Since the inception of Web search engines in 1993, one of the mantras of the Internet has been “Seek and Ye Shall Find.” Big names in Web search since then have included Lycos, AltaVista, Excite, Northern Light, Yahoo! Search, and MSN Search (now named Windows Live Search).
But the biggest name is Google. Soon after its launch in 1998 it became—and still remains—the most popular and versatile Internet search tool. Google continues to expand in scope, now letting you search for not only text but also images, video, news, maps, books, scholarly papers, discussion group posts, blog content, and more. Google may be the only search tool you use, but if it is, you may be missing out.
Though the Web contains a worldwide cache of data, there are more worlds out there worth exploring. And despite Google’s knack for returning relevant results, there can be faster ways of getting to just the information you need.
When you do a Google search, among the first links often returned is the relevant article in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org), the Web-based encyclopedia that lets anybody add an article or edit an existing article. It can sometimes make sense, therefore, to go there first.
The overall quality of Wikipedia’s content is often surprisingly good, and its comprehensiveness is unsurpassed in encyclopedias today, online or print, with nearly 2 million articles in English. You need to be on the lookout, however, for prank or sabotaged articles, though typically they’re removed or corrected quickly. Another downside is that technical articles are often written for technical people without including more basic material first.
Unlike Wikipedia, Britannica Online (www.britannica.com) isn’t free, and it has fewer than 10 percent of the number of articles. But its subscription fee of $69.95 per year represents a savings of more than $1,325 off the printed version, and the articles tend to be more in-depth than Wikipedia’s.
Answers.com (www.answers.com) is a free, advertising-supported service that combines the articles of Wikipedia with content from more than 120 titles from others publishers and its own original content.
For even greater scope, HighBeam (www.highbeam.com) provides access to the information in more than 35 million documents from 3,000-plus sources, including newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, transcripts, white papers, books, encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauruses, and almanacs. Most of this content isn’t on the free Web. The cost is $199.95 per year or $29.95 per month.
Refdesk.com (www.refdesk.com) is an oldie but goodie, providing a host of different reference services including calendar, currency converter, news, stock quotes, dictionary, maps, weather forecasts, and more.
The tools of choice for many librarians and professional researchers are commercial research databases. Top services include DialogWeb (www.dialogweb.com) and LexisNexis (www.nexis.com), which aggregate information from hundreds of third-party databases and let you quickly search through any or all of them using the same search procedures.
Dialog, created in 1972, was the world’s first online information retrieval system. It has traditionally been strong on scientific, technical, and intellectual-property material, and it’s still that way. But now it’s also excellent with general and business news.
LexisNexis is a combination of Lexis, the premier source of in-depth legal and regulatory information and public records, and Nexis, a good source of general and business news, market research, and other company and industry information.
Each service has different pricing options for individuals, small businesses, and large businesses and information professionals. For individuals and small businesses, a pay-as-you-go plan may make the most sense. Costs for extensive searches can rise quickly, though the scope is unparalleled.
Among the most interesting new developments in searching are ones as old as the first librarian. Several Web based-services offer human help in finding even the most specific or arcane of information.
With AskMeNow (www.askmenow.com), you use your cell phone or wireless hand-held computer to text a question, and if the AskMeNow representative is able to answer it, you’re charged 25 cents on your carrier’s bill. The company employs researchers in the Philippines who search the Internet for you.
You use Jatalla (www.jatalla.com) and ChaCha (www.chacha.com) like traditional search engines, but the results are ordered by human intelligence. ChaCha distinguishes itself even more by letting you chat with a guide, who can help you refine your search to find the most relevant pages. As of this writing, both services were still in beta, or testing, mode, but were live and usable.
Established search sites have also been incorporating the human element. Yahoo! Answers (http://answers.yahoo.com) is an online community where you can ask questions and get answers from real people.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or reidgold.com.