Finding Information on the Internet

By William H. Teschek, Assistant Director

May 25, 2001

The World Wide Web is a wonderful thing. From our own homes we now have access to a vast, seemingly endless quantity of information. The Web is celebrating its tenth birthday this year and in that relatively short span of time it has already changed the world in which we live. It is hard to imagine what the next ten years will bring, let alone the next hundred. One thing I'm sure most everyone hopes will come about is an easier way to find what you are looking for. It's all well and good to have trillions of pages of information available at your fingertips, but what good is it if you can never find what you need?

Here at the library it is not uncommon to find people coming to us for help to find some information AFTER they have searched the web on their own at home. We're glad they come to us, because that's what everyone should do when they are trying to find information and can't find it by themselves. But more often than not we are able to go onto the very same Internet and find just what they need. How is it that we have success where so many others fail? Do we know some secrets that no one else does?

Not at all. But there are a few ingredients everyone must possess in order to have success at finding information on the Internet. The first and most important is experience. It's like anything in life - the more you do it, the better you get. We're on the Internet every day here at the library and have plenty of opportunities to become proficient. But practice alone isn't enough if you don't have a clue what you are doing to begin with. To that end you need also to educate yourself. Learning about the Internet and web searching is a never-ending process. Because the Internet is constantly growing and changing, there is always more to learn. Read magazine and newspaper articles about the Internet. Use the Internet itself to learn more. A great starting place is about.com. Go to their web search section at http://websearch.about.com/internet/websearch/. There are plenty of good articles available there to show you the ropes. And finally, take a class. We offer free classes on the Internet here at the library. Just call 926-3368 and ask for Bill to sign up or get further information.

While I can't convey in this article all that I can in our classes, I can give you a few tips. One mistake I notice many novices making is that they will type their search term(s) into the address bar. This is where you are supposed to type the actual web address of a website you are specifically trying to reach. It would be like trying to find a plumber with your phone by typing 1-800-PLUMBER. This might actually get you a plumber, but not necessarily the one that would be best for you. When you type search terms into the web address box like this the computer will do a search on the website of the company that makes the software you are using (the web browser) to view web pages. This is likely going to be either Microsoft (Internet Explorer) or Netscape, depending on which program you use. Similarly, if you click the SEARCH button on the toolbar near the top of your screen, you will also be using Microsoft or Netscape's search features. Now either one of these web search engines may answer your question, but there are much better ones out there. Frankly I rarely if ever use either one of them myself.

When deciding which search engine to use you first must understand the different types that are available. There are two primary types of search engines available - indexes and directories.

Indexes are created by automated programs called 'spiders' that roam the length and breadth of the Internet 24/7. They cull every word from the websites they visit and indexes are built to make it possible to search them. There are many, many different websites that have such search engines available, but none of them index everything. One of the biggest and, in the opinion of many, the best, is Google. Funny name, but excellent search engine, which can be found at www.google.com. Quite frequently it is the only place I have to go to find what I need. Another type of Internet index is called a 'meta-search engine'. These sites combine their searches to look at numerous single-site search engines at the same time. So they may search Google, Hotbot, Altavista, and many, many more all at the same time. My current favorite is Ixquick but there are many others as well. On the library's website some of the best search engines can be found by clicking the 'Net Search' button on the blue toolbar that appears at the top of every one of our pages.

When searching an Internet index like Google you need to type in 'keywords' that best describe what you are looking for. Figuring out exactly what to type can be very tricky, depending on how complex your needs are, but one good rule of thumb is to start by typing just one or two words and only add words if you get too much and need to narrow things down. Once you start adding more than one word you will want to check the search engine's help pages for tips, because they all work a little differently from one another. Books have been written on the technicalities of such searching, so I can't even scratch the surface here. To get better you will need to practice and read more about it.

The other type of search engine is the directory. Directories, unlike indexes, are created by human beings who explore the vastness of the Internet looking for the best websites. They then categorize what they find, often adding descriptive abstracts, and put them into a hierarchical directory that can be searched by keywords or browsed. Probably the best known of these is Yahoo, but there are many others. Yahoo is one of the biggest, but they don't have much in the way of annotations describing the websites they list. Google, in addition to being an excellent index, also creates their own web directory, and does a better job of annotating as well. In addition to these giant directories there are smaller, more discriminating directories as well. The Librarian's Index to the Internet (www.lii.org) is one such website that does an excellent job. About.com is another that is getting so big that it can almost be considered a giant directory in its own right. And of course don't forget our own directory of Internet links. You can find this by clicking on the 'Reference Weblinks' button on the library's toolbar. We don't try to be as comprehensive as some of the larger sites, but if you are looking for Hampton or seacoast-area information, it should be your first stop. We do have links to many general sites on the Internet as well.

I haven't even touched upon specialized indexes and directories. A specialized index might be a web-based encyclopedia, such as those at brittanica.com or encarta.com. Or it could be a part of what is called the "hidden Internet" - locally created databases on countless subjects. Our own online index to the Hampton Union and Atlantic News is but one small example of the hidden Internet. These contain information that can't be found using a general search engine. Specialized directories probably exist for every subject known to mankind. No matter what the topic, someone, somewhere, has probably created their own web page that tries to create a list of all the other websites that can be found on the same subject. Search a few of these specialized directories and you'll quickly locate all the best websites on your chosen subject. To find such indexes, use the more general indexes like Google as well as the general directories like Yahoo or About.

Don't be afraid to dive right in and search the Internet. At first you'll find it incredibly confusing - like searching for a needle in a haystack. But with time and practice, it will begin to make sense and maybe, some day, you might actually feel like you know what you're doing! In the meantime, if you get stuck and can't find what you need, come into the library or call us at 926-3368 and ask for our help. That's why we're here.