Net gains: Engine room of the Web - www.altavista.com

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The Internet has one huge and - as yet - unavoidable limitation: search engines. Without them the entire medium would be as useless as a library which consisted of a huge pile of books in the middle of the room. Yet many people never learn to use search engines effectively. If you've gone on-line this Christmas, you'll probably find that your Web browser automatically points you to a search engine - probably Netscape or Microsoft's home sites. Most people quickly fall into the habit of using just one search engine, but you should try a few to see which suits you best.

One of the easiest to use and hence most popular is Altavista (www.altavista.com). However, Metacrawler (www.metacrawler.com) is another worthy engine which actually searches other search engines before giving you its pick of the bunch. Ask Jeeves (www.askjeeves.com) works in a similar manner. Because many people have a difficult time with these search engines, there are always new innovations coming along. One of the most intriguing of recent months is embedded in Apple's new OS 8.5 operating system for its Macintosh computers. It has a feature known as Sherlock, which in theory, allows you type in a question in plain English and Sherlock will trawl through a number of search engines and produce a summary of results, all without even having to open a Web browser.

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