#2, March 19, 1999.

From Zero to Something * * * * Losing Its Exclamation Point
Favorite Sites Part I: Caffeine and Curmudgeons

From Zero to Something

Losing Its Exclamation Point!

You know how it is--people all the time come up and ask us for information about something, and we smile our best professional smiles, and ask them a leading question or two, designed to get some operating information and conceal the fact that we have not the faintest idea what they're talking about.

Our object at that point is to get enough information from our patron to know what direction to search in. So we ask our "animal, vegetable or mineral" question, like, "Which Robert Smith did you mean?" (Not a question that works when your patron wants info on Vita Sackville-West.) Or, "What do you already know about him? What kind of information did you need?"

The internet is a wonderfully useful place for making that "zero to something" jump.

Most of the time, the fact that there are more than 500 million sites on the net can be a drawback--there are no IQ requirements for setting up a web site, and most of what's out there can charitably be described as mediocre. However, because so many people are putting their interests and knowledge onto the web, it means that there is virtually no subject that is not celebrated there.

When asked about Smashing Pumpkins, did you at first think it was a sport? Do an exact phrase search on the net and you will turn up many web sites devoted to this band. Do you need info on a stock, and don't know what exchange it's traded on or its ticker symbol? Check it in Free Edgar or CNNFN.

You now have enough information to do what you always do: parlay that something into a lot more. You may prefer to do the rest of your search in the sources you already know and trust, which is fine--it takes a while to acquire the same confidence in web pages that you have in the reference books you use all the time.

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Favorite Sites, Part 1: Caffeine and Curmudgeons

I like to work my way awake each day with coffee and columns. As a columnist myself, I have to check out the competition--and besides, I love witty, well-written opinion.

My first stopping point is Arts and Letters Daily. The editors plow through online newspapers, magazines, and book reviews and every day select and link at least one "article of note", one book review, and one piece of "essay and opinion." The site also includes direct links to all those newspapers and magazines. No axes are ground here--there's a wide range of political opinion and topics: the "language instinct," the "dumbing down" of the University of Chicago, finding community on the internet, new feminists versus old femists, the theory of everything, etc.

I often stop at Commentators.Com, links to the regular online columns of about 30 columnists, opinions ranging from Molly Ivins on the left through Robert Novak, teetering on the right edge of the earth (which is flat), with Dave Barry thrown in for dessert.

Since they don't have "Mothers Who Think," and Salon does, I have to visit them at least a couple of times a week. That includes several interesting women, notably Anne Lamott, whose writing style leaves me green with envy. The rest of the magazine is wide-ranging, with something for everyone--interesting political discussion (not all of it liberal or supportive of Clinton), book talk, media commentary, and Garrison Keillor in his Ann Landers mode.

Most of us, I suspect, retain a lingering fondness for Yahoo! After all, it's probably where most of us first started learning about the wonders of the net.

But over time, its weaknesses have started catching up with it, especially as its competitors have gotten better.

I have never liked it as a good search engine. Because it searches only its own listings, its results are too limited. Because it only lists each site once, it misses wonderful stuff that is on subpages. Listing Librarians' Internet Index without listing its "New This Week" separately is almost as egregious as listing CNN but not its impressive financial section, CNNFN.

Its other limitation as a search engine is that Yahoo! unlike other search engines is not searching an index of words on the individual pages of its sites. It searches within the URLs and the brief descriptions for the sites. Period.

One of my standard checks of a search engine is to ask it to search for Marylaine. (This is known in the biz as ego-surfing.)

But it's a remarkably good test, because I'm the only Marylaine on the net, and I know how many pages my name is on. It should be able to find me on at least 250 pages--each page on Best Information on the Net and BookBytes, and each column I've written. AltaVista, HotBot, Excite, and Northern Light find at least 250. Yahoo finds me only once, because the only site description that includes my name is BookBytes.

Yahoo! has at least been valuable as an index to the web. But this is beginning to change, in large part because they have too few editors to check out too many site submissions. Danny Sullivan, in Search Engine Watch, reports that they ignore so many submissions that they have now begun offering a service to businesses: pay a fee, and they guarantee they will at least LOOK at your site. They won't necessarily decide to add it, but they will consider it, within a set time period, and let you know what it has decided.

This obviously affects how up to date they are--a whole lot of wonderful sites will never get listed, and maybe even never get checked out by their editors. But remarkably, Yahoo's editors are equally unresponsive to requests to correct listings. I submitted the title change on Where the Wild Things Are to them a year and a half ago, and yet BIOTN is still listed on Yahoo! under its original title. Two years after I told Yahoo it had moved to Quad Cities Online, My Word's Worth is still described as being written for the London Mall Magazine.

A batting average of .000 does not get you a contract in the majors. I submitted two corrections, neither of which have been made. Unless I have unusually bad luck, I have to wonder about the accuracy and timeliness of the rest of their information. Especially when I follow links from Yahoo! and find them dead.

My recommendation is to use some of the indexes that are significantly better and more responsive than Yahoo! Use more selective indexes, like Internet Public Library or BIOTN. Use search engines that search more sites, and search every individual page of the sites.

Yahoo! was exciting when the net was young. It's still doing innovative things with its chat rooms and free e-mail and "My Yahoo" services. But in regard to its core business, helping you find sites, it has become stodgy, while other portals and search engines have made intriguing adaptations to the ways people actually look for things. In this regard, Yahoo no longer deserves its exclamation point.

Or so it seems to me. If you have had better experiences than I have with Yahoo, please write me. I'll be happy to print thoughtful rebuttals or addenda to anything I have said.

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