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, you also need to be careful about computer viruses. Some viruses -- more hoaxes than true viruses -- are innocuous, doing no more harm than scaring people. Other viruses can destroy all the data on your hard drive.
Most viruses today are spread by e-mail attachments. For security purposes, many people dont open an attachment unless they know the person sending it and unless they know in advance that the person intended to send the attachment.
Its also good practice to use an antivirus program, which can stop viruses from penetrating your computer system by any means. The best program out there today is Norton AntiVirus. You can buy it alone or as a part of Norton Internet Security.
Sometimes youll want to hide your identity on the Internet -- for example, to discuss sensitive matters in a public discussion forum. Anonymizer.com provides such protection. If you threaten violence or otherwise break the law, however, such services may be obligated to reveal your identity.
On the Web, cookies have gotten a bad name, largely undeservedly. Cookies are small files that Web sites create on your hard disk to track such things as your login or registration data, the parts of the site you looked at and any purchases you made. Their purpose is to serve you better next time you visit or better target banner ads to you.
Some people are concerned that cookies can be used to compile a marketing profile of you, which can be shared with others and add to the unsolicited e-mail ads, or "spam," you receive. You can turn off cookies in most Web browsers, but doing so prevents you from viewing the content of some Web sites. Programs such as Cookie Pal give you greater control over accepting or rejecting cookies.
To help cover your tracks after surfing, you can use a program such as TweakIE. As its name implies, this small utility lets you tweak IE -- Microsoft Internet Explorer. Among other things, it can wipe out your history, cache and cookie lists.
Despite the flashiness of the Web, e-mail is and has always been the Internets killer app -- the primary reason people go online. Chances are, though, that youre not using e-mail to its full potential.
Most people use an e-mail program that comes with their Internet service or browser, such as America Online or Microsoft Outlook Express.
Whatever e-mail program you use, you can use a Web-based e-mail service in conjunction with it when you travel or when you need to keep your personal e-mail separate from your business correspondence. The most popular service out there is Hotmail.
Other services let you send and receive faxes and receive voicemail through your regular e-mail program, which among other things can save money on long-distance charges. The best service is J2 Global Communications (formerly Jfax). J2 also lets you listen to your incoming e-mail over the phone, which can be useful when youre on the road, though its unwieldy in managing lots of messages.
If you regularly send one e-mail message to lots of people, such as an e-mail newsletter, youre better off using a program tailored for this than your regular e-mail program. The best low-cost program for this is MailKing.
E-mail may be fast, but its not always reliable. Web-based services, such as CertifiedMail.com, guarantee delivery of e-mail, which is useful when sending crucial documents. The service also lets you encrypt your e-mail, to prevent others from reading it, and digitally sign it, to assure your recipient that its from you and not forged.
Though you can attach files to your e-mail messages, many Internet service providers limit their size to 3MBs or less. WhaleMail lets you use your Web browser to send files as large as 7MBs.
If You Build It ...
If youre building a Web site, you can use other tools to enhance it.
Used in moderation, graphics can spruce up a site without bogging surfers down. ArtToday provides access to more than 1.2 million high-quality, fully licensed Web graphics.
The same applies with sound and multimedia. Partners in Rhyme provides a large library of public-domain sound effects and royalty-free background music. The site also includes a helpful audio tutorial.
You can use a program such as Page Talk to personalize your audio. It lets you put a button on your site that visitors can click to hear your voice. You just copy a few lines of HTML to add to your sites source code, then phone a toll-free number and record a message of 20 seconds or less.
The Web is all about content, and iSyndicate can help. It lets you add to your site syndicated written, graphical, audio or video content from hundreds of different sources, including big names such as Time and Merrill Lynch.
If your site includes a lot of content, whether created in-house or out, one helpful, professional touch is to provide visitors with an internal search engine. Atomz.com lets you add either a simple or sophisticated search engine to your site and sends you a periodic report of what visitors are searching for.
Finally, interactivity is the Internets greatest strength, and its not difficult to add it to your Web site. Beseen can outfit your site with a message board or chat room.