PC World

Tired of wading through useless search-engine results? We test 20 engines to pinpoint the ones that really deliver the goods.

Ask a couple of strangers for street directions, and you never know what you'll get. They may be rushed and give you only partial instructions; they may lead you astray with incorrect information; or they may not know the way at all and simply shrug you off with a smile. Still, when you find yourself going past the same mini-mart for the seventh time, you may have no choice but to ask for guidance. But who do you approach: The twenty-something gas-station attendant? The woman washing her car? The man walking his dog?

Searching for anything on the Web carries the same uncertainty. You may know exactly what you're looking for, but you don't know where to find it or who to ask. And when you do ask, you can't be sure you'll get the right answer.

The Web is crawling with search sites vying to show you the way. Conservative estimates put the number at over 8000, including pure search engines, general- and special-interest directories, and metasearchers (which query multiple search sites at once). In addition, there are numerous alternative search methods you could opt for, including utilities that work with your browser to mine the Web for information and "expert" sites where real people field your questions.

With so many choices, how do you decide which search site to use, and when? We tested over 20 engines, directories, and expert sites to see which ones produced the best results--that is, the most relevant links in the most logical ranking, with the least effort on our part.

We ran a series of queries, ranging from broad to specific, on each site. Some were business-related, such as one that tried to track down certified public accountants in California; others were scholarly, including one that sought information about a lost Hemingway manuscript (his wife left it on a train in 1922). We also hunted for information on pop-culture topics ranging from Pok»mon to Queen (Freddie Mercury's band, not Victoria, Elizabeth, or Latifah).

Some sites did surprisingly well; others forced us to wade through swamps of irrelevant links or pointed us to pages that no longer existed. (For highlights of what we found, see "Search Superstars" and the features chart. Overall, we discovered that search technology, while far from perfect, has made great advances in helping us find our way efficiently through the Web.

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