"You need not wait for the possibilities of artificial intelligence to manifest themselves in order to take advantage of intellectually simpler but nonetheless powerful systems of investigation that can lead us through a mass of material to information that suits our needs."

--James J. O'Donnell, Professor, Classical Studies and Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing, University of Pennsylvania, quoted from Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, p. 61


I am indebted to current and former students for ideas on this page.

InfoThink Makes Us Think about Information Competence

Even before discussing specific search engines, I need to share with you the meaning of "information competence." Lately, the University Library Committee has been discussing this issue. Information competence, to me, always meant the ability to find information in the library or wherever when you needed. Actually, that definition needs broadening.

Information competence to librarians means the ability to understand bibliographical entries wherever these entries may be found, such as the Internet or a source book. Then, to take that basic information and find the particular source of the entry remains the challenge. I recently found a book, InfoThink: Practical Strategies for Using Information in Business, that details the thinking of all kinds of business/special librarians and information specialists about how they view information competence and the importance of information. We hear that certain departments in our College stress the end-user. This book through one information specialist, Samuel B. Hopkins, distinguishes between information preparer (that end-user) and information presenter. You prepare your information in an information-gathering mode, and you present your recommendations face to face in a presenting-recommendations mode.

For years during the teaching of Administrative Office Management, I stressed the thinking of Peter Drucker about "knowledge worker." That thinking carries to business communication where you are an information specialist everytime you look up a fact. More exists than just thinking of yourself as a knowledge worker. To a degree you are a generalist, regardless of your field. Susan Ganz, a CEO in manufacturing, in InfoThink puts the case for generalist rather well:

"I'm a generalist. My best people who are generalists but who come with specific functional skills. Everyone brings a piece to something else. This cross-functional organization needs to be linked, to be able to obtain, retrieve, and send. But they also need to connect, i.e., to understand. Sales has to connect with manufacturing, manufacturing has to connect with pre-process, pre-process has to connect with finance. It's really all about creating a network of colleagues that work in a cooperative fashion, and the personal network is the key because it goes beyond transmitting information. It takes it to a new place--one of understanding."

Sometimes in InfoThink I find references that help you in starting with search engines. The Ben Franklin Business Information Center offers these tips in starting your search:

Marjorie Hill, an information specialist for the Ben Franklin Business Information Center as part of Technology Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania, cautions that electronic information is not the entire answer:

"We think, at this point, that the Internet is a good place to look for information but not the best place to find information for making significant decisions. In addition, verification of the source of information can be very difficult on the Internet, which could have disastrous consequences for the user."

Hill closes her concerns by suggesting the Internet has complicated the lives of professionals. Clients cannot believe that this global explosion of information can help in every case.

Before you start your serious study of search engines, let us remind outselves how fast information is exploding. In 1500 B.C. it took until about 3000 B.C. for information to double. Now information is doubling every six to eight months. Does that give you pause to think about your adventure with search engines?

Search for the Search Engine

When you first look for a search engine, you place a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) on the browser page, such as Netscape or Internet Explorer. You could write: The browser knows immediately to look for the search engine, Yahoo. You could do that same writing with any of the search engines, such as Excite, Lycos, Hotbot, Webcrawler, or Altavista. Once you find the home page of the search engine, you are in a position to create keywords for the frame or placement of the search. You might write: Winter Olympics. Then, you click on a search button, and the search engine as a robot looks up hundreds of thousands of entries about the Winter Olympics. Immediately, you notice you need to tighten your search.

Use Search Engines As Last Research Resort

Search engines, such as Excite, AltaVista, Lycos, Hotbot, Webcrawler, and Infoseek, should be used as a next-to-last resort in finding materials for your report topic. This caution is mentioned because search engines tend to find too much information on any particular topic. For example, let's say we were looking for the topic, sales. You would not just look under sales, because the search engine might produce thousands of entries. Many of the entries would name actual companies with sales in their titles. You research would have become fruitless.

Let's expand our search and say stagnant sales. Still, the search engine would not produce much usable information because the robot in the search engine would only read first, stagnant, and then, sales. You probably wouldn't find any articles of use. Now, you say you have the solution. You write in the search engine box: coffee house sales. You may now have a chance to find some articles and references. You will still see a list of coffee houses, but the extra keyword, sales, may yield some useful data.

If I look under business communication to find references, I will be greeted by thousands of entries. That is because I have not narrowed my search and used Boolean hints, such as and, or, or not.

Search Engines Do Not Approximate Libraries

Search engines have their problems. A librarian who maintains the MELVYL database for the California State Universities and Colleges believes search engines have been sold as the ultimate library. The search engine as conceived today is not a library. It is not the ultimate library. The way that robots or webcrawlers in the search engines organize data does not approximate a library. The information is organized differently if you look an online library catalog than the way robots retrieve information on a database. Also, as one librarian was quoted, a great deal of garbage exists on search engines. You have to carefully define your search and then hope for the best.

Susan Stellin on offered some outstanding advice about whether search engines work. She entitled her series, "Can You Trust Your Search Engine?" She offered the following tips: