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"WORKING THE NET"

By Art Glick


Push or Pull

(How to get the information that you want)

(Originally Published in September, 1997)

For the first thirty years of their history, computers were behemoths that served only the purpose of "crunching numbers" faster and more accurately than humans. But miniaturized electronics (another unexpected but wonderful legacy of the Aerospace program) made computers more capable and affordable.

Once the average person could purchase and use a computer, its use grew to far more than just a number cruncher. The computer became a production tool, a game machine and a medium for communicating information.

This latter use of the computer is, I believe, the single most significant aspect of the computer revolution. And even though the computer has been used as a communications tool for almost two decades, it was not until the advent of the Internet that its full potential could be realized.

The Internet is to the Computer Age what the assembly line was to the Industrial Age. It's also the "great equalizer". It's the invention that makes a new product available to the masses, and makes that product part of human society. In this case, the product is information, and information is power; power to control your destiny, to enrich your life.

The Internet is fast becoming an absolute source of information. It only follows that particular skills would be required to wade through such a volume of knowledge. This column has made reference to various Search Engines, and I would expect that all of our readers have had some experience with at least one of them. I have touched very little on the topic of search techniques, so most of the rest of this column will address that subject.

First, no discussion of gathering information from the Internet would be complete without at least a mention of the very latest trend in information transfer - "push" technology. The basic concept involves information coming to you, as opposed to your going out to get it.

An innovator of push technology on the Internet is pointcast.com, but all the big companies, including Microsoft, have adopted the approach and its wide use and availability is inevitable. Best yet, since it's advertiser supported, it's free.

Pointcast will give you access to their service with their own free software and allow you to customize the type of information that it gathers for you, from news on a particular topic to stock quotes, weather forecasts and sports. Pointcast's software links with your browser software, so you gather the information in a familiar way.

Push technology is fine for the information that you expect to need on a regular basis, and it deserves the space of an entire column, but when you have a particular need for quick information on a specific topic, nothing beats good old "pull" technology. This is when you hit your favorite Search Engine and struggle with keywords, hoping not to be inundated with copious numbers of totally irrelevant "matches" to your search criteria.

The single most important key to your success (no pun intended) is the way you enter your key words or key phrases (i.e. search criteria). Unfortunately, because each Search Engine manages its indices differently, there is no single set of techniques that will work. Nor is there one single Search Engine that covers the full spectrum of information available.

If the information that you seek relates to a popular hobby or interest and is therefore widely sought by others, you're bound to find a related "subject directory" at a site like Yahoo or Magellan. Starting your search from here will limit the number of irrelevant matches.

Often a fruitful search will also yield a number of personal private pages of individuals who enjoy the same interest. The nature of the Internet permits like-minded individuals to share their favorite sites, and many such pages contain dozens, sometimes hundreds, of links related to the subject. Bookmark such sites for reference.

When entering key words to perform a search, most sites will permit the use of something called "Boolean Logic". George Boole was a nineteenth century mathematician and visionary. He invented Boolean algebra, and must have suffered ridicule, because in his time, it had absolutely no use. However, today's computers and their software could not exist were it not for Boolean Algebra.

Boolean operators take the form of ordinary words, and the most common is the operator "AND". In fact, when you type in several key words to perform a search, most Search Engines will assume that you intend these words to be separated with an AND. That is, it's the same as if you had typed your words with the word AND in between them. The engine will seek to match sites that only contain all of your search terms, thus limiting the number of irrelevant matches.

Other Boolean operators include OR and NOT, which can be used in combination with AND and are also often supported by most search engines. For example, you could type the query MUSIC AND CLASSICAL NOT OPERA, which would return sites containing MUSIC and CLASSICAL but cull from these any sites that also contained OPERA. There are quite a number of Boolean operators that may or may not work at your favorite search engine, but a full discussion of Boolean Algebra is obviously beyond the scope of this column. Most Search Engines will explain the subject in detail in their "search tips" section.

Notice that I did not put the query above in quotes, and that is because I did not want to confuse you. In fact, both quotes and case-sensitivity can also be critical to the results of your search. You should never enter a query in all capital letters as I have shown above. Stick to lower case, except in those instances where your search criteria contains proper names, where you should probably use upper and lower case (for example, use Henry Ford, as opposed to henry ford). This also applies to acronyms, that is, IBM is probably better than ibm.

Perhaps the single most powerful tool when entering search criteria is the use of the double quotation mark, providing that the engine recognizes such a method. The use of quotes can reduce the number of matches from hundreds of thousands to just hundreds, and it has the potential to streamline your search like no other technique.

When you enter phrase surrounded by quotes, the engine will return matches for only those sites that contain the entire phrase, in the same order in which you entered it. Thus, the phrase "who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men" without the quotes might return hundreds of thousands of sites containing "evil", "minds" and "men", whereas the use of the quotations would yield only a relative handful of sites, mostly pertaining to old time radio or the character "The Shadow".

Incidentally, aside from Boolean operators, common words, such as "who", "what", "in" and "the" are typically ignored by the Search Engine. And each engine is different, so some may not recognize the quotes or certain Boolean operators. You'll just have to "play around" a little bit and observe the results.

Finally, most search sites permit "query by example", which can also be quite helpful. After your first search, next to each match you will find a link labeled "similar sites" or something to that effect. If your first search produces a large ratio of unrelated sites, pick one of the better matches and click on this link.

One particularly popular Search Engine index is Alta Vista. It uses a "spider" to crawl the Web (at a rate of 3 million pages per day) and build its index, which it is constantly updating. At this writing, Alta Vista's index alone contained 50 billion key words encompassing over 30 million Internet pages. This index occupies over 40 Gigabytes of drive space. With the number of pages on the Internet expected to grow one thousand fold just by the end of the decade, sharpening your search skills will become more and more important.

Next Column : Did you know that WVNET now offers 2 Megabytes of server space for your own Home Page, the cost of which is already included in your monthly access fee? The WVNET site is crowded with an incredible amount of resources for budding Webmasters, and I'll tell you more about this next time.


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