Information Today
Volume 17, Number 1 • January 2000
• Internet Insights •
Jacsó’s Cheers and Jeers for 1999
A list of some Web services that earned my respect—and some that didn’t 
by Péter Jacsó

Each year at this time, I review the products that have caught my attention over the past year—for both good and bad reasons. Information industry stalwarts and Young Turks alike make my list this year. It is uplifting to see how many companies and individuals are inspired by the opportunities offered by the Web. At the same time, it is depressing to see that old hands in the information industry just don’t understand that adding a sorry graphic interface to a pathetically inaccurate and stale database does not make their absurd prices look better. Ironically, some information professionals and librarians are so busy warning users about the dangers of free Web sites that they don’t realize that they subscribe to—and may be even involved in producing—fee-based databases that have those same serious deficiencies they pontificate about.

CHEERS for the ...

• Best Web text search engine to Northern Light (, which now has an index of 190 million Web pages, plus 12 million articles from 5,600 journals, books, and other documents in its Special Collection covering practically every discipline. It also launched an excellent fee-based search service for government Web sites and documents ( The new Special Editions of Northern Light offer very well-chosen, well-grouped Web sites and documents about current issues such as the Microsoft antitrust suit.

Northern Light has also partnered itself as a search engine and document delivery agent with some other successful Web sites such as Barnes & Noble and Billboard. Its specialized search templates reflect the special filtering criteria tailored to the partnership. For example, the Billboard template offers the options to exclude personal fan pages and to limit the search to music reviews.

Northern Light’s smart classification system, which classifies documents retrieved for queries into clusters of categories by subject, document format, language, etc., has recently been patented. While the extraordinarily inexpensive $1 prices for substantial documents from scholarly journals have been raised across the board, the $3 to $4 price per document is still far less expensive than other online services, document delivery services, or—heaven forbid—commercial journal publishers would charge.

• Best Web multimedia search engine to Lycos for its Lycos Rich Media ( service, which uses the search engine of the Norwegian company FAST (also famous for Alltheweb, the largest Web index). In my tests among the Webwide multimedia search engines, Lycos Rich Media consistently yielded the largest number of relevant audio, image, and video files with the least redundancy. Its thumbnail-grid results format has the unique capability of allowing users to enlarge an image without having to go to the original site.

• Best browser to NeoPlanet, which teamed up with Lycos to create a customizable, visually pleasing interface (Lycos browser) built on Internet Explorer, offering extra features and a more convenient link mechanism than IE Favorites or Netscape Bookmarks ( See my February 1999 column for details (Information Today, page 22).

• Best Web subject guide to University of Wisconsin–Madison for the SignPost project ( It has a selective catalog of about 8,000 high-quality, free Web resources. Each item has a substantial review of the resource (not merely a pitch line), and nearly half of the items are cataloged and classified using Library of Congress Classification Scheme and Library of Congress Subject Headings. Records are enhanced by data elements from the Dublin Core metadata set. They make it easy not only to locate relevant sites in the catalog and find informative, structured descriptions, but also to learn when the site was reviewed and last visited. The catalog exudes the enthusiasm and competence of qualified librarians and information specialists.

• Best Web-surfing companion tool to Alexa Internet for the Alexa sidekick software (, which makes surfing a much more intelligent experience. The free Alexa software provides statistics and vital information about the site you’re visiting, and—for most but not all of the sites—provides a list of related sites. For example, once you find a good travel site, clicking on the Alexa button will show other comparable travel sites. A light version of Alexa is part of Netscape Navigator versions 4.06 and higher. See my October 1999 column for more information (IT, page 30).

• Best free ready-reference site to Information Please LLC for its Web site that provides access to its renowned almanac set, the Infoplease Dictionary (based essentially on the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary), and the Columbia Encyclopedia fifth edition—each with up-to-the-minute updates.

