As regular readers of this column know, I am a big fan of Google. There are times, however, when such a general-purpose search tool will overwhelm you with results without giving you precisely what you need. Fortunately, the Web offers an array of resources -- many of them free, and some paid -- that give more precise results to specialized searches.
Say you wanted to see what the world's news media were saying about events at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. When I queried Google on "abu ghraib," I got 175,000 hits. Adding "+media" to the search still gave 92,000 results, most of them Web log musings about media coverage.
A search restricted to print, broadcast, and online news outlets is more productive. Two effective ways to do this are Google's news-only site (news.google.com) and Daypop (www.daypop.com). Google has broader coverage but still came up with 15,000 hits; Daypop deftly narrowed it to 591.
Many other specialized information tools are more databases than search engines. If you are looking for explanations for how things from abiogenesis to Zambonis work, howstuffworks.com may be just what you need. It's a sort of online encyclopedia on what makes the world around us tick, although it is strongest in fields relating to computer technology. You enter a search term, and it comes back with a list of relevant articles.
WIKIPEDIA IS ONE of the more remarkable projects on the Web. The online encyclopedia (www.wikipedia.com) is the work of 6,000-odd volunteers covering a huge range of subjects, even though it does better on science and technology than on arts and culture. Not surprisingly, the articles are of uneven depth and quality. If you find an error, you are welcome to suggest a correction. And if you find a topic that isn't covered, you are welcome to create a new article. (An editorial group decides which corrections and contributions merit posting.)
By contrast, print encyclopedias have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur, but those compendiums of knowledge survive as online products. Encyclopaedia Britannica (www.eb.com) is available as an online subscription service for $60 a year. The more kid-friendly World Book hangs on in print, but you can also subscribe to www.worldbookonline.com for $50 a year. One advantage of such traditional reference works is that, unlike so much content on the Web, their facts are well-vetted.
GuruNet, a $30 subscription service, is another route to authoritative information, providing quick access to a variety of standard reference works, from the American Heritage Dictionary to Wolfram Research's online science and math encyclopedias. With GuruNet, searching doesn't require clicking on your browser -- and the results are ad-free. The program installs a small piece of Windows software. (A Mac version is due later this year.) After that, you can call up a reference simply by alt-clicking on any word on your screen or by entering a search term in a toolbar that hides at the edge of your desktop. Either way, a window pops open with basic information on the topic and choices for additional data. For example, a company name will give you company news and a stock quote, while a technical term will get a definition and an encyclopedia entry.
GuruNet offers a fun feature for the intellectually curious by including Princeton University's WordNet lexicon. Like a dictionary, it gives definitions, but it also provides links to related terms or concepts, producing chains of information that can lead you far afield of your original query.
When I was a kid, I used to enjoy doing something very much like this by following cross-references in the unabridged dictionary at the library. The Web, of course, is an almost limitless reference work, and it's hard to give more than a tiny sampling of the search tools available. (For a list of more of my favorites, see "Quick Fixes for Web Info-Junkies").
For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here By Stephen H. Wildstrom