CHRISTMAS FOOD SPECIAL: MAREK KOHN'S GUIDE TO FAST-TRACKING

The New Festive Spirit: A Christmas food special

The Web can feel as big and crowded as a department store. But the advantage of the former is that you can speed things up with a few simple tricks and short cuts, turning the Net from a labyrinth into a fast lane.

l Although you can use the Web to avoid a trip to Tesco, the Net comes into its own in its ability to provide access to smaller suppliers, who may be based the other side of town, or the other side of the country. These will typically be specialist outfits, such as The Teddington Cheese (www.teddingtoncheese.co.uk).

l If you are looking for products made by a particular company, or you know the name of a supplier who is likely to sell those products, try putting "www." in front of the company's name, and ".com" afterwards. If that doesn't work, try ".co.uk" instead of ".com".

l If you aren't looking for goods from one particular supplier, a directory may be more use than a search engine. Web directories are lists of links to sites, compiled by humans and organised into subject categories. The oldest and most popular directory is Yahoo! Confusingly, it is usually described as a search engine. Strictly, it's a directory combined with a search engine facility: this is also true of other "search engines", such as Lycos. A Yahoo! search will thus typically deliver links to both individual Web pages and to categories. As in a public library, categories are extensively sub-divided, making it easy to narrow a search down from, say, "food" to "cheese". A longer-established brand of directory, Yellow Pages, is also on-line, where it's known as Yell (www.yell.co.uk).

l Use quote marks to make search engines look for phrases, such as "Ford Focus". While some will automatically treat the keywords "ford" and "focus" as a phrase, others will waste time serving up endless references to cameras and Indiana Jones.

l Although search engines are being souped up all the time, even the most powerful of them only register a small proportion of sites on the Web. If you're having difficulty locating an obscure product, you could try using a meta search engine, such as Ask Jeeves (www.askjeeves.com). These activate searches on a number of other engines at once, combining the results on their own pages. Recent versions of Apple's Macintosh operating system incorporate a facility for hailing several search engines at once, called Sherlock.

l Some people enjoy visiting overseas sites to find items that are cheaper abroad, such as CDs. However, once delivery costs are added in (and customs duty, for expensive items) the savings may disappear. It's also far more trouble to deal with the supplier in the event of any problems. If you want to restrict your searches to local suppliers, the easiest option is to use a search engine or directory with a UK front page, which offers the option of restricting searches to British sites. Yahoo!, LookSmart, Yell and Lycos all offer this facility; all have `.co.uk' addresses.

l Many people are still uneasy about sending their credit card details into the strange new medium of the Internet. But most of us are prepared to hand our cards to underpaid waiters and to read the details out to total strangers over the phone. The risks of using credit cards on-line are probably far lower than those of shopping in the real world. Security systems are now highly developed: banking via the Internet is becoming commonplace, and it has become standard practice for on-line traders to publish information about their security procedures. Look for these pages, and for logos indicating adherence to security standards.

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