I regularly hear two complaints about the World Wide Web: It's too slow, and useful information is too hard to find. There's not a lot I can offer that will make it faster. But if you're interested in using the Web for serious research, a new $50 software tool may make your life a lot easier.
The main way to find stuff on the Web is by using search engines, such as AltaVista or Lycos. These powerful but undiscriminating tools often drown you in data. EchoSearch from Iconovex (800 943-0292)--trial version available at www.iconovex.com--can be your guide through the information swamp. On one level, EchoSearch is a tool that runs your query simultaneously on seven search engines--AltaVista, Excite, HotBot, Infoseek, Lycos, OpenText, and WebCrawler. But if that were all I wanted to do, I'd probably use the $70 WebSeeker from ForeFront Group (trial version available at www.ffg.com). WebSeeker runs blindingly fast searches on more than 20 engines at once, zaps duplicates, and sorts the results.
EchoSearch's great strength is its ability to make sense of the results. Iconovex is a small, Bloomington (Minn.) company that got its start with software to create indexes for books. Constructing a good index requires a great deal more than noting the locations of words or phrases. The Iconovex software has enough artificial intelligence to recognize concepts in a text and prepare useful, if not very graceful, summaries.
For example, I was looking for information on the use of encryption in electronic commerce. When I asked AltaVista to find documents containing "encryption" and "electronic commerce," it returned 30,000 references, most of them of no interest. One of the top hits was the legislative calendar of the Canadian Parliament, which had a bill on its agenda. Furthermore, the search-engine output basically consists of document titles, requiring you to call up each page to learn that it's worthless.
EchoSearch goes out and downloads to your hard disk a batch of documents that the search engines find. The default setting gets 10 documents, but I found that increasing the number produced better results and was worth the extra time. Once the information is in hand, EchoSearch analyzes the text, then presents its results in your browser, either Netscape Navigator mr Microsoft Internet Explorer.
The analysis is available in several forms, two of which I found particularly useful. The first is a computer-generated summary of each document found, which tells you enough to decide whether to read the entire text. The second is a keyword index of all documents retrieved, complete with hypertext links that take you to the correct section of the text. My encryption search quickly took me to useful white papers posted by RSA Data Security.
It often takes several passes of refining your search--adding and deleting terms--until you find exactly what you want. EchoSearch would make the process easier if its index told you the Web address for each reference. But on the whole, it's surprisingly easy to use for such a sophisticated tool.
I wish that I could say the same for the $50 WebCompass Pro from Quarterdeck (www. quarterdeck. com). WebCompass promises to do all that EchoSearch does and more, including learning to improve a search from the ratings you give the documents it finds. Unfortunately, it is so confusing to set up and use that I gave up. A new, easier-to-use version is in the works.
Even EchoSearch requires some investment of time, mainly to learn how to construct effective searches. But if you use the Web for research, this is one tool you'll want to have.