Search Engine Guide

With an estimated size of 100 million "pages" (and the prospect of doubling in size every four months), the World Wide Web is not an easy tool to use effectively. Add to this all of the other Internet resources (e-mail, mailing lists, ftp sites, Gophers, Usenet News groups), and it is easy to be overwhelmed by this medium. In an effort to bring some order to this potential chaos, many companies and Web sites are now offering ways of organizing and searching the Internet subject directories and search engines.

Subject Directories:
For searches of a more "general" nature (searches where you really want a broad spectrum of responses), the simplest and best facility to use is a subject directory. A subject directory is a hierarchical menu of sites, organized by subjects categories (Arts, Entertainment, Health, Business, etc.) to help you immediately narrow your search parameters and find information quickly.

The most commonly recommended directory is Yahoo, a scheme developed by a couple of Stanford graduate students to keep track of their own personal interests and Internet addresses. It was so popular that it has grown into a major commercial enterprise. Like most subject directories, the Yahoo database is compiled by people, not software, who help collect, describe, and organize sites that they discover or have been submitted by resource owners. Netscape Navigator provides you with an easy link to Yahoo if you click on the NET DIRECTORY button.

Web Database Search Engines:
The popularity of search engines is growing at a tremendous rate - and so are the number of such services. Over 60+ search engines are now available on-line. A search "engine" is just software that performs a search for you and organizes the results. Unlike subject directories, these search engines rely on databases constructed automatically by software "robots" that roam the network and collect information. What distinguishes one search engine from another is how complete its database is and how good the search engine software is at locating what you need and presenting it you in a effective manner.

The choice of a search engine is really a personal, idiosyncratic matter. You will undoubtedly form your own opinion as to a search engines effectiveness according to your own experiences with it. You may consistently have great success with Lycos, for example, whereas a colleague in another discipline may prefer Alta Vista. Each engine offers slightly different features. For example, some include Usenet News groups in their searches, some do not. Some will allow you to use Boolean operators in defining your search, some do not. Most importantly, each search engine encompasses different areas of the Internet in its database, in different ways, because they indexing techniques vary from engine to engine. For example, some search engines only collect URLs, while others collect the full-text of each home page.

Meta Search Tools:
A "metasearch" allows you to send a single query to multiple databases simultaneously. It then organizes the search results for you. While in concept the metasearch offers great convenience and efficiency, most metasearch sites are far from perfect. However, they are the tools to watch as they will surely be refined as the demand for more sophisticated search tools grows.


Be precise: When searching the web, it is easy to get overwhelmed or lost if you are not careful. When copying down a URL, be sure to be exact. One missing symbol, character or punctuation mark and the address will not work. Be careful with upper- and lower-case letters. Often servers are case sensitive, so any deviations can cause you problems. Likewise, when you do web searches try to refine your search terms as much as possible. By doing so, you will not be overwhelmed by the number of responses. See refining your search for more information.

Be skeptical: Although you can find a lot of good information on the Internet, you will also find a lot of misinformation. Unlike many media resources (TV shows, newspapers, radio programs, magazines, and journals) that regulate information through editors, lawyers, and fact checkers, anything can be published by anybody on the Internet. The key is to evaluate carefully the information that you find. Also try to confirm the information you find by backing it up with another source.

Be prepared for change: The Internet is a place of rapid change. A resource you find one day may be gone the next. Thus it is important to keep good notes and to save the information you find. You can use the “File” menu on your browser to save pages as well as “cut and paste” information from pages.

Be persistent: Research is difficult and time consuming. It always takes two to three times longer than you think. Likewise, you will run into many obstacles and dead-ends. You will sometimes find nothing and sometimes get overwhelmed. The two keys to being a good researcher are having patience and keeping at it.

Be Curious: A good researcher has fun and always takes one more look. As hard as we might prepare and study before attempting research, often the best information is found by accident.

Be fair: The point of research is to find information that others have worked hard to develop and create. Be careful to document where your find your information and give credit to those who deserve it.