An Internet Tutorial

by Jonathan Leger

CHATPER II : The World Wide Wait
Finding your way through the muck.

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How Deep is the Muck?

Depending on who you believe, there are between 50 million and 150 million available web pages on the world wide web. Finding what you're looking for on your own would be like walking down each isle of the Library of Congress looking for a book on the art of Norweigen tarter sauce.

Fortunately, as the Library has its card catalog, so the web has its search engines. These wonderful tools allow you to type in words describing what you are looking for and will (in theory) tell you where to find it.

I say in theory because, as I'm sure you've noted, when typing in what you're looking for you will often get mounds of pages that are seemingly unrelated to your search. For example: I typed in 'toys' at AltaVista, my personal fave of the search engines, and it returned 9,676,756 web pages. "Good Lord!" you shout, "it's already six o'clock and I have to go to work again this century!"

How to Find What You're Looking For: AltaVista

The secret to the search engines is DETAIL. I cannot emphasize this enough. The more detail you provide a search engine, the better your results are going to be.

Just because the word 'toys' appears on 9.6+ million web pages does not mean that all of those pages are related to toys. If I have a web site that is dedicated to fiction stories, and a character in one of the stories on my web site says "Stop toying with me, Frances," it becomes one of the 9.6+ million pages that AltaVista gives you when you search for 'toys' (because most search engines will search for the word 'toy' as well if you search for 'toys').

So how do you find what you're looking for using the search engines? I'll use AltaVista for these examples, because in my opinion it's the best of the bunch for finding relavent web sites.

Let's stick with the 'toys' example and say that I'm looking for Optimus Prime, which is a Transformer, a truck that can be moved around a bit to make it turn into a robot. If I search for 'toys' at AltaVista, one of those 9.6+ million pages WILL have what I'm looking for, no doubt. I just don't have enough time to try and find it!

However, when I search for 'transformer toys' at AltaVista, I only get 155 matches, which is MUCH better than 9.6+ million. But what if I only have a half hour before I have to be at James and Sarah's place for a barbaque? In that case 155 matches is still too much. What to do?

I click on the 'Advanced' link to the right of 'Ask AltaVista a question.' There I type 'transformer toys' in the box to the left of the 'search' button, and in the box under 'Enter boolean expression' I type 'optimus prime.' I then click 'Search.'

Care to guess the number of returned pages? Thirteen, and every one of them talks about Optimus Prime. Thirteen pages, thirty minutes, that's about two minutes a piece (which any seasoned web surfer will tell you is plenty of time to know if a page has what you're looking for).

Boolean? What's That, A Skinny Ghost???

"Wait a minute!" you say. "You lost me after that 'Advanced' bit. What is a boolean expression?"

Glad you asked. I personally think that the phrase 'boolean expression' is rather confusing to most people, as it is a term used in digital electronics and computer programming. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that not too many people looking for Optimus Prime transformer toys on the web are electrical engineers or computer programmers. 'Boolean' is not anywhere to be found within the 2,000 pages of my two volume Funk & Wagnalls New Internetional Dictionary, either.

So what is a boolean expression, and how did it get us down to 13 matches from 155?

A boolean expression is one that can be evaluated as either True or False. For example, if I told you, "The light in this room is on," you could look up at the light and either tell me, "You're right, it is on," or "Nope, that light is not on." That's a boolean expression.

Now, if I told you "Man it's cold out here!" that statement does not qualify as a boolean expression because how cold it is can be relative. Maybe I'm from Port Arthur, Texas, where it's 110 in the shade, so 50 degrees to me turns my skin blue, but you're from Ankarage, Alaska, and you're out in your Burmuda shorts when it's 15 below.

This principle applies with AltaVista (and most other search engines, too). If I use 'transformer toys' as the words that I'm looking for, and 'optimus prime' as my boolean expression, AltaVista will do two things:

  1. Find the 155 pages matching 'transformer toys'.
  2. Look at those 155 pages and see which of them ha 'optimus prime' in their text. If the page does contai 'optimus prime', then the boolean expression is True, and that page is returned.

So out of all 155 pages featuring 'transformer toys,' only 13 of them featured 'optimus prime,' and so those pages were returned.

"Wait!" you interrupt again, "Why can't I just search for 'optimus prime transformer toys' or just 'optimus prime' and get only those 13 pages?"

That's an excellent question. When I tried searching for the words 'optimus prime transformer toys' I got 186 reults, which is even more than the 155 from just 'transformer toys'.

When I searched for 'optimus prime' I only got 28 pages, but a few of those pages were completely unrelated, and one of them was pornographic!

This happens because when you do a simple search for the key words, AltaVista searches for all pages that contain some or all of those key words or phrases.

However, if you use the advanced search and use a boolean expression, AltaVista will search for your key words, but will only return the pages which completely match your boolean expression.

