By WALTER S. MOSSBERG
STUDIES SHOW that people who use the Web spend much of their time just trying to locate useful material by employing search engines. That's a sign of both the vastness of the Web and its confusing lack of organization. It's as if book readers spent most of their time at the table of contents and index.
Not surprisingly, given this trend, search engines have been seen on Wall Street as potentially lucrative businesses in a sea of online duds. Dozens of new search engines have sprung up to challenge the established leaders, including Yahoo and Excite. Some are organized on principles very different from those of the leaders, yielding results based on widely varying criteria. I thought I'd take a look at a few of them.
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My own Web searches are pretty much confined to just two venerable search sites, Yahoo (www.yahoo.com2) and Alta Vista (www.altavista.com3). I like Yahoo because it isn't an automated, machine-driven engine at all, but a directory written by humans who have applied some intelligence to their selections. It's great for looking up whole generic topics or big names likely to be widely covered, like "bicycles" or "Steven Spielberg."
I use Alta Vista, owned by Compaq Computer, when I'm looking for a narrow term or phrase or name that is unlikely to have many whole sites devoted to it, but that may be hidden in sites on other topics. Since Alta Vista uses computers to index individual words, it's great for this. If you type in something like "Buddy Cianci," you get a manageable 200 hits on the feisty mayor of Providence, R.I. But if you try to use it like Yahoo, you'll get swamped with mostly useless responses -- the phrase "Steven Spielberg" yields over 30,000 hits, compared with 36 on Yahoo.
A DIFFERENT approach is taken by Goto.com (www.goto.com4). This clean, simple, site charges other sites a fee to promote them in its search results, and then lets the user know what each site has paid for a prominent place in the results list. The result is full disclosure, but it also may be a useless and distorted set of hits.
I typed in "MiniDisc," looking for a Web site devoted to explaining the new digital recording technology and comparing the equipment on the market. Goto.com listed mainly dealers hawking the stuff, but buried the noncommercial, explanatory MiniDisc Community Page (www.Minidisc.org5) that Yahoo suggested.
At HotBot (www.hotbot.com6), you'll find a first-rate search engine that makes it easier than most to qualify your search terms, by specifying whether they are a phrase or a name or by looking only for material within certain dates. Nevertheless, my search for a noncommercial MiniDisc page wouldn't have been easy here, either, except for a new HotBot feature called "Direct Hit."
Direct Hit is a "popularity engine," which presents the top 10 sites other people have visited for any search term. The MiniDisc Community Page was No. 1 on this list, though it was 85th on HotBot's normal results list. You can also try Direct Hit at www.directhit.com7. It's the brainchild of a company of the same name located in Wellesley Hills, Mass.
More and more Web surfers are turning to "meta" search sites, which blast your request to numerous search engines then create one huge list of hits. A good example is Dogpile (www.dogpile.com8), which listed the MiniDisc community page as No. 2 in its results.
Even cooler, however, are meta search engines, which you operate right from your PC desktop without even opening your Web browser, as long as you're online. One that I liked is WebFerret, a free software program from FerretSoft, of Pickerington, Ohio, which can be downloaded at www.ferretsoft.com9. It's small, easy and generates a list of hundreds of hits very, very quickly.
IN MY TEST, it listed the MiniDisc Community Page third. WebFerret can be upgraded to a $26.95 version with lots of added power and features, and the company also makes a line of other search products.
If you want to search for photos instead of text, you might try a new image-searching engine from Virage Inc., of San Mateo, Calif. Located within the Alta Vista search site, Virage's AV Photo Finder brings up thumbnails of photos on topics you type in. The same company also has two prototypes of a video search engine on the Web.
One, also at the Alta vista site (http://video.altavista.com/cgi-bin/avsearch10), allows you to search for specific phrases in President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony and then watch the relevant video clip. A second, at CNN's site (http://www.cnn.com/TECH/computing/video/gates/11), lets you do the same with the videotaped antitrust trial testimony of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.
These are just a smattering of the various search sites now populating the Web. So find one you like, and search away.
Addendum: Last week's column advocating the rise of simpler information appliances to replace PCs drew numerous e-mails asking where more can be learned on that topic. I recommend a new book from MIT Press, "The Invisible Computer," by Donald A. Norman. During a long career in academia and the computer industry, Don Norman has established himself as high technology's leading thinker on user interfaces and on why PCs are too complex.
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