The Internet offers instant access to millions of documents on countless topics. It consists of a variety of access protocols that include e-mail, FTP, HTTP, Telnet and Usenet news. Many of these protocols feature programs that allow users to search for and retrieve material made available by the protocol.
One of the most efficient methods of conducting research on the Internet is to use the World Wide Web. Some of the most effective ways to tap into this resource include visiting individual Websites, exploring subject directories and using search engines.
If you know the Internet address of a site you want to visit, you can use a Web browser, such as Internet Explorer, to access the site directly. Just type the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) or Web address into your browser window to pull up the site.
If you don’t know the address, make an educated guess. Web addresses of companies are often formatted as www.companyname.com (e.g., www.microsoft.com). University web addresses are typically formatted as www.universityname or acronym.edu (e.g., www.ilstu.edu or www.iwu.edu). Likewise, government agency addresses are typically formatted as www.agency name acronym.gov (e.g., www.hud.gov or www.doj.gov).
Increasingly, universities, libraries, companies, organizations, and even volunteers are creating subject directories to catalog parts of the Internet. Directories are organized by topic and consist of links to Internet resources relating to a wide variety of areas. They are useful for researching general subjects, topics that need exploring, and for browsing.
To get an idea of the range of directories available on the Web, start with Internet Subject Directories (http://library.albany.edu/internet/subject.html). You can also explore popular private directories like Yahoo, The Open Directory Project and Looksmart. If you need scholarly material, try:
* The Librarians’ Index: (www.liii.org) — This is a great way to explore a large number and variety of sources. Supported by a federal grant, this directory is the result of a large number of Californian librarians selecting and annotating Web resources across a broad range of topics.
* The WWW Virtual Library: (www.vlib.org) — One of the oldest and most respected subject directories on the Web, this directory consists of individual subject collections, many of which are maintained at universities throughout the world.
* INFOMINE (www.infomine.ucr.edu) — A large directory of Web sites of scholarly interest compiled by the University of California, this resource can be browsed or searched by subject, keyword, or title. Each site listed is accompanied by a description.
Search engines allow the user to enter keywords relating to a topic and retrieve information about Internet sites containing those keywords. Many search engines compile a database spanning multiple Internet protocols, including HTTP, FTP, and Usenet. They may also search multimedia or other file types on what is known as the “deep Web.” Some of the most popular search engines are Google, MSN, Ask Jeeves and Alta Vista.
Technically, a search engine service consists of three parts, a spider, index and search engine mechanism. The spider is a program that combs the Web from link to link, identifying and reading pages. The index is a database containing a copy of each Web page gathered by the spider. And the search engine mechanism is software that enables users to query the index.
Here’s how search engines work: With most search engines, you fill out a form with your search terms and then ask that the search proceed. The engine explores its index and generates a page with links to those resources containing some or all of your terms. These resources are usually presented in ranked order according to term relevancy.
Check for Accuracy and Reliability
Since the Internet is a self-publishing medium, anyone with the necessary technical skills can place information on the Web. Therefore, it’s important to evaluate the accuracy and reliability of your research information. You should consider:
* Who published the information – A site maintained by a university or government organization is probably more reliable than one maintained by a private individual.
* Who wrote the information – You can probably assume that material written or otherwise provided by a known expert in the field is likely to be reliable.
* The age of the material – If you need current statistics, carefully check the age of the material you’ve found. A site dealing with historical information may not need updating as frequently as one related to news and current events.
* Why the material exists – Many special interest groups have Web pages. And while this doesn’t necessarily mean the material is biased, it’s something you should consider. Think about whether they might have some reason, other than pure helpfulness, for posting information.
For the most successful Internet research, try to cross-check the information you find as much as possible. Explore another site with similar material, ask someone who’s knowledgeable about the topic, review a book on the subject or weigh the information against what you already know.