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Finding Stuff Online

I have been on the Internet since long before Al Gore invented it, when it was an exciting place, full of information. In fact, I ran a computer BBS for more than a decade before the Internet became widely available, but I won’t take that path here because it would be too long of a journey. I wanted to mention it only because computer bulletin board systems were the forerunner of the Internet.

When I first logged onto the Internet, it wasn’t graphical. Logging onto the Internet was like gaining access to the largest computer in the world, one that was connected to all of the other largest computers in the world, but when I logged on, I was faced with a C:// prompt. Finding something was not an easy task, but most of the fun was in walking the path.

Times have changed and, as can usually be said about times that have changed, the gains were purchased with losses. Finding stuff online is a lot easier now than it was in the early days. One of the most powerful features of the Internet is the ease in which information can be found. There are many ways in which information can be found online, and one might be easier or more effective than another.

Of course, when you known the URL for the web page you are looking for, you can simply enter the URL into your web browser’s address bar or, if you have bookmarked it, you could simply click on the bookmarked link. In many cases, however, you might require specific information that isn’t available on any single web site that you are familiar with, or you might not remember the specific URL that you are looking for.

Web-based search tools help Internet users to find what they are looking for when they don’t already know where it is. This information might include web pages, businesses, multimedia files, document databases, and even people. Common search tools include search engines, meta search engines, and directories.

Search Engines

For the most part, search engines are everyone’s first choice since every web browser has a default search engine that is easily accessible from the browser window and the results returned are usually acceptable, as long as the search query is specific.

For example, if I were thinking of visiting the Channel Islands, I might enter “channel islands” into the search field at Google. Looking at the results on the first page, it doesn’t take long to realize that there are more than one Channel Islands in the world. What I had in mind were the Channel Islands off the coast of France, which are British Crown dependencies.

However, Google returned nine results on the first page of its SERPs, but only two of them relate to the archipelago in the United Kingdom. Most of them relate to the Channel Islands in California, and one of the nine results on the first page is to Channel Islands Surfboards, located in the United States. The two that did relate to what I was looking for included the Wikipedia page aSearch Enginesnd a World Atlas page, the latter of which provides only scant information, and I could have found the Wikipedia page without Google.

Of course, now that I know that the Channel Islands I was looking for are not the only ones in the world, I can refine my search, and search for “channel islands britain” and see if that helps. It does. In fact, of the nine results on the first page, every one is relevant to my search, and several of them are helpful.

Google isn’t the only search engine, though. I prefer Bing, although there are times when Google gives better results. In the case of the Channel Islands, both Google and Bing return only two results relevant to my search, but Bing gives me better ones. The Wikipedia page is included in both results, but Bing gives me, not the mostly useless World Atlas page but the Channel Islands Tourism Portal, which refers to the Channel Islands that I was interested in.

I should point out that the problems exhibited in my quest for information about the Channel Islands did not represent a fault in either of the search engines. No, the problem was that I didn’t realize that there were more than one Channel Islands, and the search engine can’t be expected to know which I was interested in. When I do the same search from google.co.uk, eight of the nine results refer to the correct Channel Islands, the ninth being the surfboard company.

Another way that I can find what I am looking for is to formulate my search query correctly. Since a search query defines the information that I am seeking, I will get the best results when I am specific. When I added “britain” to my search query, the result were spot on.

For power users, there are more sophisticated queries that can be made, advanced searches that can be utilized, and settings that can be selected. To learn more about your options, click the “Settings” link in the lower right of the Google page.

I do research online so, while most Internet users won’t look beyond page one or two of search engine results, it is not unusual for me to click, very quickly, through more than a hundred pages of results, or to use more than one search engine. Although there are other minor search engines, the chief contenders are Google and Bing. Yahoo enjoys a significant portion of the small percentage of searches not dominated by Google, but Yahoo uses Bing results so I don’t consider it to be a search engine in its own right. In the past, Yahoo has powered its own searches but they are currently using Bing results, and previously used Google results.

If you’re looking for Google results without the privacy concerns, you might want to consider StartPage.

Meta Search Engines

Performing the same search on both Google and Bing can be time consuming. If you are doing a basic search, and you’re not interested in using any special search engine features, you can combine your searches by using a meta search engine, often glued together, as in metasearch engine.

A meta search engine compiles the search results from more than one search engine into a single search engine results list. Dogpile is an example of a meta search engine, fetching results from Google, Yahoo, and Yandex, as well as several other minor search engines.

A good meta search engine will compile the search results from multiple search engines into a single search results list, eliminating duplicate entries, categorizing the results by topic, and sorting them according to relevance to the search query. Meta search engines often rely on sponsored listings, and some of them will mix sponsored and actual listings together in the results list.

