How to find information without surfing all night
The Dental Economics year-long series,"The Internet`s Impact on Dentistry," is proudly sponsored by smileworks.com.
Bill Kimball, DDS
The Internet and its far-reaching influence continues to grow. More and more offices that I work with are now asking for help getting online. The goal of this series is to help all dental professionals become Internet savvy and cash in on some of the resources so readily available today. Too many, however, are expecting to be able to type in a question and have it answered in the same way Captain Kirk of Star Trek talks with his computer. This month, I would like to help you become more comfortable with yet another aspect of the Internet ... finding information online. Information about what, you ask? About anything!
Many of us have been frustrated `browsing` the Web and finding all kinds of interesting information except on the topics we were looking for. Some search strategies work much better than others. Following links (buttons on Web sites that take you to other sites) can be fun, but if you want specific information on a particular subject without surfing until the sun rises ... read on!
Here are some examples of how I have been using the Internet in my life:
- The other night my family and I walked over to some horse stables, where my two young daughters fell in love with a pony. We have never owned horses but were open to exploring the options. The problem was that I had no idea how much it would cost to own one. Within five minutes of returning home - with the help of the Internet - I knew how much it costs to purchase and keep a horse. Within six minutes of returning home, I was able to tell the girls that we would wait a few years before buying a horse!
- My son and I are planning a fishing trip this summer in the eastern Sierras. We found the locations we wanted to visit by going online.
- I was trying to book a flight for my family a few weeks ago and was not happy with the fare my travel agent had given us. I went online to do some research. Then I actually made suggestions to my now x-travel agent that helped her book a better fare.
Virtually anything you want to learn about is on the Internet`s 800 million-plus pages. The trick, of course, is to find the information without having to stay up half the night surfing.
Last month, I gave you some potentially overwhelming news about the Internet: Search engines only search a small portion of the Net! Finding a specific site can be like finding a needle in a haystack. With so much on the Net, search engines (and this is combining all of them) only look at about 40 percent of the Web pages available today. The best search engines only look at 75 to 300 million pages out of almost a billion. So where do you begin when you want specific information?
Let`s review four different ways to find just what you`re looking for:
- Search engines and directories
- Meta-search engines
- Internet guides
Search engines and directories
Search engines are similar to the phone book`s white pages. In its simplest form, a search engine is a software program that uses "robots" (called spiders, worms, crawlers, and other such names) to roam the Internet and add information about Web sites automatically to a huge database or index. Sites like Infoseek (www.infoseek.com), AltaVista (www. altavista.com), FastSearch (www.alltheweb.com) and Google (www.google.com) are some of the more popular search engines.
Lycos` HotBot (www.hotbot.com) and BigFoot (www.bigfoot.com) are places to start if you are trying to find personal information (e-mail addresses, Web sites, magazine or newspaper articles that include the person, phone numbers, home addresses, etc.).
These sites provide a "dialog box" in which to type key words or phrases. The engine "searches" the World Wide Web for those key words and displays a list of what it found. Often, this list contains thousands or even hundreds of thousands of sites. By clicking on any of the links listed, you are automatically taken to that site.
Directories such as Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com, the biggest and most well known), About (www.about. com), LookSmart (www.looksmart.com) and Excite (www.excite.com), are organized by categories - much like the Yellow Pages. People, rather than robots, put their results together under various topics to help you with your search.
The key advantage to search engines is their sheer size, but this means quantity, not necessarily quality. Directories give higher quality results, but you run the risk of missing something. But with nearly a billion Web pages out there, just get over it! I like using directories, so I can start with a broad subject and narrow the results with increasing focus.
MetaCrawler (www.metacrawler.com), Metafind (www.metafind.com), Inference Find (www.infind. com) and Dogpile (www.dogpile.com) are meta-search engines that review multiple search engines and collate the results for you. Even meta-search engines have limitations, since none of them search all of the databases available, including some of the biggest. Also, since these engines only spend a short time in each database, they often have a chance to review only 10 percent of the database queried.
Another hybrid of these meta-search engines is about the closest thing we have now to the Star Trek-like computer that talks like you. Ask Jeeves (www. ask.com) and Apple`s Mac OS 8.5 "Sherlock" feature allow the user to ask natural language questions, such as, "How long do dental amalgam fillings last?" Unfortunately, these are far from perfect as well, so they provide mixed results.
An Internet guide is another twist to finding information quickly and easily. Guides help users mine the Internet with more hand-holding compared to the above options. One high-quality guide is the Virtual Library (www.vlib.org), the oldest catalog of the Web, started by Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of HTML (the programming language of the Web) and the Web itself. Here volunteers compile pages of key links for areas in which they are experts. Other guides can be found at www.britannica.com, www.about.com, and www.suite101.com (subtitled, "Real people helping real people").
Many of these sites would benefit from a dental guide ... maybe I`ll do that in my spare time. Better yet, some of you might consider becoming a guide yourself. To learn more, visit any of these sites and look for the "be-a-guide" area.
Portals operate much the same as directories, but with additional content often found solely on that particular portal, such as articles. There are portals for cities, hobbies, shopping ... actually just about anything you can think of! Dental portals such as www.dentaleco nomics.com, www.ada.org, www.dentistryonline .com, www.e-dental.com, www.net32.com, www. dentaltown.com, www.dentalxchange.com, and www.rdental.com have information for dentists and their teams. Infocure (www.infocure.com and Healtheon/WebMD (www.webmd.com) are the leading medical portals today.
Spend some time mining the resources of these medical/dental portals. You are guaranteed to learn something new, maybe even exciting. I`ll devote a future article to the surge in dental portals and the amazing new features some include. But, for now, please enjoy visiting them.
Try searching the Internet using the tools you have learned about in this article. Use your time wisely and be sure to have the fastest modem speed possible (DSL or cable) if you want to save a lot of time. Until next month, happy clicking!
Seeking the right Barney
Seven tips for a more successful, less time-consuming search are:
1 Use upper case to indicate you want an exact match.
2 Use quotation marks around keywords you wish to use as a phrase.
3 Use the plus (+) and minus (-) signs to indicate terms that should or shouldn`t be on the site. For example, if you are searching for Smith Barney investment information, key in Smith+Barney-dinosaur. This tells the search engine that you want Smith and Barney only when they are together, and avoids the sites with a singing purple dinosaur.
4 To take this a step further, one can key in or, and (same as +), not (same as -), and adj (adjacent).
5 Be as specific as possible when starting your search. Rather than entering "fishing" and "Sierras," enter "fishing Sierras California cabins." This still gave me almost 4,000 sites from www.alltheweb.com in less than half a second (really).
6 If you are looking for specific information about a country, try one of the regional search engines like Euroseek (www.euroseek.com).
7 Review each search engine`s help file for instructions on how to use these features, since not all engines support all the above tips (sorry). The good news is that many sites now are very intuitive, with help and directions in plain view.