If you consider the Internet an indispensable tool for plotting journeys, you probably weren't surprised when scientists for the NEC Research Institute, a Princeton, N.J.,-based organization that conducts long-term, fundamental research in computer sciences, relayed some disconcerting news a few months ago: With the Web nearly doubling in size every year, the software programs that burrow through cyberspace to retrieve information simply can't keep up.
Combined, the top 11 search engines cover a measly 42% of the Web, down from 60% just two years ago, the scientists reported in the journal Nature. What's more, the results those search engines do spit back are often out of date or far off the mark.
But for all the inherent drawbacks, cyber-travelers should view search engines and other Web guides as they would a destination guidebook, advises Chris Sherman, who covers the subject for About .com (http://www.about.com), a network of topic-specific experts.
"You have to ask, 'How many would I use for a major trip?' " Sherman says. He recommends querying at least half a dozen search engines for a decent snapshot of what's available online, and notes that the narrower and more specific the search terms you use, the better results you'll get.
Like Sherman, I consult a variety of Web resources before hitting the road. A few of my favorites:
* Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com): This 800-pound gorilla earns its ranking as the Web's most popular portal, or entry point, for its well-organized categories that let you drill down for more targeted information. Another big plus is Yahoo! Travel (http://travel.yahoo.com), which incorporates destination information from Lonely Planet and an easy-to-use travel reservations service.
* Kasbah (http://kasbah.com): I've also been intrigued by Planet-Rider (http://www.planetrider.com), Travel Notes (http://www.travelnotes.org) and Exes (http://www.exes.com), but Kasbah is tops among a growing breed of travel-specific search engines. Based in England, it encompasses about 100,000 handpicked travel sites from 230 countries, including an excellent "travel toolbox" with links to search engines that the site's creators found particularly helpful when compiling Kasbah's own database. Searches work best by entering the name of a destination; results are organized into two dozen categories, from accommodations to weather.
* Ask Jeeves (http://www.askjeeves.com): Aimed at Internet novices bamboozled by Boolean operators (words like "and" or "not" that help refine a search), Ask Jeeves lets you pose a question in plain English, then dispenses its own answers plus relevant Web pages gleaned from six other search engines. Don't miss Ask Jeeves' well-designed travel channel, which organizes resources under such categories as hotels, car rentals and healthy traveling.
* Google (http://www.google .com): This new search engine is generating a lot of buzz for the theory that you can evaluate a Web page's quality by its popularity quotient--how many other Web pages link to it. Google is so confident it can find a relevant site that it offers an "I'm feeling lucky" button that whisks you directly to the Web page it's selected. Frequently it's right on the money. Case in point: A hunt for "Bangkok hotels" took me to Asia Travel's Thailand Hotels & Resorts Reservation Service (http://www.asiatravel.com/thailand), a terrific source.
* About.com (http://www.about .com): It's not a search engine, but About.com succeeds admirably in its goal of bringing "humanity to the Internet." Its experts search for relevant Web sites and news reports, publish newsletters and host online chats and forums. While the travel channel is a good place to start, clicking from About.com's home page to "local" puts you in touch with guides from communities across North America.
* SavvySearch (http://www.savvysearch.com): So-called metasearchers comb through several search engines simultaneously, then compile results from all. What makes SavvySearch special is the fact that you can customize it by selecting your favorites from more than 100 Web databases. My own searches, for example, draw from such sources as Travel & Leisure, Epicurious Travel and travel-related Usenet newsgroups. Results aren't always useful; a search for information about sailing in Maine turned up such ringers as Lonely Planet's online Hong Kong guide. But it does cover a lot of territory you may otherwise miss.
Electronic Explorer appears monthly. Laura Bly welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.