a library and a bookstore and put them online?You get netLibrary. The site lets you “check out” and read some books online, and purchase anddownload others. For offline reading, you’ll need to download the free KnowledgeStation software (which requires the Internet Explorer browser). If you preferto hold a book, you can order a hard copy.

Designed for book lovers, netLibrary lets you create and maintain yourown library online and share your books with other netLibrary users. Thereare more than 1000 titles available for free reading. Stop by netLibrary,and with a few clicks of your mouse, you can settle down with a good book.

If your quest calls for learning both abstruse and minute, the BritannicaOnline site contains more information than you will see in the print versionand costs just $5 a month. Britannica Online also gives you a free peek intothe site’s inner sanctum with a seven-day no-cost trial, which is worth takingadvantage of. A longer and wider-ranging trial can be had from Electric Library, a search tool thatscours millions of articles from World Almanac, Collier’s and Columbia encyclopedias,and thousands of magazines, newspapers, books, and even transcripts of radioand television programs.

The only drawback of Electric Library is its sheer scope–it’s so broadthat, even when you restrict the search to a single resource (such as books),you can invoke a forest of references that obscure the Grail instead of isolatingit.

Technical Support

When they came at last to draw the sword from the stone, it was stuckfast and would not move…

When some evil enchanter has cast a spell on your hardware, you need yourown personal Merlin to undo the damage. But he’s usually busy on another call,and you’re forced to endure the strains of Muzak while you wait. If you cantrace the problem to a Microsoft product (insert joke here), your first portof call should be Microsoft’s KnowledgeBase, a nicely precise collection of articles highlightingproblems, bugs, fixes, downloads, and how-tos. The frustrating downside: Somearticles describe your problem to a T but provide no solution.

If you’ve got a problem with software from a company other than Microsoft,you may have trouble finding the appropriate support Web site, phone number,or online discussion group. Luckily, SupportHelp.com has collected a wealth of such information,and also provides a search form to serve up links based on product or companynames. The results include phone support numbers, Web forums, and relevantUsenet newsgroups.

No luck at the official sources? No wonder. Actually, that should read”Try No Wonder.” Thesite includes two search areas: a collection of message boards, and an externaldatabase full of how-to and troubleshooting steps. Through No Wonder you canalso get free (but sometimes slow) e-mail consultation that’s provided byvolunteers.

Geared toward the more technically inclined computer user, BugNet is a good resource for peoplestruggling with unexplained problems or glitches in their software or hardware.First-time visitors may want to visit the Top Ten Bug/Fix List (in the Databasesection), which contains the most prominent bugs of the current month. Needto contact a software or hardware vendor? You can find a link in the BugJumpssection, which also provides a few unusual links for your browsing enjoyment.

While you’re there, you can subscribe to the full BugNet service, whichcosts a home user $65 a year. You get access to the entire BugNet databaseof bugs and fixes, as well as newsletter subscriptions and bug-alert services.Computer professionals will find a subscription well worth the cost to keepprograms running and users happy.

Often, the best technical support comes from your peers, in newsgroups.So fire up your news reader and look for groups whose name starts with, say,microsoft.public (for example, microsoft.public.win98.gen_discussion), comp.os(comp.os.linux), or alt.comp.software (alt.comp.software.financial.quicken).


Ye Olde Search Tips

A knight wouldn’t embark on a quest without first knowing how to ride ahorse. It’s much the same when the steed in question is a search engine. Fortunately,a few tricks will help you hone your queries and speed more quickly to theresults you seek.

ENTER PHRASES OR QUESTIONS You’ll get better resultsif you enter a few related words rather than a single word. Thus, King Arthur Holy Grail will be more effective than simply Arthur. You may also enter a question: Who found theHoly Grail? Most search engines ignore words like the anyway.

CHOOSE YOUR WORDS WISELY A generic search phrase like round table will yield too many results if you’re trying to findout about Arthur’s famous furniture. A better phrase: king arthurknights round table.

TRY AND TRY AGAIN If you don’t glean what you’re lookingfor on the first try, don’t give up. Try varying the original query by substitutingsynonyms or related words. Too many results? Add descriptive terms to makeyour query more precise.

PUT QUOTES ON KEY PHRASES Put quotation marks aroundspecific, verbatim phrases that you want to find exactly as written: “To be or not to be.”

GET HELP FROM OPERATORS Common tools for linking searchwords together include the Boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT, and the + and signs. These operators, recognized by most search engines,help you craft more clearly delineated queries. AND links words that must be contained in each returned result: ArthurAND Merlin. If only one of the two words must be found in theresults, use OR: Merlin OR Merlyn.NOT or the minus sign, inserted before a word, can be used to exclude words thatmust not appear in the results: Holy Grail -Monty -Python. The plus sign used before a word indicates that the word mustappear in the search results: +King +Arthur.


Search Engines Demystified

It’s not as mystical as casting runes, but what goes on betwixt clickingthe Search button and scrolling a results page might as well be magic. Allsearch tools use a three-stage process to compile your results page: generatingan index, searching the index, and sorting the results. But each site handlesthese tasks differently and can thus yield different results.

YAHOO’S SUPERIOR INDEXING Most search engines use “spider”software that crawls over the Web to create an index. The software targetsvarious sites and follows all the links on every page there, indexing eachpage. Indexes vary in quality, depending on how frequently they’re updatedand how often pages deleted from sites are deleted from them. The resultsalso vary in relevance, because spider indexing may include invisible descriptions(known as metatags) added by Webmasters, titles and headlines, and key wordsand phrases from the page.

All these factors can produce misleading results, especially since manyWebmasters abuse them to drive traffic to their sites. The result? Irrelevanthits. That’s why Yahoo’s much-imitated model of human-generated site descriptions,which come complete with search-friendly keywords, often yields more-relevantresults.

SORTING RESULTS When you enter search words in a form,the search engine begins to search its database. The query results then getsorted, another source of big differences between search engines.

Most sites that have invested in human site-indexing put those resultsahead of mechanically indexed ones. GoTo introduces paid-for results intothe mix, if an advertiser has bought placement for specific search words suchas travel or music.

The bottom line: For the most thorough results, use more than one engineor go straight to a metasearcher like Dogpile. And for narrower, more optimizedresults, you can’t go wrong with Yahoo.


The Magic Toolbox

Several downloadable programs offer the weary pilgrim further options forfinding and organizing information. You’ll find free or trial versions ofeach of the following programs at FileWorld.

A free metasearcher supported by banner advertising (a $30 version withmore options is also available), Copernic 99 taps 11 popular search engines and lets you save wholepages from the results for offline browsing. Among Copernic’s conveniencesis a tool for saving your search terms so you can continue to research a topic.Unlike most metasearchers, Copernic also narrows searches with ease: It letsyou exclude results either by using Boolean arguments or by clicking a boxnext to the result and hitting Delete.

Serious Net searchers in need of high-powered research assistance shouldcheck out Prompt Software’s SuperSleuth , $60, which can deliver your queries to dozens of searchengines simultaneously. It then compiles the results, and analyzes and indexesevery page returned. Needless to say, it’s a time- consuming process. AndSuperSleuth’s daunting interface ensures that you’ll need some time to maximizeresults. You can try WebSleuth, SuperSleuth’s poorer cousin, for free, butif you need to scour the Net till it shines, you’ll probably want SuperSleuth.

Webforia Organizer,$79, can act as a Web browser and a search tool, but its greatest strengthlies in letting you further index specific sites and store the results offlinefor later searching. Clicking Organizer’s bookmark tool as you browse promptsit to save not only a site’s URL and page title but also an index of keywordsfor subsequent offline review.

If you’re an information junkie with an overflowing in-box and a pile ofWeb research jobs waiting, Enfish Tracker Pro, $80, may be just the program to get you organized. Enfishaims not simply to manage your Internet searches, but to organize your entirelife–at least the part of it that passes through your PC. When you installEnfish, it first indexes everything on your hard drive–a process that maytake several hours. Once this process is complete, Enfish sits in the background,quietly monitoring and indexing everything you do–documents you write inyour word processor, e-mail you send and receive, and Web pages you browse.It groups related data together, making it easier for you to retrieve informationlater.

The freeware Alexa suggestsadditional sites for you to visit when you’re browsing. Visible on your desktopas a narrow toolbar that sits off to one side, Alexa displays a list of linksrelated to the site you’re currently visiting.


Your Browser as a Search Tool

Before your quest takes you to all corners of the Web, try the search toolsin your favorite browser. Both Internet Explorer 5 and Navigator 4.5 havefeatures that can reduce typing and navigation time and may save you a longtrip to unfamiliar realms.

INTERNET EXPLORER 5 When you click the Search button,a left-hand pane opens, listing several search options: Find a Web Page, Finda Person, Find a Map, Find in Encyclopedia, and more. To configure these optionsto your liking, click Customize, which will take you to a Web page where youcan specify your preferred search sites and the order in which the Searchtool should query them. Type a keyword into the search field, and the querywill be issued to all the participating search engines. When results appearin the search pane, you can click a link, and its page will appear in themain browser pane. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, click Next inthe left pane, and you’ll see the results from the next participating searchengine (AltaVista, HotBot, and others). For even faster searches, type a questionmark in the address box, immediately followed by your query: for example, ?king arthur.

