Find it on the Web

January 7, 1999
One recent study claims that frequent Web surfers are more likely to be depressed. They must be using the wrong search engine. Choosing the right tools to search the Web, and we stress the plural tools, can make all the difference in how you experience it. Your mood will definitely improve once you know how to mine the Web for information as effectively as possible. We test 14 general-interest, 4 kid-friendly, 7 metasearch, and 5 news search sites to help you select the ones best for you. We also offer you more than 50 sites in 31 niche categories to help you find everything from acronyms to ZIP codes.

The key to determining which engines to select is knowing what type of information you're looking for. You should use a site like Yahoo! or Google! for broad, topic-level queries, such as veterinary medicine, where you are looking just for the best site on the Web on a subject. These sites are also best when you are looking for a particular URL, such as the National Institutes of Health home page.

When you're looking for a very specific piece of information, like how Doppler radar got its name, you may want to use a search site like Northern Light, HotBot, or AltaVista, which provides you with more unbridled power. These sites let you fashion a highly detailed query that should ultimately steer you to what you want. You may also want to try a specialized search site that has assembled a narrowly focused database on a particular topic. You will often be able to make your query more context-specific and home in on what interests you.

The tools you'll find at your disposal on the Web are smarter than ever, although we admit they're far from perfect. General search sites work hard to try to anticipate the intent of your search. Most general sites now look at the most common queries they receive and surface the related information that they think you want.

Google!, a new site out of search engine incubator Stanford University (Excite, Yahoo!), is so confident of its accuracy that it dares you to go directly to your query's number-one return. Uncannily, it often wins that bet--so you do, too.

Direct Hit (available on HotBot) furthers this trend by putting the power in the user's hands. It tells you the ten most-visited sites for your query. All of these anticipatory features generally work well and are a boon to users, but they are most useful for general searches.

Searchers also get some more power at their disposal from sites that parse their databases in ways that make it easier to find specific information. For example, Lycos has stocks database and a recipes section, so you can easily separate your flavorful stocks from your fiscal ones.

What's on the horizon? More search customization features, saved queries that you can update at any time, still more anticipatory tools (including one called Clever from IBM Research), and a continued proliferation of sites focused on individual needs. So cheer up, you'll find what you're looking for.


Ziff-Davis, publisher of PC Magazine, produces ZDNet, which in turn licenses content to many sites and is a stockholder in DejaNews. Softbank, Ziff-Davis's primary shareholder, is an investor in Yahoo! and TalkCity (On Now).
Our Contributors: NANCY SIRAPYAN is the librarian at PC Magazine. TREVOR A. DAWES is a library specialist, and NANCY E. FRIEDLAND, DEBORAH WASSERTZUG, and BRECK WITTE are librarians at Columbia University. BARB FALKINBURG is a librarian for the Baltimore County public schools. JILL LEGER, EYAL RABINOVITCH, and SARAH L. ROBERTS-WITT are freelance writers. JAY MUNRO was the project leader, and DAVID LIDSKY was the associate editor in charge of this story.

David Lidsky And Nancy Sirapyan