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Net Notes; Finding what you want on the Net

Kirk Caraway

Did you ever hear the one about how you can never find a cop when you need one?

I heard one description of the Internet a few years ago as “the world’s largest library, where the card catalog is missing and all the books are piled up on the floor.” Maybe this is exaggerated, but finding what you are looking for on the Internet, specifically the World Wide Web, can be a daunting task.

When looking for something on the web, the most helpful place to start is often one of the major search engines, like Excite, Lycos, Webcrawler, Infoseek and Yahoo. These search engines are basically services where you can type in a word or phrase and it will go out and find all the pages containing what you are looking for. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it?

Well, yes and no. If you want to understand how to find what you want, first you should know a little about how they work. These search engines send out what are known as spiders, which are virtual robots that go out and find web pages throughout the Internet. Once they get to a page, they make an index of all the words on that page, and transfer that index back to the search engine. So when you type in your word to search for, the engine goes through its index and finds that word, and links you to the document it came from.

However, there are a few problems with this. One is that with millions of documents out there, your search may bring back thousands of records, and you may spend forever looking for that page you really want. Basically, search engines are relatively dumb. If you type in “TV” as your search term, you might get a link to a television station or a wardrobe guide for transvestites. Search engines have a hard time comprehending the context of what you are searching for. In this case, if you were searching for a television station in Reno, you would type in “television station Reno” and would probably get what you want. The more precise you can make your search query, the better. It may also limit the number of pages you have to sort through, too.

One other trick is to link words together. If, for example, I do a search for “Lake Tahoe,” the search engine will return links to documents with the words “lake” and “tahoe,” but not necessarily “Lake Tahoe.” To solve this, you can use a special code to link words. For most search engines, you can do this by typing in “Lake+Tahoe.” Each engine has its own way of dealing with issues like this, so make sure and read through their help guides if you have trouble finding things.

One other problem with search engines is they sometimes return documents that are seemingly unrelated to what you searched for. You can do a search for Baywatch’s Pamela Anderson Lee, and suddenly find yourself at a website for boat parts. That’s because search engines many times also index a hidden set of words inserted in the document by the page designer specifically to get the engine to recognize the page more often. Now, this is nice if the page designer has been careful to truthfully represent what is on that page, but in the freewheeling world of the Internet, that doesn’t always happen.

One of the main search engines is Yahoo!, a highly successful operation started by two grad students that has turned into a huge corporation in just a few years. Yahoo! is technically a directory, as opposed to a standard search engine, and gives readers a somewhat different way to locate information. In its pages there are millions of links to web sites broken down in categories based on subject. This is a good place to browse for information, especially if you don’t know exactly what your are looking for.

Even with these tools to search the Internet, you still may have a hard time finding your way around. While current technology is somewhat limited in this regard, there are schemes under consideration that will make this task easier. The web is still just an infant, not even ready for kindergarten yet. I have a feeling by the time it reaches junior high, it will have most of these problems figured out, and probably create some new one. Oh, the joys of childhood!

Kirk Caraway directs the Lake Tahoe News Network at http://www.tahoe.com

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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