Feeling Your Way Around The Web

If you are one of the millions of people who have become World Wide Web explorers in the past few months, undoubtedly you've discovered some odd and interesting sites, often purely by chance. But don't you wonder whether there's a better way to find what you want? The answer is a resounding "yes." The trick is to learn how to use some tools that will richly reward a little patience and persistence.

Looking for information on the Web is a little like browsing in a library, where the card catalog is your guide. Search tools, the catalogs of the Web (table), come in two basic flavors. Directories, such as Yahoo, are lists of Web sites classified by topic. Indexes, such as Lycos, allow you to find specific documents through keyword searches.

"DRILL DOWN." A directory is most useful when you are interested in a general subject but don't know exactly what you want. Yahoo, a former academic service that is now supported by fairly unobtrusive on-screen advertising, provides you with an opening screen offering 14 general categories. You can refine your search by "drilling down" through the layers of increasingly specialized lists, or you can enter a keyword and Yahoo will conduct a search to try to match it.

If you have something specific in mind, you'll probably get to the information faster with an index tool, which looks through the content of Web documents as well as their titles. I've found that of the several index tools available, Lycos, also in transition from academic experiment to commercial product, most often comes up with the most useful results. Another good choice is InfoSeek. Unlike the other tools, InfoSeek charges for its services--20 cents per transaction, less for heavy users. But it includes access to proprietary data, including news from the Associated Press and company profiles from Hoover's Handbook of American Business.

Both Lycos and InfoSeek have a search syntax that takes a bit of effort to learn, even with their help notes. For example, on either system, the search command president bush -clinton would find documents containing the words president and bush but not clinton (because of the minus sign). A third search tool, WebCrawler, is easier to use but much more limited. While Lycos and InfoSeek give you an abstract of each document found, WebCrawler often offers only the document's title, which generally isn't very enlightening.

LOOK AGAIN. You may want to do multiple searches, because each tool gleans its own data from the anarchic Web--data that are unlikely to overlap what other tools find. I recently wanted information on federal restrictions on the export of encryption software. A search for cryptography on both Lycos and InfoSeek turned up useful lists of documents. But only two showed up on both lists of the 10 most promising items as ranked by the services, based on the number of times the word is used and other measures. And the same search on Yahoo turned up a list that shared little with the other two.

Once you have found a site or document that comes close to your goal, you can usually find related material by following the highlighted entries that take you to other Web pages when you click on them. And if you've come across something you think you'll want to return to, make sure to add it to the "bookmarks" or "favorites" list on your Web browser. It can take a fair amount of work to find that elusive site, and you don't want to go through that again.

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