Low-priced tools rein in brute power of Web search engines

Finding the information you want on the World Wide Web is getting increasingly
complicated.


Most users rely on powerful commercial search engines to query by key word or concept.
But when a query returns, say, 10,000 hits, you have your work cut out for you. Each of
the leading search engines creates its own database, so you wind up with a different set
of pointers from each.


It's far easier to start with a specialized tool that can interface with search agents,
extending your reach and simultaneously streamlining the data that's returned to you.


I tested three interfaces for Microsoft Windows 95 PCs. They take distinctly different
approaches to helping you organize your search. SavvySearch is an on-line service hosted
by Colorado State University. WebCompass Professional comes from Quarterdeck Corp. of
Marina Del Rey, Calif., and CyberSearch is from Frontier Technologies Corp. of Mequon,
Wis.


SavvySearch, developed by Daniel Reilinger, is the Reviewer's Choice for two reasons.
It's freely downloadable with a Web browser from http://wagner.cs.colostate.edu:2000/,
  and it lets you enter a single query that's forwarded to more than 25 of the best
search engines on the Internet today, including the Yahoo database and Digital Equipment
Corp.'s AltaVista tool.


SavvySearch tries to be helpful from its opening screen. You can display the search
form in 19 languages and streamline your hunt to include one or more of the following: Web
resources, people, technical reports, news, software, reference materials, academic
sources, images and entertainment. SavvySearch will return up to 50 responses from each
search engine it contacts.


After you enter a search term, SavvySearch responds with entries from about six of the
sources and displays a search plan at the bottom showing which search services were
contacted and which were not. To forward your request without retyping, just click on the
name of a service.


The left side lists the sources most likely to contain information relevant to your
query. Moving to the right across the table, you see the sources considered less likely to
have what you need.


The response time appears for each source. In my tests, most sources responded in about
eight seconds.


WebCompass Professional ran a very close second in my tests. It does nearly the same
things as SavvySearch, although it hits just six search engines instead of 25. The
Quarterdeck CD-ROM is street-priced around $99.


WebCompass compresses many of its functions onto the CD-ROM, which must be loaded to
your hard drive before use. When you launch WebCompass, it automatically launches
Quarterdeck's WebServer, which handles the interactions with the search engines. A full
installation requires more than 25M on your hard drive.


I found the server function an unexpected bonus. You can use it as a personal Web
server on an intranet, making your files available to coworkers via TCP/IP. But it doesn't
have advanced security features and shouldn't be used as a regular Internet Web server.


You could install WebCompass under Microsoft Windows 3.1, but you probably shouldn't.
Why? You'd have to establish a permanent swap file of at least 10M on your disk. You'd
also need the Win32 extension for this 32-bit software. WebCompass is not compatible with
IBM's OS/2 Warp operating system.


The agent function in WebCompass is the part I found most fascinating. In theory, the
agent can submit queries for you, associate the responses by several selected topics, and
present a summary of a site along with its uniform resource locator. It also can monitor
Web sites for new documents.


Unfortunately, the documentation for the agent is minimal. It took me a morning's worth
of trial and error to get it working in a useful way. You can make it launch at a set time
and run a set query. WebCompass will create a summary of responses and compare it against
previous summaries. If there's a new or changed site, the summary is displayed to you.


I didn't run WebCompass Professional for an extended time, so it's tough to say how
useful it might have become over several months. But if you're interested in experimenting
with simple agents and don't want to do a lot of programming, this product is an easy way
to get started.


There are two niggling problems that I hope Quarterdeck will solve. First, the good
troubleshooting guide is buried in the introductory ReadMe file, where it's easy to miss.
Second, after doing a search, you start working your way down a directory of responses and
can easily get lost. I'd like to see a more direct way of getting back to the search
screen.


CyberSearch is a different animal entirely. It's a subscription service that arrives on
monthly CD-ROMs costing $9.95 each. Each contains a local search engine and a streamlined
version of the Lycos Inc. database.


CyberSearch is the only one of the three tested products that combines Web and non-Web
interfaces.


The main CyberSearch screen has about 30 tabbed subject catalogs and 876 preset
bookmarks. There's also a button to take you to Frontier's Web site, where you can
download additional catalogs.


Browse any subject area, then pick a URL. If your machine is properly configured,
CyberSearch will autolaunch your chosen browser and connect to the selected site.


If you'd rather search by key word instead of subject, CyberSearch hunts through the
month's database on the CD-ROM and finds matching sites. Highlight a line on the list of
suggested URLs, and CyberSearch shows the first five or so lines from that home page.


Two things make CyberSearch fun to use. With its Internet Organizer function, you can
create and maintain your own tabbed catalog. And if you select multiple URLs, it will
launch multiple windows. You can read one while the others are loading.


CyberSearch also does something I wish more products would do. As the setup program
installs various parts, it explains what they are.


There are other approaches to streamline your Web searching, but these tools offer a
lot of power at very reasonable prices. SavvySearch is the best place to start. Once you
see how it's done, you might want to play with the other tools.


About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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