Searching for information and finding what you need is central to the Internet, but the Internet search industry is in a state of upheaval. Familiar names are losing their usefulness, in some cases with top management bailing out. Meanwhile, upstarts are trying to buy your patronage. Fortunately, a few standouts are eminently click-worthy. Web old-timers, many of whom are still in their 20s, probably remember Yanoff's List, the first widely used compilation of useful Internet destinations, created in 1991. It bit the dust in 1995 when overtaken by Yahoo!, which went on to make its creators, Stanford University Ph.D. students David Filo and Jerry Yang, billionaires. Yahoo! has remained the dominant Web directory, organizing the vast stretches of cyberspace into a semblance of a library card catalog and helping surfers find their way. Unfortunately, Yahoo! as a search tool has lost its way recently as the company has diversified into a dizzying array of other 'Net activities, including but not limited to shopping, B2B e-commerce, e-mail, hosting, telephony, streaming video, and multimedia software. You're better off going elsewhere if you're looking for good Web sites. Many key sites aren't included in Yahoo!'s categories, some of its "Most Popular Sites" are highly esoteric, and site submissions to it may never show up. A smarter choice for browsing categories of sites is a newer service called Open Directory Project. Spearheaded by Netscape, now a part of America Online, it has a database useful enough to be licensed by AltaVista, HotBot, Lycos, and MetaCrawler, among some 100 other sites. AltaVista is another early big name in the Internet search game experiencing a loss of stature. It was the first popular pure search engine, relying upon technology instead of people in sending its automated "spiders" to crawl through the Web and index what they found. Search engines such as AltaVista were and still are better at finding narrowly defined information, while directories such as Open Directory Project and Yahoo! are better at presenting broad categories of information. Despite its promising start, AltaVista suffered from a dearth of investment early on, and newer search engines that return more relevant results have superseded it. Recently it slashed 25% of its workforce, and its CEO resigned. The hottest search engine today is Google, officially launched during the fall of 1999. It uses sophisticated technology that returns site results based on the number of other sites that link to specific information on a site. When key sites, such as CNN.com, link to a site, that's counted more heavily. The end result: An uncanny ability to turn up what you're looking for. So confident is Google in its technology that it includes an "I'm Feeling Lucky" option. If you click on that after typing in your search terms, Google will take you directly to the site it feels is most relevant. This is mostly braggadocio, though tolerable under the circumstances. You're usually better off looking at its list of possible sites, with brief excerpts, before deciding yourself which to head off to. Still, the technology works so well that more than 100 other sites have licensed it. Some new search sites are trying to gain your surf time by throwing money at you. The leader here is iWon.com. Backed by CBS, it has extensively advertised on television its $1 million a month sweepstakes giveaways. In aggregating news and other content to encourage users to stick around and read ads, it's better as a portal than a search site. But so far iWon's strategy seems to be working -- it's now the 21st most-visited Web site, according to the latest numbers from Media Metrix. And it's good to its word, recently awarding its 12th million-dollar monthly prize to a New Jersey resident. Despite recent advances, searching through the Internet's murky depths is still an inexact science, and it sometimes pays to use more than one search site. You can do this automatically with a "metasearch" site. After you type in your search terms, it sends them out to a number of search sites and compiles the results. The best metasearch sites are ProFusion and MetaCrawler. Finally, despite the Web's technological wizardry, sometimes you can't beat the human touch. AskMe.com is one of a number of so-called expert sites whose volunteer staffers try to dig up information for you.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at http://members.home.net/reidgold.