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INTERNET
Web Pointers

COVER STORY
By Sreenath Sreenivasan
National Journal Group Inc.
Friday, Dec. 7, 2001

Sure, you use the Internet for your work. You know how to "Google," you buy books at Amazon.com, and you have even downloaded MP3s. But beyond that, what do you really know about the Internet? If you are a typical user, you don't really know the Web. There are plenty of ways to make your use of the Internet smoother and more effective.

If you're like most Web users, you're using the sites you learned first, even if they're now outdated. Maybe it's time to branch out.
And don't let the dot-com collapse fool you. It has little to do with the future of the Internet as an educational and information resource. Those who think the dot-com meltdown has undermined the Web are wrong. It's like blaming chess players for the XFL.

People working in and around government have been some of the earliest and most enthusiastic users of the Web. Federal agencies and departments -- and those people who deal with them -- have learned the importance of working online. It is not unusual for a citizen calling a government agency to hear an official read verbatim from the agency's site. As open as the government has been in putting its information online, it has drawn some criticism for being a little too open, especially in light of September 11. Hence, a Web site -- www.ombwatch.org/info/2001/access.html -- has begun listing documents that have been taken offline since the terrorist attacks.

The news media may give you the impression that the Internet is populated only by high-tech "evildoers" -- child pornographers, neo-Nazis, and financial scammers. People who will come through that screen and grab you, ruining your life. Why? Because most journalists need to sell you scary stories, not happy ones. "This Web site will save you thousands of dollars and hours of aggravation" -- that's not a story. "This Web site will eat you alive" -- that's a front-page winner.

Once upon a time, articles about the Internet were mainly positive: "The Web changes books.... The Web changes travel.... The Web changes education." But that is so 1997. Now the stories are about weapons bought online, children adopted illegally online, and terrorists using the Web to find and disseminate information.

What the press won't necessarily tell you is that the vast majority of Web sites have some combination of useful/entertaining/informative/fun elements. You just need to know where to look.

Be wary when you surf. Watch for giant waves of misinformation and the jagged rocks of hidden agendas. But there's plenty of useful stuff.

Most users fall into what experts call "migratory patterns" -- sticking with the same handful of sites they are comfortable with, even if it means using information that's outdated.

Part of the problem is the Web's sheer size. There are an estimated 3 billion pages of Web content out there, and millions of pages are being added every day. (In 1998, the Web had only 320 million pages.) It is impossible for any one place to keep track of all the developments and new sites. If the savviest users have trouble keeping pace, you can just imagine the task facing new users of the Web.

Here are some pointers:

Re-engineer Your Bookmarks
Most people, when they discover the Web, start bookmarking sites and adding them to their "Favorites." They do it as part of their surfing on the Internet. Soon, they have a long, unorganized list of bookmarks and sites that they don't have time to visit again. The solution: Delete your current list and start afresh. Use the tools provided in your browser to create a new list that is divided by category and is constantly updated.

Here are instructions for doing this with Microsoft Internet Explorer, as well as a guide for Netscape users.

Get Other Perspectives
One lesson of September 11 is that Americans know little about events beyond their shores. Use the Web to get more-direct resources from around the world, even if you don't agree with the views.

Yahoo! Full Coverage monitors news topics, for example, while 1stHeadlines offers the latest news from around the world.

Try Other Search Engines
Let's face it: People aren't always pleased with the search engines they use. Just what are you supposed to do with the "189,278 results found"? The problem isn't really too many results, or even too few results. The problem is a lack of relevant results. Most search engines index only between 10 percent and 50 percent of the Web. That's like trying to find a book at your local library, using a catalog that omits most of the holdings.

Check out the expanded features of the best search engine, Google, including the language searches, the "Images" section, the "Uncle Sam" search function, and the Toolbar. Even Google is far from perfect and covers less than half of the Web. Use different search engines to improve your searches. Try revamped or new engines such as AllTheWeb and iLOR.

Try New Sites
Be brave -- go places you haven't been before. You might find these new sites to be more useful than your current favorites. For example:

DayPop -- newsy search engine
http://www.daypop.com/
One of the problems with typical search engines is that most of the links are for archived material that may be a few months or years old. But what if you want to just see the latest news that has been added to the Web? One option, Daypop, is a search engine that scours 5,800 news sites and Weblogs (personal ruminations by various folks) to find you the latest news and buzz. Use the site's "Advanced Search" section, and you can restrict your search to as little as three hours or to as much as four weeks' worth of sites. You can also choose which countries you want to search and in which languages. This is a smart, useful site that is perfect for times like these, when there is so much information out there and so little time to keep up with it all.

FreeTranslation -- gist of texts in other languages
http://www.freetranslation.com/
As the name implies, this site provides free text translations in several languages. Just type in some text you want to translate, and the site will turn it into Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, or Norwegian. Or enter text in Spanish, French, German, or Portuguese, and it will become English. Especially useful is the "Web Translator" feature, which allows you to just enter a Web site's address and see it displayed instantly in another language. This is what we call a "gist" translation, where you get just the gist of the subject matter, not an exact translation. It's about 60 percent to 70 percent accurate, which is often all you need to get a sense of what is being discussed. The earliest Web translations were terrible. You would type in "I like pizza" in English, and the Spanish translation might as well have been "The sky is green." Now, short and simple declarative sentences are almost perfect.

SearchSystems -- public-records databases
http://www.searchsystems.net/
With links to almost 5,000 public-records databases, it's the largest free collection of such databases on the Web. Note: These are links to databases, not the databases themselves. A few of the agencies providing links do charge money, and those are easily identified by a green "$" next to them. SearchSystems focuses mainly on the United States (everything from licensed lawyers in New York City/state to unclaimed property in Washington, D.C., to lost dogs nationwide), but you can access some databases in other countries as well (examples: art stolen in Afghanistan; the New Delhi phone book; and aircraft registered in South Africa). Turns out combing through databases is big business, and dozens of sites will do it for you for a fee, such as $300 a month or $50 a search. SearchSystems is a free service that's a good starting point.

Check Out The Competition
Whatever your field, make it a point to regularly visit your competition's sites, so you can learn what is happening there.

Sreenath Sreenivasan, an associate professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, teaches Web seminars at Columbia University and around the country. Keep up with his tips at http://www.sree.net/ or sree@sree.net.

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