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Discovery Discovery January / February 2002
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On the Web Looking Through the Glass



Looking Through the Glass by Jan Zauha

Sooner or later it happens to all wanderers on the Web: you get curious about the alternate universe of other searchers. Are you the only one looking for the Web site of an obscure Swedish folk group? Has no one else forgotten when Perry Como died? Are you alone in your need to know more about the Cosmic Baseball Association? Can this curiosity be satisfied?

Possibly. You may not be able to meet face-to-face with Web searchers on parallel paths, but you can play anonymous spy and watch disembodied searches whiz past in cyberspace. One of the most entertaining spy sites is offered by Ask Jeeves, the natural language "butler" that lets you "Take a Peek" at the questions of other Jeeves searchers on a page that refreshes every 30 seconds. In any list of 20 current questions you get a full plate of human information needs, from insect recipes to pickup lines to resources on federalism.

Despite the suggestive title of the Jeeves service, you'll wait a long time before an "unseemly" question is posed. Not so with MetaCrawler's Metaspy. Here you make a choice from the outset: do you want the filtered version of current MetaCrawler searches, refreshed every 15 seconds, or do you want the "exposed" version for mature audiences? Whichever you choose, Metaspy gives you a list of current search terms and at any point you can click on one to execute the search - if you're fast enough. Galaxy offers a similar window at its StarGazer - Voyeur Search.

More useful than these spy sites are the search engines that analyze input over time and report on general search trends. If you would like to get a feel for overall query behavior on the Web, look into Google's "Year-End Zeitgeist". The popularity of "nostradamus" as a search term in 2001 may dismay but not surprise you. Knowing that "big brother" is a declining query may boost your spirits, only to have them dashed by finding "Britney Spears" at the No. 1 spot on the "Top 10 Women" category. Altavista offers a less robust analysis of the search terms of 2001 on its "Search Trends".

How useful are these tools, beyond providing a spurious pleasure for the voyeur in all of us? "Peek" sites and search engine analyses offer a glimpse of Web culture that can help you gauge what connected people (like your students) may be doing on the Web. This knowledge may either confirm or confound your suspicions, but it will certainly increase your knowledge of the Web and give you a sense, perhaps, of how far removed from the popular culture your own searches are.

For help locating more Web spyglasses, call or stop in at the Renne Library reference desk. If you find Web sites that you think might be of interest to the MSU community, please send me an e-mail message at alijz@montana.edu.

Jan Zauha is the reference team leader at the MSU Libraries.

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