If you are looking for an overview of a topic, or to get a quick answer, a meta search engine might be a good idea, as they are able to quickly compile and combine results. However, the number of results from any particular search engine will be limited in a meta search engine, some providing no more than ten results from any one search engine, so the number of relevant listings will be limited. It is also more difficult, or impossible, for users to use advanced search syntax in meta search queries, so results may not be as precise as you could get when using a search engine such as Google or Bing.

In all fairness, I don’t have the experience with meta search engines that I do with search engines and directories. There may be better meta search engines, and there may be more effective ways to use them. More likely, they are simply not intended for the type of searches that I generally do.

Web Directories

A web directory is a human-compiled, hierarchical list of web pages organized by categories and subcategories. Compiled and indexed by a staff of human editors, such as myself, a good web directory is a useful search tool that presents links to web sites organized into intuitive and specific categories.

Web directories are a way to local web-based information by browsing from a general category to an ever more specific subcategory until the desired information is found.

Using the same example as I did above, knowing that the Channel Islands that I am interested in are a British Crown dependency, and that Britain is in Europe, if I were looking for information on the Channel Islands in the Aviva Directory, I would look first to its “Local & Global” category, which is divided first by continent.Web Directories

Since “Europe” is one of the four continents included just below the main category, I can shorten my search by one click by clicking directly on the “Europe” subcategory.

Clicking on Europe, I am presented with two columns of subcategories, representing the nations and territories that are considered part of Europe, and “Channel Islands” is one of them.

Within the Channel Islands category are fifteen listings to sites that pertain to the Channel Islands as a whole, and every one of them is relevant.

In addition, the Channel Islands category is subdivided into its two major parts: the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Bailiwick of Jersey, which are included as subcategories containing sites that are specific to either of these. These are further subdivided into subcategories representing the various islands, parishes, and topics that relate to the sites that are contained therein.

In all, there are well over one thousand, five hundred listings that relate to the Channel Islands, to the islands that they are made up of, the parishes within these islands, and the businesses, organizations, schools, and other topics that are included.

Moreover, most of these are to upper-level domains rather than the pages that show up in search engine results. Although Aviva Directory does include some deep links, the majority of its listings are to upper-level domains, and some directories list upper-level domains exclusively.

While using a web directory, you will find that some topics are listed deep within the directory’s category structure, requiring several clicks in order to drill your way down to what you are looking for.

Although I prefer clicking my way through, most directories include a search field. In the case of the Channel Islands, in the Aviva Directory, you would find the right category immediately if you were to enter “Channel Islands” into its search box. At the top of the search results is the category by that name, while any sites that include the phrase within their title or description are displayed below, including the categories that they are listed in.

Clicking your way through a directory’s categories is the more efficient way to use a directory because, unlike Google or Bing, a web directory’s search considers only the words included in category or site titles and descriptions. For that reason, all of the more than 1,500 listings relating to the Channel Islands that the Aviva Directory contains do not show up on a search. You’ll find the rest when you click into the category.

Not every web directory is organized in the same manner. For example, while DMOZ also includes a great deal of information on the Channel Islands, it is organized differently.

So there you have it. Both search engines and web directories can be effective tools for conducting research on the Internet. They can both help you to find stuff online, but they do it differently.

Because they are not the same thing, there is no need for you to choose one or the other. If you can find what you are looking for in a search engine, fine. You’ve found it, and you don’t need to look further. But if you’re having trouble finding what you’re looking for on Google, try Bing. If you’re unsatisfied with your search results, however, try a web directory.

When I began this essay, I mentioned that gains were purchased with losses. As I see it, to most people today, the Internet is all about making money online, and it wasn’t always like that. Surely, there is nothing wrong with making money online but, as our focus is on monetizing everything we do on the Internet, the quality seems to be going down, and finding worthwhile information online becomes increasingly difficult.

That’s one of the reasons I like web directories. I believe that the human editors behind the better web directories can do a better job of weeding out the trash than the automated processes of the search engines.



Ken Anderson was an early meta editor for the Open Directory Project (DMOZ), as well as an editor with the Go.com and Zeal directories, and several other web directories, both short- and long-term.


'Finding Stuff Online' have 2 comments

  1. August 21, 2015 @ 10:47 pm Buay

    Wow, this was really interesting and helpful. You are definitely not the only one that is not familiar with Meta. I have no idea what a Meta is or that it existed until today! Also, this might be really dumb to ask but if we don’t have a directory like Google or Yahoo then wouldn’t the computer just be a piece of machine with software? Or maybe just a gaming computer. I’m not sure what to call it, but that is lingering in my mind.

    Reply

  2. August 28, 2015 @ 3:43 am Jasmine2015

    I have learned so much from reading this article. I never knew what a Web directory was or a meta search engine. I also fall into the category of people who will not look beyond page 2 or 3 on a Google search result page unless I’m desperate. I do get into the habit of bookmarking a lot of websites since I might not remember the URL. Now that I have some sort of idea on how to get better quality results when researching online, I might just save myself a lot of time let alone frustration.

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