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     Searching The Net

Let's talk about what the Internet is not. It isn't a single ENTITY, for example. There's no central mainframe computer named the Internet. The World Wide Web has no physical location. No government, corporation, university or person "owns" or "runs" the Internet. It is largely unregulated, unorganized, uncontrolled -- and EVER-CHANGING. 

The Internet is UNIVERSAL -- anybody anywhere with a computer and a modem (or high-speed line, cable or wireless link) can access the World Wide Web. But, most of all, the Internet is an unimaginably vast and virtually unedited repository of knowledge networked in all sorts of idiosyncratic ways. There's no INDEX or table of contents.  In ancient times, the sages sought to collect all of the world's wisdom in the library at Alexandria. They did -- and then the library burned to the ground. The Internet is the modern version of that quest, except that, unlike books, the web cannot be destroyed by fire or other disaster. It's everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and continuously expanding.

Recently I enrolled in a beginning web design class in the Computer and Information Science Department at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. Before classes started, I thought I was pretty savvy about the Internet. After all, I'd been using a personal computer for more than a decade, and much of my research these days is done on the web. Was I in for a surprise! I'll share what I learned so you can make better use of this information resource that's just a mouse click away. If you don't understand one of the terms, check the GLOSSARY at the end of the column. 

Remember as you surf the web, RELIABILITY is not a given. Internet newbies often fall into the trap of assuming that something's true because it's on the web. Of course not! Anybody and her younger brother can put together a web page and post it on the net. Remember that the stuff is not screened by anybody, and doesn't have to have its facts checked. Just like that high school history teacher kept saying way back when: check your SOURCES. If the Civil War battle statistics are on the Pennsylvania State University website, they're more reliable than the first-person narrative typed up by a doting great-grandson. With that caveat, let's start!

How do you access the web? You have to have a BROWSER. Fortunately, that's not a problem because (thanks to Bill Gates) if you have Windows, you also have Internet Explorer. Some people prefer Netscape Navigator -- or something else. Whatever! All that pesky programming to interface with protocols has been done by the geeks so you have an easy gateway to the Internet.  Now that you've logged on with your Internet Service Provider and fired up your browser -- what next? There are two basic ways to search for information: PORTALS and SEARCH engines.

Portals are ENTRY sites categorized by TOPICS, with branches usually chosen and organized by an actual human. Each topic breaks into subtopics, and each of those breaks down again, with everything arranged in a hierarchy "tree". Goto.com and Yahoo! are examples of portals.

If you're new to the Internet, they're a great way to become familiar with what's out there -- somebody else has done some EDITING and ARRANGING of the information. At a portal, you start with a major topic in a directory (for example, Science) and move down menus of subtopics and sub subtopics until you find what you want.

The second category is the search engine. Examples are AltaVista, Excite, Google and Lycos. Each is different, and each looks through a different subset of web pages. If you are looking for something specific (say, a picture of the flag of Ghana), a search engine is faster than a portal. With a search engine, you type KEYWORDS in the box and hit "go". The site looks for pages meeting your criteria, and RANKS the results by its own special formula. Some sites use Boolean operators. Those are terms that let you hone in on your target: "and" narrows a search, "or" broadens it and "not" excludes something. They confuse the heck out of me, so I like to use Google, which just assumes I mean "and" when I use more than one keyword in a search.

Practice makes perfect when you're trolling the net for INFORMATION -- so get on line and hone your skills. Here are some portals and search engines to try:
  • AltaVista -- www.altavista.com
  • Ask Jeeves -- www.askjeeves.com
  • Excite -- www.excite.com
  • Go To -- www.goto.com
  • Google -- www.google.com
  • HotBot -- hotbot.lycos.com
  • Infoseek -- www.go.com
  • Lycos -- www.lycos.com
  • Yahoo! -- www.yahoo.com

Here’s a handy glossary of web search terms that you might run across in your wanderings on the net:
  • PC -- a computer designed for single person use

  • INTERNET -- a network of networks connecting computers worldwide

  • PROTOCOL -- a standard METHOD for storing, reading, and transferring information

  • HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) -- the protocol that supports the world wide web

  • World Wide Web (WWW) -- a protocol that supports hypertext and multimedia

  • HYPERTEXT -- text that, when clicked, takes the user directly to a new page

  • HYPERLINK -- any text designated as a LINK to another document

  • MULTIMEDIA -- the integration of text, graphics, video, audio, and other media into one document

  • web BROWSER -- program designed to NAVIGATE the Internet

  • Uniform Resource Locator (URL) -- the one-word ADDRESS of a web page

  • LOCATION box -- a way to tell the browser the address of the site you want to visit

  • SEARCH engine -- web page that connects with a database containing other web pages


These are actual buttons on your browser that you will use as you surf the web:
  • PREVIOUS page -- a way to back up one page

  • FORWARD -- if you've been backing up with the left arrow it can take you forward again

  • HOME -- return to the page your browser OPENS with

  • BOOKMARK or favorite -- list web sites you have told your browser to "remember"

  • HISTORY -- list of all the sites you have visited
*** glossary adapted from Introduction to Computing, Indiana University


Susan McKee, M.A., M.S., is an independent writer living in the American heartland. She may be contacted at or visit her website at SusanMcKee.com.

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