Imagine trying to look up a phone number in a directory that only listed 30 percent of all the numbers in your area. Or worse, using a Yellow Pages that lumped businesses together under random headings. That's what you face when looking for sites on the World Wide Wait: Too little information and too much electronic effluvia.
According to scientists at the NEC Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, there are 320 million pages of information on the Web but the tools we use to find them--search engines like Infoseek or directories like Yahoo!--only cover about a third of those pages. In fact, with each passing day, the search sites list a shrinking percentage of what's actually available online.
So how can you hope to find what you're looking for?
Start with the right search engine. If you're after an established Mary Tyler Moore fan site, for example, using a directory like Yahoo! is quick and easy. Yahoo! relies on human hands to enter new sites into its hundreds of subcategories, eliminating most of the irrelevant junk. However, Yahoo! contains relatively few listings and in cyberspace-time (where Web sites can be born and then killed within a matter of days) it is usually out of date.
To conduct a more complete search and find more recent Web stations you've got to go to a search engine like HotBot (www.hotbot.com) or Alta Vista (www.altavista.com). These engines use automated site-seeking "spider" programs that crawl the World Wide Web trying to snare new sites. In fact, when Yahoo! can't find what you're looking for, it automatically submits your query to the Alta Vista search engine.
For successful searches using these sites, you need to know about their sensitivities. When looking for a specific person, place, or thing, put quotes around the phrase or name to avoid getting results that only include one of the words. And if it's a proper name, use the proper capitalization (that's "Selma Hayek," not "selma hayek"). Certain search instructions are also commonly used across different search engines to reduce the number of false leads. One handy instruction to remember is "+" . Placing a plus sign between words in a series will ensure that the only pages you find include all the words in your search.
Of course, hopping around from search site to search site can still be time consuming--and still yield a lot of identical fruitless results. To avoid hopping from search screen to search screen and to really throw a net over the Net you need the resources of a metasearch site. The granddaddy of such everything-all-at-once sites is Go2Net's MetaCrawler (www.go2net.com). Punch in the item you're looking for here and it simultaneously engages more than half a dozen different search engines in pursuit of your prey. For still smarter searches there's SavvySearch (www.savvysearch.com), which lets you pick the search engines you want to use and automatically returns a list of results, minus the duplicate entries.
All of this advice, however, still doesn't address the problem of incompleteness. Suppose you want to find out about a really obscure musician like post-punk warbler Howard Devoto? Rather than sort through scores of irrelevant results from a search engine like Excite (www.excite.com), you're better off using a specialized directory, such as the Ultimate Band List (www.ubl.com). Need the production credits for Citizen Kane? Try the Internet Movie Database (us.imdb.com). Looking for a lost friend or someone who owes you money? Try WhoWhere (www.whowhere.com), which will not only turn up phone numbers but also give you driving directions to the person's house. Whether it's animal, mineral, or vegetable, you'll find a specialized list of sites for it somewhere on the Net. So a good strategy is to start at one of the major search engines and look for a specialized directory covering the subject you're interested in first, then go from there.
And if all this still doesn't help, you might find some solace (and a few laughs) by watching other people's Web seeking struggles. Just go to Voyeur (voyeur.mckinley.com/cgi-bin/voyeur.cgi) or MetaSpy (www.metaspy.com), two live sites where you can see the weird and wacky things other people are looking for on the World Wide Web.