One of the challenges of the Internet is that as the World Wide Web grows, finding needles in that ever-expanding haystack keeps getting harder. But there are tools that can make it easier to locate useful information.
My favorite is the Google Toolbar, which incorporates the power of what is hands-down the best search service on the Web directly into Microsoft Internet Explorer for Windows. (It does not work with Netscape or AOL). For some reason, Google has hidden this lamp under a bushel, not promoting it even on the service's spartan home page. But you can download it from toolbar.google.com.
Once downloaded, the program creates a small Google toolbar on IE (version 5.0 or later). Typing a word or phrase into the toolbar and clicking the "search" button brings up a list of relevant Web pages, just like on www.google.com. If you click the toolbar's "search site" button instead, your search will be limited to the site you are on--often with better results than using that site's own search capabilities. On the www.businessweek.com site, for example, I typed "Windows 98" into the site's own search function to find stories on the operating system. I got a long list of stories, but many of even the top returns had only passing references to Windows 98. The top returns using the Google toolbar were what I was looking for: stories focused on Windows 98. The toolbar also gives access to other Google features, including advanced searches using many options.
Google Toolbar--along with the other search tools I looked at--sends some information on the nature of your inquiries back to servers where, among other things, the data are used to compile relevancy rankings for pages. I looked at all of the privacy policies and found nothing particularly objectionable, but if you have concerns, you should read the policies before signing up. All the tools require an active Internet connection to work.
Atomica (formerly GuruNet) is different because it gives you direct results, not links. Once the program is installed on a Windows system, you can alt-click on a word, and a window pops open giving you a dictionary definition. The American Heritage Dictionary is the standard reference, but a variety of other works are used for technical terms. The window also offers you an assortment of data appropriate to the search term. For example, searching on a city name offers maps and weather, while a company name offers financial information and news.
HERE TODAY... Smart Cursor from Comet Systems is somewhat similar, but less clever and versatile. Once Smart Cursor is installed in Internet Explorer, you can choose a dictionary cursor, an encyclopedia cursor, or a search cursor. When you click on a word, you get a definition (American Heritage Dictionary), an encyclopedia reference (Britannica.com), or a Web search. But it only works for words on a Web page, whereas Atomica works on any text.
I found QuickClick from NBCi (NBCI) the least useful of the services I tried. It's similar to Smart Cursor in that it allows you to get additional information just by clicking on a word on your screen. But it's much slower, and getting a dictionary definition requires at least one additional click. QuickClick concentrates on offering links related to what you clicked on, but I found them often to be of limited relevance. It also provides a window for entering search terms, but it only gives you links to other search engines. All in all, QuickClick was often slower and harder than just using regular browser tools.
One thing that all of these products have in common is the lack of a clear business model that will give them staying power. Google offers first-rate technology, but there's no indication that the privately held company is anywhere close to profitability. Atomica is trying to sell its software as a knowledge-sharing tool for corporations. And there have been persistent rumors that General Electric (GE) will pull the plug on NBCi. I don't know how long these tools will be around, so enjoy them while you can. By Stephen H. Wildstrom