The Internet is a big and complex place, and its easy to feel overwhelmed, whether you work in government or anywhere else. Fortunately, there are tools out there that can help bring order to the chaos.

Some of these tools are free and some are inexpensive. Some you can access through your Web browser, and some you can access right from your own computer. Heres a rundown of some of the most useful Internet tools out there.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Theres nothing more central to the Internet than searching for what you need, and theres nothing that changes at Internet speed as much as Internet search sites. The Internet search industry is in a state of upheaval, with new search tools gaining prominence.

The hottest search engine today is Google. 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, thats counted more heavily.

The end result is an uncanny ability to turn up what youre looking for. The technology works so well that more than 100 other sites have licensed it.

Search engines such as Google are better at finding narrowly defined information, while directories are better at presenting broad categories of information. The best directory today is Open Directory Project. Netscape, now a part of America Online, spearheaded the Open Directory Project. It has a database so useful it is licensed by AltaVista, HotBot, Lycos, MetaCrawler and almost 100 other sites.

Despite recent advances, searching through the Internets 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, such as ProFusion.

Despite the Webs technological wizardry, sometimes you cant 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.

Still, sometimes automation cant be beat. Internet clipping services automatically search for information you specify and regularly e-mail it to you. Sleuth Center lets you track the latest information in five categories -- companies, jobs, reference, sports and entertainment.

Be Careful Out There

If you have a full-time Internet connection, whether cable, DSL or T1, hackers are likely probing your computer for vulnerabilities on a daily basis. If they can, theyll swipe any information they find of interest, or theyll plant "Trojan" programs on your computer system to anonymously invade other computers.

Large agencies and other organizations have long taken extensive security precautions, relying on experts. These days, smaller agencies are taking precautions themselves, often without hired help. The solution here, for many, is a software program called a personal firewall.

Personal firewalls block unauthorized attempts to reach and then damage or take control of your system. If your system has already been breached, they block attempts to send information back to the hacker or to others.

The best personal firewall is Norton Personal Firewall. You can buy it as a stand-alone product, or as a part of Norton Internet Security. The latter also includes tools for preventing virus attacks, eliminating Web banner ads and blocking cookies that some sites place on your hard disk. Norton Internet Security Family Edition also includes protection against accessing porn sites and allows you to configure the product for different family members.

No matter what kind of Internet connection you have,

Reid Goldsborough  |  Contributing Writer
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.