Power User: In search of better search engines and tools

John McCormick

As basic as online search may seem, it remains an important tool in a government worker's information arsenal. The greater the variety of tools, the better.

Searching is still more art than science, and the search giants are doing what they can to help, but it's not always enough.

Google, for instance, is experimenting with a way to narrow results by learning more about you at Google Personalized, currently in beta. Visit labs.google.com/personalized and create a profile that describes your interests ('government' is listed under the 'society' category). When you search, a slider appears at the top of the screen that you can adjust to maximize personalization. I tried it and it works well.

Still, sometimes the best big search engines can't find what you need, or they provide too much information with no way to narrow your results.

A government employee recently asked me for help in finding all the Web sites with a certain word in the URL.

For this task, the general search engines returned too many results because they looked for matches within page content, as well as in the URL and meta tags. Even if I tweaked the search parameters so the engines only looked at URLs, they listed the main site plus every subpage on that site.

Fortunately I've come across Whois Source, which has a tool for searching domain names. You can find it at www.whois.sc/domain-explorer. The site let me narrow the reader's search through wild cards in top-level domains. It even told me which URLs were active and which weren't.

There's even a way of finding domains that are expiring, have expired or have been placed on hold. DeletedDomains.com can even tell you what URLs were registered in the last 24 hours. In addition to displaying quick lists of deletions, DeletedDomains.com lets you do a wild-card search of all domains deleted during a certain period of time.

What good is it to know the URL for an expired domain? Just because you can't visit an expired Web site today, doesn't mean you can't see what it said several years ago. At the Internet Archive (www.archive.org), type any URL into the site's Wayback Machine and you can see archived pages back to 1996. Granted, not every site is archived and it's easy for a Web operator to keep the Internet Archive from spidering a site, but it's still a good research tool.

There are literally thousands of good special-interest search engines online that cover parts of the Web the major sites don't. There are also good, targeted data sources with their own search engines.

Over time, I've found a bunch of useful tools that can help workers locate other people. I keep a list of links and tutorial information on my personal Web site at www.helpdotcom.com.

One nice tool is ZoomInfo (www.zoominfo.com). Just enter a person's name and maybe the company or agency he/she works for. The site then organizes online references to that person in numbered summaries.

If the person you're looking for is deceased, you may be able to find an obituary at a number of sites, including www.webobits.com, www.obits.com or www.obitcentral.com. Maybe the person was in the news a while back. Paper of Record (www.paperofrecord.com) lets you search more than 8.4 million digitized newspaper pages for $100 a year.

Hey, it's easy for users to focus on mainstream search sites. They're useful, but far from the only sources of information on the Web. If you have a favorite specialty site, drop me an e-mail and I'll share it with like-minded searchers.

John McCormick is a freelance writer and computer consultant. E-mail him at powerusr@yahoo.com.

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