Tackling the information superhighway requires a good handle on the road maps Apr 1 1997

Last week, we went to the Internet looking for information -- they do call it the Information Superhighway, don't they? Well, if it's a superhighway, we found it to be somewhat lacking in proper direction signs. Luckily (to push this unfortunate metaphor further), there are maps -- a growing number of Internet search sites, or places to go to get directions to what you're looking for.

Unfortunately, we discovered that simply entering a couple of words in the text box and clicking "Search" tended to come up with too much irrelevant information. Trying to find references to articles I'd written, for example, I typed in my name. One search engine, Lycos, claimed to have found 21,160 possible responses, and none of the first 10 were useful, after which I gave up looking.

Obviously, there has to be a better way to search. Here are a few hints:

* Try to include several words, not just one. However, on most sites, the default when I typed my first and last names was to give me a list of all listings with either Alan or Zisman, not simply the far fewer that included both words. Instead, try putting the words in quotes ("Alan Zisman") or connect the words with a plus sign: Alan+Zisman. Alternatively, try using the words AND or OR, as in Alan AND Zisman to find listings including both words, versus Alan OR Zisman for listings including one or the other. (You generally don't need to use OR -- most search sites do this by default.)

* Watch out -- it's easy to get confused about when to use AND and when to use OR. A search for Cars AND Trucks will only get results that include BOTH words -- look for Cars OR Trucks to find results that could include either one.

* Alternatively, try narrowing down your search with NOT (in some search sites, a minus sign): Zisman NOT Alan or Zisman-Alan will get anything with my last name that's not by me. (On Alta Vista, you need to type AND NOT to make it work, even though the instructions tell you to use just NOT.) On many sites, you can get even more complex using parentheses. NOT Alan AND Zisman would get you pages with those other Zismans; NOT (Alan AND Zisman) would filter out any Zismans as well as anybody with my first name.

* Check the fine print. Several of the search sites have a drop-down menu option, right next to the field where you type your words, offering options like AND, OR, NOT and more, and attempt to explain what these actually mean. Others offer to let you go to an ADVANCED page, where you can create complex searches.

* Try other ways to limit what you're looking for. HotBot, for example, has a Geoplace option in its Expert mode, letting you narrow your search geographically. Making sure your results all come from North America, for example, will eliminate the Finnish or Japanese language pages that other searches often give you. (Of course, you may be wanting those Finnish pages!) Some search sites will also let you narrow down your search by time; for example, to just see recent information.

* Taking too long to check your results when they're listed 10 to a page? Most search sites let you customize the response. Try 25 or even 40 to a page. Be sure to check this option before you search -- afterwards, it's too late.

* If you're not sure what you're looking for, you can navigate down a category tree at some sites. The popular Yahoo search site, for example, lets you start with general categories like "Business" or "The Arts," but by moving down a few levels, you can focus in on what you want relatively quickly.

In fact, the popular Yahoo site isn't really an Internet search site like the others; while most such search sites try to automatically index the entire Web and boast 50 million or more entries, Yahoo is a list of Web addresses submitted by (gasp) humans, and sorted and rated by humans. It's far less comprehensive but may be more useful. What looks like a standard search engine at the top of Yahoo's page is actually a link to the automated Alta Vista site. Instead, try browsing the categories lower down Yahoo's page.

* Sometimes, software can help. Quarterdeck's WebCrawler (about $69), for example, can be set to search multiple search sites for you, and will present its findings in a report you can custom design and check after you're no longer connected to the Internet. Symantec's Internet FastFind is a similar, though less powerful product.

Too much information can often be as useless as not enough, but with a little practice, you really can find things on the Internet.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan