The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.

–CLAUDE LEVI-STRAUSS
THERE ARE TWO PROBLEMS WITH INFORMATION: NOT HAVING ENOUGH, AND HAVING TOO MUCH. WITHOUT ALL THE NECESSARY INFORMATION ABOUT A TOPIC, IT’S EASY TO MAKE A WRONG DECISION BASED ON AN INCOMPLETE PICTURE OF REALITY. Then again, having too much information can be just as bad, since finding the relevant facts about a topic can be time-consuming and tedious, which encourages people to make snap decisions based on perception rather than accuracy.

Trying to find just enough useful facts without being overwhelmed by too much irrelevant trivia can be a delicate balancing act. Still, if you want to make informed choices based on reason and information rather than on emotion and ignorance, you must take the time to research your topic thoroughly.

As a research tool, the Internet offers a wealth of information about virtually every topic. Unfortunately, the Internet poses a few problems of its own when it comes to research:

How do you find the information you need?

How do you know if the information you find is accurate, obsolete, misleading, or just plain wrong?

Finding information on the Internet is relatively easy: You just type one or more words into a search engine, and then the search engine lists all the websites (that it knows about) that contain the words or phrases you want to find.

The easy part is sifting through the different websites to find the information you need. The hard part is deciding whether you can trust what you find, knowing that every source of information selectively chooses which facts to report and which ones to omit. Because we all have a natural tendency to interpret facts based on personal biases and experience, don’t be surprised to find that one set of facts may cause you to reach a conclusion that’s completely different from what someone else might reach.

Sometimes there might be a right answer and sometimes there might be a wrong answer, but more often than not, there won’t be any one answer that’s either completely right or completely wrong. What you decide may be the right answer depends on your point of view.

The key to finding anything on the Internet is to use a search engine, but if you ask different search engines to find the same information, each one will find a number of websites not found by the others. Rather than limiting yourself to the tunnel vision of a single search engine, experiment with some of the different search engines listed below, and you may uncover information that your favorite search engine missed.

Even better, you may find that one search engine is better at finding certain types of data or offers a unique perspective to searching for information. For example, the Teoma search engine tries to cluster search results into subjects. So if you search for “Mustang,” the Teoma search engine clusters the results according to “Ford Mustang” and “Mustang horses.” The following list includes some of the more powerful search engines:

About

http://about.com

AlltheWeb

http://www.alltheweb.com

AltaVista

http://www.altavista.com

AOL Search

http://search.aol.com/

Ask Jeeves

http://www.askjeeves.com

Google

http://www.google.com

Hotbot

http://www.hotbot.com

LookSmart

http://www.looksmart.com

MSN

http://www.msn.com

Open Directory Project

http://dmoz.org

Teoma

http://www.teoma.com

Yahoo!

http://www.yahoo.com

Meta-search engines
Rather than visit multiple search engines yourself, you can save time by using a meta-search engine, which simultaneously sends your query to two or more general-purpose search engines and eliminates duplicate results. Here are some popular meta-search engines:

DogPile

http://www.dogpile.com

Mamma

http://www.mamma.com

MetaCrawler

http://www.metacrawler.com

Search.com

http://www.search.com

Specialized search engines
Finally, don’t ignore specialized search engines designed to search only for websites pertaining to a particular topic. Specialized search engines often find obscure web-sites that the larger search engines might overlook. There are specialized search engines for everything from caring for fish to the latest crafting fads. Here are a few interesting ones:

AvatarSearch Finds occult information about witchcraft, vampires, pagan rituals, astrology, tarot cards, and other topics that often panic right-wing conservatives (http://www.avatarsearch.com).

Black Web Portal Finds websites of particular interest to blacks (http://www.blackwebportal.com).

Crime Spider Searches for websites providing information about various crime and law enforcement sites and organized by topics such as serial murder, urban legends, and cybercrime (http://www.crimespider.com).

Disinformation Conspiracy theory-laden search engine that helps you uncover websites offering the “real truth” behind the pyramids of Mars, the sightings of black helicopters over America, film footage of Bigfoot, and the government secrets hidden in Area 51 (http://www.disinfo.com).

Education World Finds websites that can help students, teachers, and parents learn more about education (http://www.education-world.com).

Federal Web Locator Lists many of the websites from various government agencies and organizations (except for the really cool ones like the CIA and FBI). Maybe you can use it to find out where all your hard-earned tax dollars are going (http://www.infoctr.edu/fwl).

GovSearch Collection of government search engines for finding information about the U.S. government: IRS documents, Customs Service, NTIS, U.S. law code, legislative information, OSHA regulations, and information from many other agencies and departments (http://www.nwbuildnet.com/nwbn/govbot.html).

CopSeek Directory and Police Search Engine Helps you find websites related to law enforcement so you can find a policeman when you need one (http://www.copseek.com).

NerdWorld Search engine dedicated to computer and technology fanatics (http://www.nerdworld.com).

Que Pasa! A bilingual search engine geared towards Hispanics and Latinos, available in both English and Spanish (http://www.quepasa.com).

Satanist Net Search engine geared to helping you find satanic information on the Internet (http://www.satanist.net).

Women.com and WWWomen Two search engines geared toward helping women find information and resources on the Internet (http://www.women.com and http://www.wwwomen.com).

Kid-safe search engines
If you leave your children unsupervised, it’s likely that they’ll eventually find bomb-making instructions and pornography on the Internet. While keeping children isolated from such information may be impossible, you can at least limit their searching to kid-safe search engines. Unlike general-purpose search engines, kid-safe search engines won’t accidentally display links to pornographic or bomb-making websites. Try one of the following:

Ask Jeeves for Kids

http://www.ajkids.com

CleanSearch

http://www.cleansearch.com

Go.com

http://www.go.com

Yahooligans

http://www.yahooligans.com

Multimedia search engines
Most search engines help you find text, but what if you want to find a song, a picture, or a video clip? Rather than waste your time using a general purpose search engine to find an MP3 file of your favorite band, try using a special multimedia search engine instead. These multimedia search engines specialize in searching only for specific audio, graphic, or video files.

Here are some of the more popular multimedia search engines:

Ditto
http://www.ditto.com (see Figure 1-1)

FAST Multimedia Search

http://multimedia.alltheweb.com

SpeechBot.net

http://speechbot.research.compaq.com

MIDI Explorer

http://www.musicrobot.com

Search within categories
Many search engines, such as Yahoo!, display categories such as Computers & Internet or Business & Economy. If you click on a category and then use the search engine, you’ll have the option of searching the entire Internet or limiting your search to within the currently selected category. Obviously searching within a selected category will take less time and avoid a lot of irrelevant websites.

Still, you might like to search the entire Internet just for the surprise of seeing what the search engine might uncover that is not in your specific category.

Use specific words
If you want to find all websites that focus on birds, you could type the word “bird” into a search engine. Unfortunately, the search engine might return thousands of irrelevant websites that talk about badminton birdies or different ways to cook game birds. Instead of searching for general words, use more specific words such as “ornithology” (which is the branch of zoology dealing with birds). The more precise your search terms, the less likely the search engine will be to return irrelevant websites.

Use multiple words
You can also narrow your search by typing in multiple words. For example, if you wanted to find information about Miami, Florida, type in the two words “Miami” and “Florida.” If you just search for “Miami” or “Florida,” the search engine might bombard you with websites about the Miami Dolphins football team or the Florida Marlins baseball team. In general, the more words you search for, the more likely the search engine will find exactly what you want.

Use Boolean operators
Many search engines allow you to focus your search by using two different Boolean operators: AND and OR.

If you wanted to search for all websites that contain both the words “hot” and “dog,” you would simply type the following into the search field:

hot AND dog

This search would find websites devoted to hot dogs, but could also turn up websites that talk about ways to cool down a dog on a hot day.

If you wanted to search for all websites that contain either the word “hot” or “dog,” you would type the following into the search field:

hot OR dog

This could turn up websites that talk about hot dogs along with sites that mention dogs, different ways air conditioning can cool you down on a hot day, hot chili sauces, or dog food.

Be wary of what you find
The order that a search engine ranks websites can influence which ones people may visit, so to increase the odds that people will visit a specific website, some websites pay search engines to put them first (or at least near the top) of any list of related websites. The better search engines identify which websites paid for greater exposure, but other search engines may not be so honest.

Also, because search engines scan websites for keywords that people are most likely to search for, many websites hide multiple copies of the same keyword on their web pages. This tricks a search engine into thinking the website contains more information about a particular keyword than it really does.

As with reading newspapers, listening to the radio, or watching the news on television, always be wary of the source of your information. Search engines can find information for you, but they can’t verify the accuracy of the information. Anyone can put any information on a website.

No search engine will find everything available on the Internet, so be sure to use several search engines to find websites that other search engines might not have found. The more search engines you use, the more information you’ll find, and the more information you find, the more likely you’ll have most of the facts you need to make an intelligent decision.

Sometimes the hardest part about finding an answer is knowing how to look for it in the first place. With so many different search engines available at your fingertips, there’s no excuse for not finding the information you want on the Internet right away.