• Boldest move to, Inc. for launching the Britannica Web site (, which combines Encyclopaedia Britannica in its entirety with full-text articles from leading magazines, a Webwide search engine, and a directory of Web sites. This universally admired resource was an excellent deal at $5 per month, and the elimination of that fee makes this awesome treasure available for everyone with no ifs, ands, or buts. (For a walk-through review, see my column on the Gale Group’s Web site—

• Most impressive improvement to Barnes & Noble for bringing its Web book and music catalog ( to the level of’s, and even surpassing its archrival in some regards. Barnes & Noble has information about more out-of-print books than, more professional reviews, an excellent and free link to the top-notch, very detailed biographical essays in the Gale Group’s Biographical Resource Center, and far better tables of contents. Earlier I criticized Barnes & Noble for spending too much money on challenging in the court of law. Now the company is focusing on playing in the right court. No wonder so many big Internet players are teaming up with Barnes & Noble. If you don’t already know, here is an added bonus: If you sign up to order from Northern Light’s Special Collection through Barnes & Noble, you get a $25 credit.

• Best multimedia service on the Web to myplay, Inc. for offering 500 MB of storage to store your favorite music in MP3 format on a Web server ( along with the smart and beautifully designed myplay software. It allows you to load and organize your tracks, edit the information (the recording bit-rate and the duration are sometimes wrong), create various playlists to match your mood, and even publish them—if you wish—for others to hear. Free e-mail sites with good management software and 5 MB of storage are a dime a dozen these days, but are to be appreciated for the convenience they offer. Myplay goes way beyond this by allowing you to listen to your favorite collection from anywhere on a Web-connected PC. I have a 600-MB collection of songs that I converted to MP3 and recorded on a CD, but this service beats it in convenience, swiftness, and elegance. Obviously, the company’s legal counsel did its homework, and offers solutions to comply with the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.

JEERS for the ...

• Most absurd claims about quality and popularity ranking to (, a subdivision of the reputable WebSideStory. claims to be the first search engine that ranks Web sites by quality and popularity. As for the quality and popularity ranking that it applies, by all means read the service’s credo at So, according to, what are the top news and media sites? DAWN, “Pakistan’s largest circulated English language newspaper”; the Daily Jang, the most widely read Urdu language newspaper; and the Jang newsgroup. I have no doubt that these sites are bread and butter for millions of news-hungry readers whose surfing habits purportedly monitors, but I am somewhat worried that they pushed Den, the most popular Ukrainian newspaper, down to the 10th position and didn’t leave room for such news sites as CNN, the BBC, or ABC.

Even worse, the first three among the top-100 quality sites in education are so-called essay mills where students can fish for a term paper from $15 to $18 a page or even order a custom-written one for a little more money. The first two sites take you to exactly the same URL, although their names are slightly different. I wonder where those who concocted this site got their degrees (and their morals). I have to admit that the site’s design is eye-catching, but I doubt that will be of any consolation to users.

• Fear-mongering by all those authors who—citing the same clichés—warn you about the dangers of free Web sites that deliver you outdated, inaccurate, or incomplete information. In light of Web services like, of course, they may be right. The problem is that they speak generally of all free Web sites, and forget to mention that proportionally there are likely to be as many fee-based, traditional online information sites that deliver you outdated, inaccurate, and incomplete information—and charge you an arm and a leg for it. Oddly, these people never seem to write about the dangers of those fee-based databases, even if they know of their serious deficiencies firsthand.

• Unprofessionalism of DataStar and Bowker-Saur for not having corrected, updated, nor removed the embarrassing World Databases directory that—you guessed it—delivers outdated, inaccurate, and incomplete information, and charges you an arm and a leg for it. I jeered it a year ago in this column, illustrating some of these same flaws, obviously to no avail. I wonder how long information professionals are willing to put up with it.

Péter Jacsó is associate professor of library and information science at the department of information and computer sciences at the University of Hawaii. He won the 1998 Louis Shores/Oryx Press Award from ALA’s Reference and User Services Association for his discerning database reviews. His e-mail address is

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