Proper tools help Web surfers get where they're going

October 26, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

A good search engine is a Web surfer's best friend.

Search engines enable users to enter search terms and retrieve a list of related documents or Web sites - a task that's indispensable for the growing number of people navigating through burgeoning cyberspace.

Nielson//NetRatings - which provides Web site ratings based upon information from more than 225,000 Internet users in 26 countries - in January estimated that 134 million people used the Internet at home or work in the United States.

Nielson//NetRatings could not provide more current statistics because the company is in the midst of updating its technology, spokesman Max Heineman says.


But the number is growing - especially in foreign countries - and the expanding user base is making the Internet grow so fast that Web trackers can't keep up with the number of online sites, says Steve Jones, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and founder of the Association of Internet Researchers.

"If we came up with a number it would be so large and staggering it would probably make the national deficit seem manageable," he says.

So which search engine is most effective at finding relevant information for Internet users?

"Right now, Google has set itself as the standard of search. It's easy to use, fast and not polluted by paid advertising," says Eric Ziering, a technology consultant and former president of Fact City Inc. in Massachusetts. Fact City built a search engine for databases.

There are differences in the ways various search engines work, but they all perform three basic tasks:

  • They search the Internet, or select pieces of the Internet, based on important words.

  • They keep an index of the words they find, and where they find them.

  • They allow users to look for words or combinations of words found in that index.

Like Google, the best search engines have simple interface designs, and use high-quality algorithms to retrieve a broad scope of pertinent information, Jones says. In computing, an algorithm is a predetermined set of instructions for solving a specific problem in a limited number of steps. Top-notch search engines rely upon these complex mathematical formulas to closely match retrieved data to the user's query.

When responding to a query, Google also gives priority to Web sites and documents that other searchers have found useful, Ziering says. And Google does not list paid advertisers' Web sites above other sites with information that more closely matches searchers' queries - a practice that has sparked controversy in Internet circles.

"Google is the best," Ziering says. "Everyone else is playing catch-up."

Earlier this year, Nielson//NetRatings ranked Google, Yahoo, MSN, AOL and Ask Jeeves as the top five most-used search engines after compiling data from more than 60,000 U.S. Web surfers, according to information on the Search Engine Watch Web site at Google logged 29.5 percent of surveyed users, while 28.9 percent of searchers used Yahoo, 27.6 percent used MSN, 18.4 percent used AOL, and 9.9 percent used Ask Jeeves.

"I think most people will be well-served by one of the big search engines," Jones says. "They should take them all for a ride, so to speak."

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