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Search and ye shall find?

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The Internet is a wonderful resource with its millions of tidbits and morsels of information. But it also can be a barren wasteland if what you're looking for has nothing to do with football scores, long-lost relatives or personalized domain names. We took a look at several different search engines, all of which claim to be the best in the business, and rated them on how useful they are to the IT professional.

The first thing we did in our hunt was to narrow down our search engine choices. We picked Wired Digital, Inc.'s HotBot, Digital Equipment Corp.'s AltaVista, Infoseek Corp.'s Infoseek and Lycos, Inc.'s Lycos. Not only did we find some distinct differences among them, but also in the results they yielded. Our searches were fairly simple, aimed at seeing what the search software was doing with our input. We conducted natural language searches as well as queries using Boolean logic to gather our crop of results.

Learn more about the guy Boolean searches are named after

The natural language query consisted of simply entering a word or phrase in quotation marks and hoping for the best. A natural language query also can be effective when used in conjunction with the "+" and "-" signs. These operators force the search engine to display only documents with specific words (using the plus sign) or those that don't have the specified words (using the minus sign). The former is roughly equal to the Boolean AND, the latter to the Boolean NOT.

The search engines say they support Boolean searches, but a sample search proved you might get dramatically different results from site to site. For example, a search on Lycos for "SNA" AND "TCP/IP" yielded a message that read: "The following terms were not found in the Lycos database." An identical search using Infoseek offered a plethora of training courses as well as many vendor sites peddling their respective products.

AltaVista, which has a separate form for true Boolean searches (click on "Advanced Search"), offered the most useful results, yielding six comparison papers on the two technologies. Even though half the resulting articles were in either Dutch or German, the English articles were definitely worth reading (and you can limit the search to just English).

HotBot to trot

We put HotBot to the test first. HotBot is consistently hailed as the best search engine in the world, and it is hard to make a case otherwise. Internet World even claims "HotBot is superior to all other Internet search engines." We found this to be right on the money.

The interface is intelligently designed, allowing for very specific user customization - click on "SuperSearch" to bring this up. You can refine your search to parse documents from a particular date, a specific media ( i.e., images, audio or video). You also can search within a specific country code, domain name or Web site - handy for restricting documents in languages other than English. You can specify what words or terms must be in the document or must not be in the document. All in all, it is a smart, well-designed search engine.

Although it does not support a classical Boolean search, a search for +"SNA" + "TCP/IP" resulted in plenty of comparison information about the two technologies. Again, there were lots of vendor sites to look at and some tutorial information to get you started.

AltaVista: view from the top

Next up was AltaVista. AltaVista claims to have the freshest database of any of the search engines with more than 100 million pages indexed to date. It holds true to its claim of being a "serious search engine".

For starters, you can choose the AltaVista server location nearest you from the six worldwide. This is supposed to minimize download time. You can do a simple language search and see what happens or you can get serious and use the alternate Boolean search page.

AltaVista also sports a unique "Refine search" that can help narrow your results. When you enter a simple search that finds many pages, you can have AltaVista display a "topic map." This map summarizes search results in a flow chart format. The term you originally searched for is in the middle of the chart with the surrounding boxes representing the keywords located within code of the returned documents.

By clicking on any one of these boxes, a pulldown list of common terms comes up that allows you to include or exclude terms from the refined search. It's a bit complicated at first, but with some time and patience it does an excellent job at narrowing your search. This is a great tool if your topic is vague or encompasses a mass of subtopics. However, if you know just what you're looking for, AltaVista may be a bit too overwhelming.

Infoseek and ye shall find

Infoseek indexes phrases within the confines of its database so the use of symbols within a search can be especially useful here. Another of Infoseek's current claims to fame is that it keeps its database current to the month. This means you'll get far fewer outdated links than on, say Lycos (see below). Like AltaVista, Infoseek also allows you to search URLs only, so if you are sure that a certain company or site has the term "cars" in it, you can search the index of all URLs with that term, thus narrowing your results.

