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Web Watch: How not to get lost in Cyberspace

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WebWatch is the cooperative effort of two of Phnom Penh's most experienced

Internet users:
David Lewis of Telstra's Bigpond and Bill Herod, information technology

consultant at the NGO Forum on Cambodia. Contact through: PhnomPenhPost@bigpond.com.kh

AS ANY beginner to the Internet soon discovers, the World Wide Web is as full of

mis- and dis-information as it is with the information that you want. Many newcomers

are put off when their first attempts to look up a subject or document result in

increasingly frustrated hours being sidetracked into irrelevant sites. Becoming familiar

with how to use one of the good search engines can help enormously.

First let's distinguish between the two main types of search tools available. "Subject

Directories" provide a structured index of web sites organised as a hierarchy

of subjects. There might be sections on Arts, Business, Politics, Law and Food. The

entries in these directories are references to web sites accompanied by a short description

and in some cases a subjective rating of the site. Typically these directories contain

references to only a very small proportion of the World Wide Web. However the sites

that they do contain are usually a good entry point to the resources available for

a particular subject.

Web search sites on the other hand offer no such structure. Instead they provide

a way for you to search the whole web for particular words or phrases. In a matter

of a couple of seconds these tools search across hundreds of thousands of web sites.

So, when to use a directory and when to use a web search? If you want guidance on

a subject use the directories, but if you are looking for a more specific piece of

information which you can describe by a distinctive phrase or name then use the web

search tools.

Examples of good general subject directories include The Librarians Index, Britannica,

Galaxy and Yahoo. The Librarians Index has approximately 7000 sites of very high

quality, Britannica has 150,000 each annotated and ranked by their editors, Galaxy

has 300,000 entries with generally good annotations and Yahoo, probably the most

famous directory of them all, has over 1 million but with rather sketchy descriptions.

Try starting out with the smaller directories and moving on to Yahoo if you fail

to find a good source.

You might also find it useful to try some of the more specialised directories. How

to find the right directory? Use a directory of directories such as search.com.

Popular web search sites include Google, Altavista, Northern Light, Infoseek, FastSearch,

Excite and Go. Everyone seems to have their favourite and it's worth trying a few

to see which suits you best. We would recommend trying out Altavista, FastSearch

and Northern Light. You may want to refer to the searchenginewatch site that compares

features and monitors the performance of most of the major search engines.

The main drawback of using these web search sites is that they often return far too

many results and the majority may be irrelevant to you.

Some tips to improve your searching productivity:

  • Read the help section of the search site and learn how to focus your search;
  • Use more than one keyword to return a narrower selection;
  • Use quotation marks if you are searching for a phrase (eg "human rights");
  • Don't use capitalization (unless you are searching for a proper name);
  • Check your spelling and consider alternative spellings (eg landmines, land mines,

    etc);

  • Learn to use the "advanced search features" (essential as the web grows);
  • Search for words you expect to find in a document, not concepts (background,

    biography, etc).

As an example, we used Altavista to find web pages about rice production in Cambodia.

Entering in the search "rice production in cambodia" returns every page

with ANY of these words - a daunting 130,000. A more relevant set of results is returned

by the string - +"rice production" +cambodia. This indicates that we want

any pages (documents) that contain BOTH the phrases "rice production" AND

"cambodia". It yields 580 results. Adding "+1999" to the search

reduces this to about 100 references.

The web is currently estimated to contain around one billion pages and that is expected

to increase by ten-fold in just a few years. Each of the major search tools covers

only a fraction of this vast resource, so if you are really searching for an elusive

scrap of information you may need to check through more than one. Fortunately there

are tools that make this very easy: Enter the "meta search engines". These

submit your query to many search sites and combine the results. Try out metacrawler,

infind, dogpile or savvysearch. The current favorite seems to be a downloadable program

called Copernic that has the added advantage of automatically checking to see if

the referenced sites still exist. Copernic also stores your search results offline

on your own computer for future reference.

Finally, you may also want to try a search engine for a particular field of specialization

or even a site. If you want information about John Kerry's recent talks with Hun

Sen, specify a news search in one of the search engines (such as Yahoo or Savvysearch)

and try +John Kerry +Hun Sen +tribunal. If you want to find something you read about

Khieu Samphan in the Post, you can use the search engine on the Post's site.

Link list

The Librarians Index:

http://www.lii.org/

Britannica:

http://www.britannica.com/

Galaxy:

http://www.galaxy.com/

Yahoo:

http://www.yahoo.com/

Google: HYPERLINK

http://www.google.com/
http://www.google.com/

Altavista:

http://www.altavista.com/

Northern Light:

http://northernlight.com/

Infoseek:

http://www.infoseek.com/

FastSearch:

http://www.alltheweb.com/

Excite:

http://www.excite.com/

Go:

http://www.go.com/

Directory of directories:

http://www.seach.com/

Metacrawler:
HYPERLINK

http://www.metacrawler.com/
http://www.metacrawler.com/

Infind:

http://www.infind.com

Dogpile:

http://www.dogpile.com

Savvysearch:

http://www.savvysearch.com

Copernic:

http://www.copernic.com

Search Engine Watch

HYPERLINK

http://searchenginewatch.com/reports/index.html
http://searchenginewatch.com/

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