With more than 16,000,000 individual home pages on the World Wide Web, thousands of news groups, many with hundreds of entries, and untold FTP and gopher sites, knowing how to search the Net is an essential skill. A comprehensive search strategy should start with the major search engines (Infoseek, Excite, Savvy Search, etc.) and then progress to moderated "links" and specialised directories. More difficult subjects might require a judicious use of email and newsgroup queries.
There are at least two dozen major search engines available where you can search for names, phrases, or subjects and the engines will go out and find a number of "hits", or references that can then be followed for more information. Most of the major search engines have the capability to query the World Wide Web, news groups, and gopher and FTP sites. Each engine has certain characteristics and they can return references in a variety of formats.
Finding search engines is incredibly easy. In Netscape Navigator, the Net Search "button" (http://home.netscape.com/home/internet-search.html) on the directory toolbar is directly linked an annotated listing of the top dozen or so search engines. Further on down the directory page there is a more comprehensive listing of search engines, this time sans annotation. The trick is to know which one is best for your particular requirement.
A particularly good place to start is Savvy Search (http://guaraldi.cs.colostate.edu:2000/form) which performs searches across multiple engines. At the end of a particular search, the user is queried as to the next suite of search engines to be consulted. This is a quick and easy way to evaluate the various options.
Once you have selected the suite of engines on which to concentrate, it would pay to spend a few minutes reading the help files. Most of the major engines, such as Infoseek (http://guide.infoseek.com/) or Excite (http://www.excite.com/), have extensive help facilities and tips on how to structure complex queries for the best results. A few minutes getting acquainted will save you time and provide better results in the long run. Alta Vista by DEC (http://altavista.digital.com/) is also a good bet.
The actual process is simple. You type in the criteria, following suggested formats as outlined in the tips section, and back come dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of hits. Many of the leading search engines have pre-sorted categories from which to start and even reviews of leading sites. The challenge is to quickly evaluate the replies for usefulness. Rarely do you find exactly what your are looking for on the first attempt. You usually have to browse a variety of links before you start to get a feel for what is out there (for most efficient operation, keep your graphics off).
Look for a moderated links page ... they are often listed in the abstract returned by the engine. Moderated link pages are usually maintained by someone with a professional or expert knowledge in the area and contain links to the best of what they have found over the net. Many times the lists will be categorised and annotated. These types of resources are often located in universities, government departments, or personal home pages. These will point you in the right direction. From there keep working till you find what you are looking for.
For local searching, try one of the growing crop of NZ business directories. Access NZ (http://www.accessnz.co.nz/), NZ Explorer (http://bitz.co.nz/bitz/explorer/index.html), and The Internet Directory (http://www.directory.co.nz/) are some that contain a wide range of indexed pages. Another useful place to look for New Zealand sites is in WWW developer's pages ... for instance WebWorkshop (http://www.webworkshop.co.nz/nzbd/nzbd.html) has a good selection of pages not widely publicised elsewhere.
And the last resort is email to someone in the field. You can send out a general request via a related news group or email the webmaster maintaining a page generally related to your subject. A polite request for information or suggestions for useful web sites is almost always replied to.
To understand the basics of performing searches, take the time to read the information on each search engine ... it's quite useful. Then try a sample search. Compare the results. In this way you'll be able to see for yourself which ones are most appropriate for the task at hand.
(Phil Parent is a Computerworld contributor and Internet consultant at Creative Design. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and or contacted via Creative Design's Web site, at http://www.cd.co.nz/cd)