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Who, What, Where, When            back to TTN home page
and Other Silly Questions
no - it's not a hairpiece, just a bad haircut
by Joe Harkins - Mar 10, 99

    Many Internet explorers fear and loathe "search engines." They are the heavyweight champions of the Internet but, like Mike Tyson, they are unable to resist every byte they find.  Ask AltaVista or Lycos or Excite or HotBot for "Travel The Net" and you'll get back a gazillion web sites addresses.

    This week's column identifies sites that make search engines less of a pain in the modem when looking for a good deal on a tour of China or the name of that little hotel on the beach in Tahiti.

    To start with, many so-called search engines aren't search engines at all. The phrase originally referred to software programs that send digital spiders (also called "robots") scurrying across the World Wide Web to make note of every word they find on every page they encounter. The results are then indexed in gigantic databases on doomsday-sized computers.

    Something less complicated and more tightly focused was needed. That's why "directories" like Yahoo or Netscape's Open Directory are so popular despite their own built-in limitations.

    Directories are organized like a public library catalog. A trained person sifts through web addresses and examines the sites. Each is categorized based on the site's primary purpose. If a site has more than one significant theme, it's cross-listed in each category . . . sometimes. And sometimes it isn't.

    In Yahoo, to find Travel The Net, you click your way down through layers of categories for
Recreation, Travel, News and Media, Columns and Columnists. If you didn't know how the cataloger defined it, you wouldn't find it.

    Also, the sub-category process is limited and inflexible. Travel The Net columns written months ago on subjects such as handicapped travel or fraudulent travel contests or phony "name your own price" airline ticket gimmicks, aren't there yet and probably never will be.

    That exposes a directory's major limitation in that it can only be as up to date as the humans who maintain it or as relevant as its own arbitrary categories. Web sites change; new ones are born. The cataloging process never ends and is never 100% accurate or current.

    That's why learning how to use a genuine search engine will pay big dividends. You'll find a comprehensive tutorial at
Infobasic. Unfortunately, despite the author's best intentions, the explanations repeat a mistake too many computer experts make when talking to the rest of us. You first must grasp the technical meaning of words such as "expression" and "operator." But once you pass that hurdle, Infobasic teaches by generous and lucid examples.

    Internet Miner's tutorial is a less ambitious but useful  plain-language explanation. Freelance writer Sathish Kumar's Secrets of Search Engine Ranking was created to help web site builders promote their creations but his text is helpful to searchers as well.

    Mining Company's current humorous radio and television ads poke fun at the complexities of search engines in order to promote their own excellent human guides. Ironically, MC's directory contains a long and valuable list of links to search engines.

    The most complete source of search engine information is Search Engine Watch. Its designer, Danny Sullivan, avoids the problem of techy language by dividing his web site into separate sections for experts and us ordinary folks.

    Among the special strengths of his site are the insights into meta-search engines (MSEs). Those are search engines that launch many search engines at once.

    That might sound like piling garbage onto piles of garbage, but it isn't. MSEs use sophisticated software techniques, invisible to you, to sort out which answers are more likely to be what you are looking for.

    Google does it by reporting sites that contain the highest number of links to the keyword searched on. The theory is that web sites that have more links to them are those richest in that information. Dogpile is less discriminating but allows searches in areas of the web that you may not have considered such as newsgroups and wire services. Ask Jeeves engages you in a version of the party game "20 Questions" to sort out what you seek.

    Finally, the best way of all to search the Internet is to let me do it for you by suggesting a theme for a future column.


Recently Found: The resource below was found since the original column was published.

Sink or Swim - This complete and easy to understand online seminar is about search engines. It was created by Ross Tyner, M.L.S., Okanagan University College.

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