The search is on

If you go to your local reference library to find out the population of Zambia, you don't start with the books nearest the door and keep reading until you happen across the figure. You could, but, given the length of your remaining lifespan, most likely you would never actually encounter the sought-after fact.

There is too much information for you to search randomly through it. The same applies to the World Wide Web, but with the added bonus of more information being added each hour than you could browse in a lifetime. Fortunately, for those frustrated by this mountain of online data, help is at hand. Internet search engines, dotted around the Web, can point you in the right direction.

If you already have a Web connection, the good news is that search engines are free, easy to use and you don't have to install anything on your computer. You simply enter the site address of the engine into your Web browser to access each search engine.

Internet search engines all work in a similar way. You type in the word or phrase describing what you're looking for - population Zambia, for example - and the engine then searches through its list of records to see if it can find any sites which match your query. The engine will then return with a list of sites containing references to your request. All you have to do is then click on each address to be wafted off to the relevant site to see if it contains the information you are looking for. It couldn't be easier.

In its February issue, PC Magazine reviews the 11 leading search engines available on the Web. Amazingly, it discovered there are over a hundred engines accessible across the Internet, but the vast majority are either links to other engines or only good for specific subjects such as shopping or science fiction. The top 11 engines were reviewed by the magazine on the basis of ease of use and features.

The top engines continuously update vast databases of sites. The bigger the database and the more frequently it is updated, the better the accuracy and relevance of each search. In addition, some engines allow you to carry out more sophisticated searches, letting you narrow or expand your choice at will.

In its testing, PC Magazine discovered that all Internet search engines are certainly not equal. The site judged the best Internet search engine was Alta Vista (http://www.altavista.digital.com/). This site is now one year old; it has an excellent selection of simple and advanced searching options and is reputedly accessed by Web users some 20 million times a day.

The magazine's runner-up search engine was Infoseek Ultra (http://ultra.infoseek.com/). It is a newcomer to the Web, but nevertheless impressed the reviewers with its good interface and concise results. Different engines approach searching in different ways. Magellan (http://mckinley.com), for example, includes a star rating of sites produced by its own staff, while engines such as Galaxy (http://galaxy.einet.net/) usefully pre- sort sites by subject.

And the population of Zambia? Using Alta Vista, it took this reviewer just 15 seconds to come up with the figure of 8.9 million. Beat that at your local reference libraryn

Nick Edmunds

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