Here's a three step method to finding what you're looking for at AltaVista:

  1. Go to the 'Advanced' link.
  2. Use your general subject of interest as the keywords.
  3. Use the specific information as your boolean expression.

The general subject might be 'transformer toys' or 'home gardening' or 'clean jokes' and the specific information might be 'optimus prime' or 'perinial flowers' or 'knock knock'. Using this method is sure to help you find what you're looking for.

Using The Date Range

Another excellent use of the 'Advanced' page is that you can specify how old the information you are receiving is by giving AltaVista a range of dates.

For example, if you were doing your taxes for 1998 and wanted to check up on any new tax laws for this year, you wouldn't want any information from 1996, would you? So you would put 1/Jan/98 as your 'From:' and 31/Dec/98 as your 'To:' under the 'Range of Dates:' to the right of the boolean expression box.

By doing this, you will only receive web pages which were created within the range of dates that you specify. When I used 'united states federal taxes' as my search phrase and 'new laws' as my boolean expression, I got 30,030 results. But when I set the date range for January to December of '98, I only got 13,082 results, cutting out close to two-thirds of the results as irrelavent information.

One More Thing About Search Engines

Something else to remember about the search engines. Those pages which appear first in your search are generally more relavent than those that appear, say, 100th or 1,000th in the list of results. Your best bet, though, is to get as specific as you can by using the 'Advanced' page for good results.

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How to Find What You're Looking For: Yahoo!

Yahoo is not a search engine. At least, not in the classical sense of a search engine. A search engine is a spider, scouring the net via pages and links from pages to find and index new web pages and sites.

Yahoo is a directory. In its youth it was criticised for not spidering the web as the search engines did. Now it's the most frequently visited site on the net. Go figure.

The difference between Yahoo and the search engines is that real people add sites to Yahoo. Unlike search engines, you cannot just add a new web site or web page to Yahoo. A real live human being has to look at the page and approve it first.

Human approval is both great and awful. It's great because sites cannot use tricks to make seedy sites (i.e., pornography sites) appear as normal pages and sneak their way into places they aught not be. It's awful because not every page gets listed. If the Yahoolagin that's checking out a site doesn't like it--it's X'd, regardless of how good the information is.

AltaVista, in my opinion, is the best place to go to find what you're looking for; but Yahoo is second. Yahoo carries a much larger percent of relavent sites than the search engines do, so that when you search for 'Transformer Toys', although you get fewer results, they are usually more relavent.

Also, since Yahoo is a directory, you can find your way into the catagories that you are interested in. For example, to locate a web site about home gardening, you can simply meander into Recreation and Sports -> Home and Garden -> Gardening. There you will find landscaping, house plants, etc.

On the other hand, you can still use Yahoo much like you use a search engine, by entering key words to search for. So, instead of finding the catagory for gardening by working your way through the directory, you can simply search for 'gardening'.

After hitting the 'search' button at Yahoo, the first results to come up are the catagories (if there are any) which contain any number of sites concerning the subject that you searched for.

Showing the catagories first is an excellent tool, because it leads you straight into the subject you searched for, rather than you having to pour through numerous site descriptions trying to find a relavent listing. A time saver for sure.

Also, because Yahoo shows catagories first, you can type in vague words like 'toys' and get groupings of relavent sites, whereas at a normal search engine, if you searched for 'toys' you would get millions of irrelavent results.

Upon searching the Yahoo directory, if no results are found, you are directed to the search engine results for your key words.

All in all, Yahoo is an excellent site that offers some really neat free services (free e-mail, a Yahoo pager, maps and travel directions, etc.). The site is heavily covered with ads, though, and bogs down during peak internet usage times, so the results can be VERY slow sometimes.

Getting Good Results

My advice to you for the best results is not to rely souly on search engines and general directories (like Yahoo). If you have a particular interest in say, gardening, then once you find a few excellent sites about gardening, bookmark them in your browser so you can return and visit.

The good sites always offer links to other sites which have similar information, and those directories, which are highly targeted to a particular interest, are usually of much higher quality than a general directory would be.

After all, a person who knows enough about gardening to put up a terrific site on the subject would also be in a better position to rate other sites dealing with the same subject. A Yahoo person may think a site looks good and sounds good, but asfar as being able to judge the content, they can't.

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Click here to get it!

My internet tutorial is an excellent start for learning your way around the internet. But, to really become a cyber-pro, you'll want to get The Internet For Dummies. I highly recommend it. Here's what others are saying about it:

A reader from Ontario. Canada , March 30, 1999
"Interesting. Informative. Entertaining. Educational. In my view, it should be required reading for every tyro cybernaut. Great job."

A reader from U.S. , March 6, 1999
"I think this book is fantastic! I like things explained in plain English, and it's funny too. I got started and online the first day."

The Internet For Dummies. Click here to get it now!

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