NAVIGATOR 4.5 While you’re perusing a site, you may wantto read more about the topic currently at hand. Navigator 4.5’s “What’s related”menu offers links to subjects similar to the one you’re currently browsing.When you visit ESPN.com, for instance, this menu will list other sports-relatedsites. Sound familiar? This feature is Netscape’s own revamped version ofAlexa (see “The Magic Toolbox”).

As in IE 5, you can also type a question mark into the address bar, immediatelyfollowed by your query. –Yael Li-Ron


Shoppe ’til You Droppe

Ardent to obtain a turtledove for his lady fair, Lancelotventured into the marketplace. A great tumult prevailed, for vendors soughtto pinion the passing crowds, buyers and sellers haggled over prices, andmany a festive banner waved in the breeze.

In the old days you had to walk the length and breadth of a marketplacecomparing prices, quality of goods, and service. Now you can assemble thesame data without ever leaving your chair, provided you have enough patienceto click.

Happily, shopping bots, or search agents, can help you find the goods youwant and make vendor comparisons. The ill tidings: Most of these shoppingsearch tools don’t work terribly well, in the majority of cases allowing youto compare prices among only a limited number of merchants, providing poorsearching and browsing tools, and displaying incomplete information abouteach product. So far, no search engine enables you to find products for saleacross the entire Internet. That said, shopping sites are a good place tostart looking for products. Just be prepared to check several of them.

If you’re only getting started, try CompareNet. The site’s CompareTool frame permits you to savelinks to the products that you’re interested in and then create a side-by-sidecomparison table showing those products and their features. Regrettably, theheavy use of frames makes it difficult to bookmark pages within the site andmight also make CompareNet unsuitable for some browsers.

Both the HotBot Shopping Directory and WebMarket offer relatively straightforward search interfaces for combing through merchants’online catalogs.

Excite’s Shopping channel functions similarly, but it also lets you search for productreviews in a number of categories. Yahoo Shopping provides a readily searchable catalog of productcategories.

MySimon offers yetanother straightforward shopping interface, though it lets you browse onlyby category–you can’t enter custom queries. Its comparisons are well organizedand often provide more detailed summary information about each listed productthan do those on other comparison-shopping sites.

If you’re trying to find a product or service for sale online, GoTo.com should be your search tool offirst resort. The reason? While GoTo.com works like a regular search service,it also sells prominent locations in its search results, based on bids forkeywords. Search for books, for instance, and many of the topresults will have been paid for by online booksellers. This makes GoTo.coma good choice for finding commercial sites–at least those prepared to payfor referrals.

Matt Lake claims to descend from Sir Lancelot du Lac, but his quest forproof continues. Dylan Tweney, Net Prophet of InfoWorld and scribe-errant, can generally be found under the sign of dylan@tweney.com. Undistresseddamsel Yael Li-Ron is a PC World executive editor.

Site Best use
AltaVista Multilingual searches, queries entered as simple questions
AnyWho Finding current telephone numbers
Ask Jeeves Natural-language queries
Britannica Online$ Scholarly or authoritative research
BugNet$ Tracking down software bugs
CompanySleuth Getting information about companies you do business with or invest in
CompareNet Comparison shopping and preshopping research
Deja News Locating useful information in Usenet communities
Dialog Web$ Accessing professional publications and business databases–at a cost
Dogpile Online metasearching of the Web, Usenet, and news sources
Dow Jones Interactive$ Accessing databases of proprietary information not available on the Web
Electric Library$ Research across a wide range of publications
Encarta Basic encyclopedia research
Excite Broad searches of the Web
Google Getting up-to-date results quickly
GoTo.com Searching for commercial sites
Hoover’s Online$ Researching companies
HotBot Advanced, time-sensitive searches
InfoSeek Filtering adult content
KnowX$ Searching public records of businesses and individuals
Lexis-Nexis$ Searching professional databases and articles not open to the Web
Lycos Finding graphics, music files, and other specialized content
Microsoft Network Searching with multiple engines
Microsoft’s KnowledgeBase Troubleshooting Microsoft products
The Motley Fool Financial information and stock tips
MySimon Detailed comparison shopping
NetCenter Accessing various search engines
NetLibrary Finding and downloading e-books
Northern Light$ Combined searches of Web sites and pay-per-view articles
No Wonder Technical support for various software
OneLook Dictionary definitions, links to journal abstracts
SupportHelp.com Finding tech support sites and phone numbers for high-tech companies
Switchboard Finding phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and neighborhood attractions
TotalNews Locating newspaper and TV news sites
WebMarket Combing through online product catalogs
Yahoo Narrowing search results category before you begin searching

$ = Charges for some or all services.

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