Richard Longhurst finds entertainment with the help of the latest search tools and, opposite, reveals how you can keep your children away from the seedier sites
A living room. Somewhere in Surbiton, 1995. "Anything good on the telly tonight, love?" "Nah, just the usual repeats. Don't fancy Fawlty Towers again, do you?" "No, not really. What's on the Web?" "Good question. I'm glad you asked me that. Erm ..."

Radio Times can give you a pretty good idea of what is on every TV channel tonight, but there is absolutely no way you will ever know what is on the World Wide Web at any given moment. It's so big, so disorganised and much of it is so new that the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack doesn't even begin to compare to the problem facing the newly online Net user.

Future Publishing's bi-monthly listings magazine the .net Directory, for example, reviews more than 1,000 Internet sites every issue, most of which have not been featured before. But that only scratches the surface of what is available on the Web.

If you have a vague idea what you want, though, there are ways you can search the Web's vast library of documents. The trick is to use a search tool.

The most famous of these is Yahoo, which lists thousands of Web sites by subject area, enabling you to locate sites with a point and a click. A search engine is bolted on to the Yahoo database, so you can enter a key word and have the system list the sites that match your search criteria. The main disadvantage of Yahoo is that its database only contains entries that have been keyed in by hand, and the listings are not accompanied by reviews.

Lycos at Carnegie Mellon University in the US does not have Yahoo's user- friendly menu system, but it does use one of the most powerful search tools around - a worm. When the Lycos worm finds a site, it not only adds its name to the main database (3.3 million documents and rising at around 5,000 a week), but it also checks the page for links to other sites and automatically visits those as well. Using Lycos is easy if you have a forms-compatible Web browser (like Netscape), but the thoughtful folks at Carnegie Mellon have provided a formless version of the search engine too. You can enter a number of different key words to search for, and tell Lycos whether to limit its output to pages that contain any of the words or all of them. Very simple, very fast and very effective.

SavvySearch is perhaps the most sophisticated search tool around, enabling you to restrict your queries to certain types of Web site (for example, entertainment, business or technical), but rather than sending another worm burrowing through the Web's soil, it pools results from up to 15 Internet sites and search engines. Popular tools such as Lycos, Yahoo, Infoseek, Webcrawler fall under SavvySearch's spell, as do some of the large Web sites such as the Internet Movie Database and even Roget's Thesaurus.

Searching the Web can be a hit-and-miss affair, but with all these search engines at your disposal, you will find that you start hitting far more than you are missing. You might not always find what you want (or even what you expected), but you are almost bound to get something you need.