Casting a Narrower Net

The biggest problem with the Web? There's so much stuff that it's getting hard to find what you need. Thanks to next-generation navigation tools, the Web is getting more manageable.

Let's face it: the Web is already too big -- and getting bigger all the time, to the tune of about 2 million new Web pages per day. Doing a search on AltaVista or Yahoo! that returns hundreds of relevant sites -- and knowing that there are hundreds more that neither search engine turned up -- can feel either empowering or daunting, depending on your frame of mind. There really can be too much of a good thing.

Thanks to a slew of next-generation navigation tools, however, you can now cast a narrower net on the Net -- and let information come to you, rather than being forced to find it; make a more direct connection between what you're working on and what you're searching for; and even enlist people to help you do smarter searches. Suddenly, the Web seems a bit more manageable.

Have you ever wished that you could stop surfing the Web, and let the Web start streaming to you? That's the idea behind eTour.com (www.etour.com). To get started, visit the site and complete a survey detailing your interests and hobbies (cooking, Internet business, weird stuff). If you make eTour your start page, you'll automatically be presented with a Web site that corresponds to your personal interests every time you open your browser. Your personal site draws on more than 15,000 sites in eTour's database -- sites that the company's editorial team has chosen for their quality and relevance.

And what you see will keep changing. If it's dinnertime, eTour might serve up a cooking site. If you've got a Boston IP address and you're interested in sports, you might find yourself at RedSox.com. If you want to see another relevant site, hit the "Next Site" button. But be careful, as this site is addictive. Instead of spending hours surfing the Web, you might find yourself spending just as much time strolling through eTour.

Found a site that you hate? Or love? Rate it by clicking on the thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon. Then visit the "Lounge" to see the sites that eTour members have selected as the best or worst of the day. You can also save your favorite sites and access them on eTour from any computer.

If you're looking for general information on big topics, eTour is a great way to save time on the Web. But what if you're after something specific on an obscure topic? Instead of spending time wading through the likes of Lycos or Northern Light, try GuruNet (www.gurunet.com) -- a free software program that lets you access relevant information without interrupting your work.

With GuruNet, you can point to any word on your computer screen in any Windows application -- say, Excel, Microsoft Word, an email application, or a Web browser. Then press the "alt" key while clicking your mouse to launch a pop-up window that gives you access to Web-based information relating to that word. For example, if you're looking for some information on the word "Ford," which appeared in an email message, just point, press, and click -- and GuruNet will analyze the words around "Ford" and point you in the right direction. If "Ford" appears after "Henry," GuruNet will give you biographical information along with some links to related Web sites. But if "Ford" precedes "Motor Company," you'll get company information, such as news items, stock prices, analysts' estimates, and SEC filings.

Smart stuff! If the software doesn't recognize a word, you'll get a pull-down menu of possible alternatives. You can also search the Web from GuruNet's pop-up window, without having to launch your browser or leave the application in which you're working. The software can also retrieve sports data, weather conditions, dictionary definitions, and area codes, as well as translate English-language words into a handful of languages. Unfortunately for the Mac users among us, GuruNet runs only on PCs.

The electronic brainpower of GuruNet is undoubtedly impressive. But sometimes the best assistant in your search for intelligent information is an intelligent life-form -- that is, an actual human being. Webhelp.com (www.webhelp.com) is similar to a customer-support center on the Net. But rather than call an 800-number, you visit the site, type in a question, and, via a chat window, connect to a trained Net searcher.

The price is right too. When you sign up, you get five free Webhelp credits for sessions with "express" service. "Express" is the site's version of the priority-help lines that many hardware manufacturers offer. After you use up your free credits, you can purchase an unlimited membership for $9.99 a month, or you can pay just 99 cents for each session. If you choose the pay-as-you-go method, Webhelp will bill your credit card on the same day every month, or after 20 Webhelp sessions.

Webhelp offers assistance in 12 subject categories, including careers and education, finance and money, travel, and weather. You have the choice of either asking your own question or selecting a question that's already there. The site then points you to appropriate Web sites -- which saves you the time of hunting down those sites yourself. So what do you want to know today?

Gina Imperato (gimperato@fastcompany.com), a Fast Company associate editor, is based in San Francisco.

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