If you're going to explore the Internet's World Wide Web, it helps to have a guide.
There are several kinds. Some, with names like Lycos and Yahoo, do their job on-line. A new breed of software makes your computer do some of the work in order to simplify on-line searching.
The Web is too chaotic for any of these programs to do a perfect job. But with a little perseverance, most of them will get you where you want to go. Which one you pick depends on your travel preferences - quick and dirty or slow and thorough.
On-line guides are called search engines, but they're really on-line catalogues of hundreds of thousands of Web sites.
Suppose you want to find out what information the Internet has on cats, Bob Dole, and cable modems. (Cable modems are super-fast gizmos that use your cable-television line to send data back and forth.)
If you want to find everything you can about these subjects, try AltaVista. (It can be found by typing the address http:// altavista.digital.com/ into your Web browser.) A search unearthed some 30,000 matches for Bob Dole, 100,000 matches for cats, and a whopping 200,000 matches for cable modems. That's a lot of information, even if many of many of those matches are redundant. AltaVista tries to put the best matches first. Although its very first "cats" site was actually an on-line catalog system called CATS, I quickly got useful information.
If you want lots of sites and possibly a little more accuracy, try Lycos (http://www.lycos.com/). It listed fewer matches for cats and cable modems (21,039 and 59,672, respectively). But at least its first cat site was actually something to do with the subject: the home page of a cat-loving Seattle couple.
Also impressive was the Dole search. Compared with AltaVista, Lycos found three times the number of sites with either "Bob" or "Dole." And its top choice was the official Bob Dole home page.
That match earns Lycos a gold star. When looking for a person or company on the Web, it's frustrating to have to wade through pages and pages of sites that talk about the subject before one finds the person's or company's actual home page. If you subscribe to this less-is-more philosophy, try Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com/).
Yahoo yielded fewer than 100 matches for Bob Dole and cable modems and only 379 for cats. But its listings are clearly organized so that under, say, the listing: "business and economy:companies:animals:cats" are several links to catteries. (Catteries?) It turns out they're cat breeders advertising on-line.
Striking a balance between economy and thoroughness is Infoseek (http://www.infoseek.com/). It offered more matches than Yahoo but fewer than AltaVista or Lycos and its top 10 matches for cats were better than any of the other search engines. One notable feature of Infoseek is it that it tries to add context. So after a search for cable modem, it will list not only matches but links to related topics, such as "modems."
All these services are free. But software companies think they can sell programs that make Web searches easier.
CyberSearch from Frontier Technologies, for example, lets you start your search before logging onto the Internet. Using a search window, users can view thousands of links to Web documents stored on the CyberSearch CD-ROM disk. When they've picked which sites they want to visit, they can drag them to a folder in the program's Organizer and double-click on them. The computer logs onto the Internet and goes out to find them.
The Organizer is a good way to keep track of favorite links. Unfortunately, the material on the disk can be outdated. Frontier does sell monthly updates, but with a subscription costing $120 a year, this program is probably best suited to businesses rather than consumers.
WebCompass Professional from Quarterdeck is a more ambitious program that lets users pick topics they're interested in, links them to its own refined list of topics, and then automatically updates those topics when the user logs onto the Internet. This is smart computing. Once the machine picks up the data, it stores the links in the proper topics, making indexing your Internet material a breeze.
Unfortunately, WebCompass is ahead of its time. The software didn't work properly on one of my computers and, mysteriously, didn't install all its topics on the other. If the company can work out the bugs and improve its documentation, WebCompass could be a big step forward in automating Web searches.
Both these software programs work from the premise that today's on-line search engines aren't good enough. True, Web searches should be faster and smarter. CyberSearch and WebCompass try to do that by combining results from several search engines, but their results were not significantly better.
Still, if you like combining flavors of Web searches, you can try SavvySearch, the Neapolitan ice cream of search engines. The Web site (http:// guaraldi.cs.colostate.edu:2000/form) yielded up to 30 matches - 10 each from three engines - on all three topics. Whatever you choose, one of these flavors of Web searchers is sure to please.
* Take a look at my "In Cyberspace" forum on the Monitor's new Web site (http://www.csmonitor.com)