The amount of information on the Internet is growing at a huge rate, but the quality seems to be going in the opposite direction.
Type in "food" or "wine" and you'll need several lifetimes to search through all the results - AltaVista yielded 9.3 million matching answers for "food" and 2.4 million for "wine".
The importance of search engines has encouraged Web authors to design their sites so they appear high in the list of search results - a practice known as "loading". The same techniques can return adult sites when children search for sites about dolls or cute little pigs called Babe. HotBot's top results for "babe" were all porno sites, while AltaVista gave a mixture or porno, baseball and the movie. The sheer volume and loading of sites can frustrate newbies or cause parents to fret about their children using the Internet.
Often the best way to find relevant Web sites is to turn to printed publications. One of the latest offerings is Rosanne Bersten's Little Net Guides. Each of the books reviews around 100 sites on various topics. They are designed for everyone from the concerned parent to the food buff lost in an avalanche of Web sites.
Web Sites for Infants
I've yet to hear the phrase "He could use the Internet before he could walk", but this book is clearly aimed at the youngest Web surfers. Just to make parents completely paranoid, the book opens with a list of seven content controllers, three sites on safety and a sample agreement in which the child promises, among other things, not to give out Mum or Dad's credit card numbers. If you get through all that, there are plenty of sites for kids - from toys and activities to Dr Suess.
Web Sites for Primary Kids
This is the ultimate babysitter. It's packed with things to do, things to make and educational sites that are actually fun (my favourite was the Frog Dissection site.) The topics are diverse and entertaining, although in my view it's just a pity that they didn't include any sex-education sites sutiable for the age group.
Food + Wine
This was the most appealing of the books, and it has a strong Australian focus. I found sites where I could order ingredients ranging from fresh food and herbs to emu and organic products. If you're not sure what to do with them, consult the recipe section. Or if the idea of cooking is a turn-off and you'd rather eat out, then check out the sites to help find a restaurant. Wash it all down with a site on wine or finish your browsing with a coffee site.
Do people on the Internet ever go outside? Judging by the number of gardening sites, this is one of most popular pastimes away from the computer. These sites teach how to grow and maintain all manner of plants, from the fussiest of roses to flowers and fruit. You can find out how to compost, treat pests and get rid of bugs and weeds. There are ten sites for buying gardening products and a further ten for gardening magazines. Just in case you live in a small apartment, there are even sites for taking virtual tours of gardens or places where you can grow a virtual garden and tend to it on a regular basis.
This guide shows that there is more to Science Fiction than Star Trek or Star Wars. It has a wide a list of sites for authors, films and TV. If that's not enough, it also has recommended newsgroups, places to search for more sites and a special section for fan clubs in Australia and New Zealand. The reviews are concisely written and provide an overview of the topics so you can understand the context of the site: who are the Fedaykin and why would I want to know more about them?
These inexpensive books don't claim to be the definitive resource for a specialised topic, but they can quickly point you in the right direction. This way you can spend more time on the pages you want to visit and less time wrestling with search engines.
Little Net Guides
By Rosanne Bersten