The problem with some web search engines is that they try to do everything instead of concentrating on doing a few things very well. There's an obvious advantage, of course, to being able to have all your web searching needs served by one particular tool - you only have to learn to use one interface, remember one particular URL, train users to use one particular tool. But is it realistic to expect that we can use just one particular tool to find everything we need on the web? Can a web search tool really be all things to all users?
In a market which is rapidly becoming quite crowded, Yahoo UK and Ireland (http://www.yahoo.co.uk) seems to be positioning itself as the leading place to search for information on the Web for both national and international resources. Anyone familiar with the original Yahoo in the States (http://www.yahoo.com) will know that Yahoo is a search engine and subject index combined: you can choose to type a search term into the search box on screen, or browse through a list of subject headings.
However, Yahoo also offers a number of additional features, which are included in the UK version. It's possible to look at latest news stories (with a UK focus) using their link to the Reuters news service, or you can read copies of their online magazine, Internet Life for a guide to the best of the Web. If you've got children you can send them off to play with their own version of Yahoo, called Yahooligans*. You can even create your own personalised version of the database. And all from a European-based service boasting fast access and a strong focus on UK content - sounds good doesn't it?
The original Yahoo indexes hundreds of thousands of sites around the Web, and has a very broad range of subject coverage. Yahoo UK doesn't try to get as wide a subject coverage as the original Yahoo, and concentrates on a smaller database instead. The Yahoo search engine has also been re-written to ensure that when a search is performed, UK and Irish content will "float" to the top of a list of search results.
Yahoo UK and Ireland is a pretty good place to start to look for information on the web. It has a nice, clear interface with a simple subject index that is easy to follow. Subjects are divided up into fourteen different categories - covering arts, entertainment, business, government and news, amongst others. To browse through a subject category you simply select the appropriate link and work your way down a subject tree. On selecting a subject you are then given the choice of looking at just UK or Irish information sources or browsing through a list of subject categories covering world-wide resources. This is straightforward and easy to use.
Navigating through the service is also straightforward. You can click on the Yahoo menu bar to get to the Yahoo home page from anywhere in the subject index. Your current position in the subject index is highlighted in bold on each page, so if you want to move up a category you simply select the appropriate link on screen.
It's also possible to use a search engine to search through the Yahoo database. A search form is available on the Yahoo home page and on every page in the subject index. The search engine uses Boolean logic - using the + (plus) and - (minus) signs to indicate AND and NOT. OR is the default for searches, so if you just type in your search terms with spaces in between, this type of search will be performed. You can also perform a search for a particular phrase by placing quotation marks around the phrase.
You can also search for documents where your required words appear in certain fields of the database record - for example, if you want to find documents where a given word appears as part of a title of a document you can type [T] directly before your search term.
When you perform a search in Yahoo, an identical search is simultaneously performed in the Alta Vista database. The usefulness of this feature is enhanced by the fact that both Alta Vista and Yahoo now have a very similar search language so you can cross-search the two databases quite easily.
Yahoo lists your search results by category according to the search database they have come from - so that results from Alta Vista are shown separately from the ones which come direct from the Yahoo database.
If you don't find what you are looking for in Yahoo or in Alta Vista you can then choose to go off and perform the search in a range of other search engines as well. These include Lycos, Open Text, Webcrawler, HotBot, InfoSeek, Excite and Dejanews. Simply click on the link to one of these services and your search will be performed automatically.
If you're not sure about how to use Yahoo search features or you want some guidance on how to construct a search you can use the Yahoo search options form to help. This can be found by selecting the Options link next to the search form.
Yahoo is also a good place to find latest news information, with a link-up to a Reuters newsfeed concentrating on UK news. You can access the Reuters news directly by selecting the Headlines image in the menu bar, or follow links in the News category of the subject index. The Reuters news is pretty up to date - and you can usually read a range of news headlines from within the last 12 hours or so.
Like most commercially funded web search tools Yahoo UK does feature advertising on its pages. However, its initially refreshing to note that all of the adverts appear to be for UK companies - such as BT, Tesco and UK recruitment agencies such as PeopleBank.
Finally, Yahoo UK uses a "cute" little notation to indicate resources which have a UK or Irish focus. An image of the Irish flag appears next to an Irish resource, and a graphic of the Union Jack appears next to UK resources. Sites which have been classified as "cool" by Yahoo reviewers have an image of a pair of sunglasses next to them.
Despite being a UK version of the Yahoo service, I feel that Yahoo developers haven't really thought too much about how things such as terminology might differ in the UK. This is most evident when you look at some of the subject categories in the index.
For example, I wanted to see if the database contained any information about the television programme "The X Files". From the top level listing I chose Entertainment:television, and I was then given another level of listings to choose from - including broadcasting, networks and actors. I looked around for a subject listing for programmes (as the standard term I'd use for a TV programme), but couldn't find it. After some thought I decided to try under shows instead. The category shows seems a bit of an Americanism to me, and not a term that would come straightaway to UK users. Once I'd followed the link to shows I was then faced with yet another set of categories - and what kind of programme is The X Files anyway? Is it mystery, or science fiction? I eventually chose science fiction and found it listed under here.
In other places the Yahoo developers seem to have gone too far in an attempt to categorise information in a way that will appeal to UK and Ireland users. Why, for example is there a top-level listing for royalty under the section on Society and Culture? Are people in the UK really more interested in the Royal Family than in other cultural and social issues?
Yahoo UK and Ireland also seems rather slow, and I'm not entirely sure that access is any faster than for the original Yahoo database in the States. During the time I was writing this article I had numerous problems getting into the service at all, with connections frequently being timed out due to lack of response from the Yahoo server. As of October 1996 the service has only been up and running for a matter of weeks, so this may improve with time. The search engine is pretty slow most of the time - and this must be at least partly due to the fact that it has to search Alta Vista in the States, as well as Yahoo UK whenever a search is performed. If Alta Vista itself was mirrored in the UK this could potentially make searching much faster.
It's also worth pointing out that Yahoo UK and Ireland hasn't been designed with the needs of the UK academic community in mind. It's a general database designed to appeal to all types of web users, and as such it doesn't restrict itself to strictly academic resources. Yahoo employ reviewers to assess sites for inclusion in the database, but it's unlikely that they'll be using the kind of rigorous quality guidelines that we've become used to through eLib Access to Network Resources projects. This makes Yahoo UK and Ireland great if you want to find the Web pages for Oasis, but not so wonderful if you're looking for solid academic content and useful descriptions of resources.
So, to return to my original question: is Yahoo UK and Ireland trying to do too much? Or, alternatively, is it doing such a lot so well that our home-grown services such as BUBL and SOSIG are going to have to start looking nervously over their shoulders? I don't think they have to worry too much as yet.
Yahoo UK and Ireland does have a lot of very nice features, and it's great to have such a powerful search engine combined with an easily browse-able index, but I don't think it really meets the needs of UK academic users. The great strength of our information gateways is that they provide a means of finding quality academic resources which have been catalogued and indexed in a meaningful way. Yahoo UK and Ireland can't match up to these quality standards and it probably won't ever attempt to do so.
*Editor's note: Yahooligans no longer exists. See the following Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yahoo!_Kids [15 May 2014]