First, we searched for "file server AND client server" - by now tired of SNA, we wanted to research moving from LAN-based e-mail to an enterprise messaging system. One InfoSeek caveat: Be careful with forward slashes. Its database apparently interprets this as a signal to stop processing your query - as we found out when we tried searchinng on "TCP/IP".

This particular file/server and client/server inquiry yielded four articles, the first of which was the resume of Mr. Ira M. Ziegelbaum. The three remaining articles comprised a bland introduction to client/server concepts, the table of contents of a reference book titled "Operating System Design: Volume 2" and an August 1992 ISV/Customer Interaction program update informing the OS/2 community about emerging products and technologies. Not so useful. But a glimpse at the sidebar to the left of the screen provided a glimmer of hope.

A click on the term "networking" brought one to a plethora of, believe it or not, network resources. Everything from basic network terminology to meaty WAN resources can be found on this part of Infoseek's site. Of course, there are a lot of commercial sites listed here, and you have to look for the specific topic you wish to explore, but the list is all-inclusive.

Going for glitz

If it's an ornate setup you like, then Lycos is for you. Graphics and fluff, the whole nine yards. We had very little success with Boolean searches here so we stuck with a natural language query using quotes where necessary. Our first search for "TCP/IP" yielded many very basic one- or two-paragraph introductions to the topic, but nothing more. A lot of "Buy this book" sites were intermingled in the results, but we wanted the free stuff. Searching for "SNA" produced a few quality introductions to the technology and even some very informative FAQ sheets.

However, once the search went to "SNA" AND "TCP/IP" things got a bit weird. Instead of producing documents with both terms in the title as a Boolean search is supposed to do, we received zero documents. Lycos obviously doesn't have their Boolean logic system worked out just yet.

One positive aspect to Lycos however, is that it offers a variety of options for after you complete your search. For example, after our search for "TCP IP" resources, one click showed us Lycos' Top 5% of sites on TCP/IP while another called up any graphics that Lycos has indexed relating to TCP/IP. You also can search personal home pages about your topic, books about your topic and the Internet Yellow Pages for even more references to what you need to find.

And the winner is...

HotBot is the clear choice as the most productive, user-friendly search tool on the Internet. It has all the customization tools that one could ask for (even those you'd never think of) and it is the cleanest out of all the competition. Quick, quality results. What more could you ask for?

Pros: Easy to use, huge database updated frequently, very customizable.
Cons: Lots of advertising, not too sure about the color scheme.

AltaVista is a terrific search engine if what you are looking for is a very powerful, low-graphic search tool. The database is huge, and if you have the time and patience to spend at the site, the results are quality. The only problem is, it takes a while to get used to and even more time to use all the software's capabilities. Grab a cup of coffee and a snack because you're going to be here awhile.

Pros: Huge database, easy on the graphics, very clean.
Cons: Very deep program, takes a while to adjust to it.

Infoseek is also pretty good because it supports the same easy-to-use system of Boolean logic that AltaVista does. It seems Infoseek is having a bit of identity crisis, though. It doesn't know if it wants to be a top-notch search engine or a top-notch directory service, and for now it is a three-star combination of both. A decent search tool, but who needs decent?

Pros: Very user-friendly, fresh resources and a directory service built in.
Cons: Seems like the Infoseek business plan is out of whack. Is it a search engine or a directory service?

It's no fun picking the loser, but Lycos walked away with that distinction. Its interface is overly flashy and more important, it doesn't refresh its database as often as it should. However, it does a good job of getting the most relevant pages to the top of the results screen. But other than that, it's an elaborate, fluffy site. Tons of repeat pages, lots of vendor pages advertising their wares and very few quality how-to pages make give Lycos Honorable Mention status at best.

Pros: Top 5% site grouping, pictures database, personal sites, etc.
Cons: You can only use the good stuff if you can find what you need from the outset.

So the search is still on for the very best in search engine services. While we saw a few shimmering lights at the end of the pipeline, customized search engine technology still needs improvement. It is close to impossible for the search services to keep completely up-to-date with the ever-changing web of information that comprises cyberspace. However, if you have the time and the imagination necessary to get the most out of these information tools, you should be all right.

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