#3, March 26, 1999.

What's the Best Search Engine? * * * * Courtesy and Copyright

RE:searching, Part II: What's the Best Search Engine?

Courtesy and Copyright

I get asked that question a lot, and my answer is: there's no such thing as THE best search engine. Even if there was, it's not what you want, because what you REALLY want is the best search engine FOR YOU. That search engine is the one that matches the way you think, and generally gives you better results than any of the others do.

Search engines have personalities. HotBot is a control freak. It's pure type A--like me, in fact, which is why it's my favorite, except when it's being ungodly slow. It lets me tell it HOW to look for my topic--for any of the words or all the words? I can say I want it in the title of the document or that I want to do a boolean search. When I click on "More search options," I can specify other words it MUST contain. I can tell HotBot that it has to retrieve images or VRML or quicktime video (nice doggie).

My favorite thing of all: I can limit by domains. Now, you realize that most of the junk on the internet comes from dot coms? (Now that I am a dot com, of course, I figure I'm raising the level infinitesimally.) If you restrict to .edu (university sites), .gov (official government info), or .org (a mixed bag that will include all your professional associations and charities, but will also include lobbies and nutcake groups), your search results will be of generally higher quality.

HotBot usually gives me what I'm looking for because it matches the way my mind works, and I know how to play it like a violin. But my colleagues aren't anywhere near as fond of it. They like other engines better. It's all a matter of individual searching style.

If you are willing to bumble around a bit more, with a less precise search, find something there you like, and then click on "More like this," you are going to love Excite (and you'll prefer PubMed's version of Medline). You can't do anything especially elaborate with your search statement, but when you do find a result that's exactly what you had in mind and click on "more articles like this," it re-shuffles the deck and comes back with a whole different set of sites that resemble that one in key ways (the first ones listed should match on more points).

If you'd like a thorough search through over a hundred million web pages that is very current, and that will then not only list your sites but organize them into neat file folders by topic or origin or other common features, you will love Northern Light

If you're searching international web sites, you will want to use AltaVista, which was created by a Frenchman who prides himself on having indexed the largest number of international web sites. Furthermore, AltaVista includes a translation service. The translations are clunky--word for word, rather than idiomatic--but they ARE translations. However, you MUST read the help screens to get consistently good results.

You may like some other search engines better yet. You may like the meta-engine approach, using Dogpile or its ilk to search multiple search engines at once. You might like using Magellan or Lycos for a search limited to rated sites only.

The best way to find out what search engine fits your style is to run several searches through several of them. Read the help screens to find out what special tricks each lets you do. Compare your results. By the time you're through, you'll know which search engine was made with you in mind.

For more on this topic, see my handout on When and How To Search the Net.

One of the great inventions of the 20th century is copy and paste. It simplifies our life so much to be able to take entire blocks of text and move them around inside a document, move them into other documents, forward them to friends in an e-mail

Which is to say, one of the worst inventions of the 20th century is copy and paste. It makes it so easy to plagiarize, inadvertently or by deliberate intent. I'm not just talking about students, either, because we all find ourselves doing it. And when we copy and paste, one of the first things that can get lost is attribution. Just WHOSE work are we using?

I wrote a cute little verse about the dangers of trusting spellcheck too much, called On Finally Achieving Perfect Copy. Shakespeare it wasn't, nor even Ogden Nash, but it was MINE. I was more than a bit miffed to receive a copy of it an a much-forwarded e-mail, with no author credited for it.

I have received forwarded e-mails of delightful haikus that purported to be written by a cat. Come on, now, haikus do not write themselves. This is not folk wisdom, not proverbs, not jokes. Somebody wrote them, and that person is not getting the credit for them. Worse, should he or she someday try to sell the haikus, publishers may think the real author is the plagiarist.

I have two suggestions to you, who after all care about authenticity and copyright: if you cut and paste and forward, please make sure you include the author's name, and the source. When you receive a nifty anonymous piece from someone else and recognize the source, re-attach the author's name before you forward it on to somebody else. Give Richard Lederer back the credit for his history of the world as told in student papers. Give Molly Ivins back the credit for her suggested state mottos. Give MaryAnn Madden and New York Magazine credit for the competition results that turn up in forwarded e-mails. And give me back the credit for my spellcheck verse.

This isn't about money. It's about the fact that we created these things, which is one of the ways we go about saying "Remember me. I was here." We love it when people tell each other about our work. Just keep our names attached when you do it, OK?

Remember us. We were here.

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