While the major search engines continue to dabble with shortcuts to reference sources, Wikipedia and Answers.com have quietly evolved into two of the most comprehensive online search resources for quick, free and reliable ready reference information.
Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia, written and edited by volunteers. There have been many debates about the relative value of the Wikipedia and commercial encyclopedias. Most of the focus has been on the fact that the structure of the Wikipedia (like any other wiki, or collaboratively-created document) allows anyone to change an existing article and, with some limitations, to create a new article. Fortunately, the Wikipedia is "tended" by a number of editors, and people who have authored articles can also monitor any changes to their material, which serves as a quick correction to changes that are wrong or malicious.
While I take anything I read in the Wikipedia with a grain of salt, I do the same for any other reference source. I had a project a while ago that involved the market for tungsten, something I knew little about. I realized that I first had to figure out what this metal was and what it was used for. I headed over to Wikipedia and... bingo! The article there gave me plenty of background information, so I could head off to other sources to get the information my client needed.
There's a lot of intelligence built into the Wikipedia. I was looking for information on a breed of dog that a friend thinks may be part of my puppy's very mixed parentage, so I typed "viszla" in the search box. Happily, I was redirected to the article on Vizslas, a Hungarian hunting dog. And if you search for "Mercury", you will be shown a "disambiguation" page that lists the various entries for Mercury, including the planet, the element, the car, and even the singer Freddie Mercury.
Just be warned—the Wikipedia is addictive. Each article is full of links to related concepts, and once you start clicking, there goes an hour of your day.
The other ready-reference site I use frequently is Answers.com (http://www.answers.com), formerly the fee-based GuruNet. While the site offers some plug-ins that I don't feel the need for, its main strength is in providing quick answers. Answers.com also has a useful "auto search" feature: Just type its URL followed by the topic you want to search in any browser address bar—for example, http://answers.com/tungsten.
The tungsten entry in Answers.com includes:
- Several dictionary definitions, along with an audio file with someone pronouncing the word
- A brief entry from the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia
- The Wikipedia article on tungsten
- Translations of the word into 14 languages
- A link to a "best of the web" site, pointing you to a relevant page from one of the US Department of Energy labs
And a search for Boeing retrieves:
- A brief company profile
- Links to 10 recent articles on the company
- Stock price information
- The Wikipedia article on Boeing
- Links to "best of the web" sites; curiously, no link to Boeing's own site
Answers.com works best for quick look-ups—aggregated information on a city or a company, for example, or how to pronounce a word. Since much of its content comes from the Wikipedia, if you need more in-depth information, you are better off just going directly to the Wikipedia.
AOL's Pinpoint Travel URLYesterday's SearchDay inadvertently omitted a link to AOL's new Pinpoint Travel. The URL is http://www.pinpointravel.com.
NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.