Beginner's Guide to Internet Searches

How to get where you're going on the Internet.

by / July 31, 1996
For those new
to the Internet,
finding things can
be a nightmare.
Here's a guide
to using "search
engines" and
other useful
Internet tools.

Back in grammar school, we learned to find things in libraries. School libraries were usually small affairs, and the librarian was helpful. "You'll find fiction over there, alphabetically by the author's last name," she'd say while pointing. "You'll find the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature in the reference section over there. If you have trouble, come back and I'll help you."

They were small enough to browse, and thin books -- ideal for book reports -- were easy to find.

Sometime in junior high school we were introduced to the Dewey Decimal System, the librarian's secret code. However, only valedictorians and an occasional salutatorian ever learned the system. It was more convenient to ask, or go automatically to one's favorite section.

Then we got computers and online services. We had to send e-mail to ourselves, just to make sure it was working. But now nearly everybody is connected. E-mail today is number one in Internet traffic volume. Number two is the World Wide Web, followed by usenet and gopher.

The World Wide Web isn't as difficult as the Dewey Decimal System, but it has its own complexities and peculiarities. For one thing, it's more like a giant flea market than a library. Mixed up with the old National Geographics and toaster ovens are bronze baby shoes, copies of high school papers, ads, notes passed in class, and some "adult magazines." People sometimes disappear into the Web, and don't surface for days at a time because there is so much of it.

Nevertheless, its incredible size means that if you know what you're looking for, chances are you can find it. The trick is knowing where to look, without losing track of what you were looking for.

Most people who use the Internet use the Netscape browser. A browser doesn't "browse," and it isn't a search engine, it's more like a telephone than the yellow pages. You tell it where to go and it will take you there. So there you sit -- heat rising from your Pentium, a 28.8 modem sparkling like a Christmas tree, the latest version of Netscape glowing on your screen, cursor blinking on the address field -- and no place to go. It's like the guy who spends all his time working on his car, finally gets it running, licensed, waxed -- and sits in his driveway with the engine running wishing he had a date.

That means it's time for an index. Like most indexes, a Web index is a yellow-pages-style listing of categories and subjects to help narrow down your search.

Yahoo and several other indexes are linked to your browser. Somewhere there on the browser screen, you'll find a button labeled "Web Index" or "Web Search." Click on it and you'll find links to different systems to help you find things.

Yahoo was one of the first indexes. Like many computer technology companies that began in garages, Yahoo was originally a list of the favorite Internet sites of two Stanford students. Later it was indexed and became the most widely used way of finding things. Yahoo is probably the easiest system to use. If it's not linked to your browser, you'll find it at: So now, you have an address to enter into the address field of your browser.

Search engines are a little more sophisticated than indexes. They have their own peculiarities, just like librarians. Some are very sophisticated and require some study before you can use them. However, if you're looking for a golf course in Finland or the nearest body-piercing studio, a search engine is for you.

First, you need a quick course in Boolean -- luckily, it's much easier than the Dewey Decimal system. "Boolean" refers to a search for information using the Boolean commands AND, OR and NOT. These words link or exclude words, to more clearly define your subject.

For example, if you want to search for something, AND means that any item you want must include each of the words you specify, like: government AND computer. The more words you include with AND, the narrower your search will be: government AND computer AND flying fish.

Just a note here -- most all search engines use OR as the default. That means when you search for: caped crusader the search engine figures you want any of those words: caped OR crusader. It pulls up hundreds of pages with any of those words in them, but will usually move to the top of the list those Web pages that have all of them. A list of Web pages appears, you click on the one you want and it opens.

If you wish to exclude items from your search -- and the Internet contains many things nobody would want to find -- use NOT. For example: government AND computer NOT military might help limit the stories you find. With most search engines, quotation marks link words you want treated as a separate unit. If you're looking for an exact phrase, put the whole thing in quotation marks: "the caped crusader". And make sure you spell everything correctly.

This can get rather complicated, if you want it to. To include several different options, for example, use OR "golf AND Finland" OR "fishing AND Finland". Commands or instructions may vary according to which search engine you are using. All of them have help menus, or the equivalent, to give you the rules.

One of the best search engines for Web pages is Alta Vista. It's located at . It is a browser you can begin using with "Simple Search" and later graduate to "Advanced Search." It is best because it is probably the most comprehensive, with 22 million Web pages indexed at last count. Like the yellow pages ad says: "If you can't find it in here, it probably doesn't exist."

It won't take long to discover which index or search engine works best for you. Bookmark it, because you'll use it often. You'll know when you've got it right, because out of the millions of Web pages out there, you'll retrieve a list of around 20 possibles. Search too generally, and you'll get 10,000 "possibles," too specific and you'll get none.


Internet Addresses
Internet addresses are called "Uniform Resource Locators" (URL). They look complicated, but when broken into their parts, can be figured out. Here's a quick look.

URLs consist of the following: . Often in publications, they are enclosed in angle brackets < > to avoid mixing the URL with sentence punctuation.

Protocols include:

* http -- stands for hypertext transfer protocol, the World Wide Web protocol, easy to use and graphically based.

* gopher -- is an older text-based protocol.

* ftp -- "File Transfer Protocol," used mostly for downloading software.

* telnet -- a protocol used mostly to log onto library catalogues and systems. It allows the user to remotely access a server and operate it from his or her own desktop.

* news -- these are Internet usenet newsgroups, similar to a bulletin board, where users start subjects, then participants add comments, respond to other comments, etc.

The Netscape browser can access most protocols.

If you see ".com" on an address, it designates a "commercial" site. "edu" is education, ".mil" is military, ".org" is a non-profit organization, ".gov" is government, ".net" means network.

Alta Vista

Deja News (for usenet news groups)



Lycos (only one to search gopher, ftp and www)

Metacrawler (sends a search request to nine different search engines, retrieves and prioritizes the responses.)


The People's
Unsure of whether UCC means "Uniform Commercial Code" or "Universal Commercial Code? Search for "Uniform Commercial Code" and get 3,000 hits. Look up "Universal Commercial Code" and get 13 hits. Democracy in action.