Chapter 22 - Browsing the Web

You can't watch a television commercial or drive by a billboard without seeing a www-dot-something. The World Wide Web, which revolutionized the Internet by turning boring text screens into an engaging interactive environment, is the place to be.

Marilyn, who regularly uses the Internet for genealogical research, also loves to browse travel-related Web sites. For her last vacation, she used the Web to book her flight and other accommodations.

"I didn't have to go to the ticket counter," she says. "I went straight to the gate."

Darryl, who also books his travel online, says the Web journey can be as fun as finding what you're looking for.

"When I first started using it, I just surfed randomly and enjoyed the trip," Hannon says. "But the real value of the Net is the wide array of information (most good, some bad) that it makes available to someone willing to go looking."

In this chapter, we'll talk about browsing the Web and mention a few sites along the way.

Feel free to browse around

Once you establish a connection to the Internet, you access the Web through a program called a browser. Two popular Web browsers are Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox.

After you launch your browser, you'll see a small box near the top marked address or location. This is where you type the Internet address or "URL" you want to visit. (For you trivia buffs, URL stands for uniform resource locator.)

You'll also notice a navigation toolbar with several icons. The main ones are:

  • Back button: Returns you to the previous page you visited
  • Forward button: If you've used the back button to return to a page, you can use the forward button to go the other way.
  • Refresh/reload button: Updates or reloads the current Web page from its server
  • Stop button: Stop downloading the currently loading page
  • Home button: Return to your home page (the one that automatically launches when you start your browser)
  • Print icon: Prints the current page

Visiting your first Web page

So much for the drum roll. If you've started your Web browser, you've already visited your first page. (And being this is an online book, I guess that's a given!)

Your browser is set with a default page, also known as the "home page," which loads automatically when the program starts. (We'll show you how to change your home page a bit later in this chapter..)

To "surf" to a different site, just type the Web address in the window and hit Return or the Go button. If you're baffled by Web site names, don't worry. You're about to get a crash course.

Web address anatomy 101

Web site names can appear long and complicated, but the alternative would be having to remember 12-digit numeric IP addresses for each site. Let's break down a typical Web address into its parts.

http://www.apple.com/

You'll notice that addresses are often prefaced with "http://" which is pronounced "HTTP colon slash slash." It refers hypertext transfer protocol, which is the method used to transmit Web pages over the Internet. (Don't you just love all of these acronyms?)

In the early days of browsers, you'd have to begin each site with http://. Now it's automatic, so you'd get to the same place if you just typed:

www.apple.com

Lets look at the three parts of this address from right to left.

The last section (.com) is known as the top-level domain. It's a two or three letter code determined by Internet standards set long ago. These are the main ones:

  • .com - Commercial site
  • .net - Primarily Internet companies and providers, but also used by other commercial sites
  • .gov - Governmental agencies
  • .edu - Schools, universities and other educational organizations
  • .mil - Military
  • .org - Nonprofit organizations

There are also such country-specific top-level domains such as .ca for Canada, .uk for united kingdom and .jp for Japan.

With so many new sites jumping online each day, we've already started to outgrow this naming system. That's why the gurus have added new suffixes such as .biz and .info.

The middle section of www.apple.com is called the second-level or sub domain name. It, along with the top-level domain, identifies the server. So when someone uses the generic phrase "domain name," they're typically referring to the last two parts (apple.com).

The first part of the address, the "www," is an acronym for World Wide Web. Most Web addresses begin with www, but they don't have to. For instance buy.apple.com is another page on Apple's server.

These are called canonical domain names and are chosen by the site owner (Apple in our example). You can even skip the first part altogether. For instance apple.com takes us to the same place as www.apple.com. That's common, but it doesn't work on all sites.

Any part of a Web address after the top level domain refers to subfolders and files on the Web site's server. Folders are separated by slashes. Pages typically end in .htm or .html. For example:

www.apple.com/imac/ or www.apple.com/imac/design.html

These pages are still on Apple's Web site, but they're different Web pages. The term "Web site" is used to describe a collection of pages at one domain. The "home page" is the main page of a site, although you'll also hear that phrase used to describe someone's personal Web page.

Web page features

Although they contain much more, most Web pages are comprised of images combined with text and "hyperlinks." Hyperlinks are text phrases or graphics that, when clicked, take you to another Web page. They typically appear blue and underlined (purple and underlined if you recently visited the site), but Web designers make them look however they want.

If you continually click on hyperlinks, you'll keep moving around to different pages without ever typing in a new address.

History

Your Web browser's history file contains the Web addresses of each site you've previously visited. These footprints might seem a bit Big Brother-ish, but they're kept locally and you can clear them whenever you want.

In Internet Explorer, click on Tools (or View if you're using an older version) and choose Internet Options. Click on Clear History and its memory will be wiped clean. In Firefox, click on Tools and choose Options, then click on the Clear button next to History.

Your browser also stores temporary files to speed page loads on sites you visit frequently. Those files can be cleared in the same area.

Favorites and bookmarks

We all find great sites that we want to visit regularly. What a pain it would be if we had to type in their full URLs every time we visit. Fortunately, there's a shortcut. Favorites (Internet Explorer) and bookmarks (Firefox) let us save the addresses of sites to easily retrieve them later.

Just click on Favorites - Add Favorite (IE) or Bookmarks - Bookmark This Page (Firefox) and the site will be added to a master list. When you want to return, just go to your favorites or bookmarks, click the item and you're there!

It's a good idea to go edit your bookmarks or favorites occasionally to weed out sites you no longer care to visit or ones that have gone belly up. Not all Web sites last for life, and it's nice to keep our list useful and current. You can also create subfolders to keep them more organized.

Start page and portals

When you launch your Web browser, it starts you off on a particular "home page." If you'd like to start elsewhere each time, that page is easily changed.

In Internet Explorer, go to Tools (or View in earlier versions) and choose Internet Options. You'll see a place at the top to choose your starting page. In Firefox, go to Tools and click on the General button. Type the address of your starting site under home page.

If you'd prefer no page to load automatically when you start Internet Explorer, you can choose the "Blank" button or type "about:blank" for the start page.

Many sites let you create your own custom portals, which are pages that feature news and other information relevant to you. You could create a page with local news, your stock quotes and scores from your favorite sports teams. Most search engines and Internet service providers offer this free service. A couple of examples are Yahoo! and Google.

Searching

With millions of Web sites to choose from, how do you decide where to go? It's easy when someone gives you a specific address to visit. It's a greater challenge when you have to find the site yourself.

Search engines such as Google and MSN Search are Web sites that automatically grab content and keywords from millions of Web pages to create a gigantic index.

Just enter some words or phrases into the search box and the engine will look through its database, diligently trying to find what you are looking for. The site will return a list of results that (you hope!) are relevant. Browse through and find a Web sites that suits you.

Successful searching involves the same thinking you would use to research a topic manually at your local library. Think of relevant keywords, use your common sense and be creative.

For instance, if you're looking for sites about New Jersey revolutionary war battles, you might type "Revolutionary War Jersey." If you want to know look up Roger Maris' batting average in 1961, you could type, "Maris Yankees statistics."

It's also important to keep in mind how a particular search engine interprets the words you enter. Most search engines treat keywords individually, so typing, "California housing prices" will seek out pages with the words "California" and "housing" and "prices."

Although it's less common, others might treat those same words as a phrase and look only for sites with "California housing prices" somewhere on the page. Some require you to use Boolean terms such as "AND" or "OR" between search terms. If you want to search for an exact phrase instead of keywords, enclose the phrase in quotation marks.

Choosing "Advanced search" will give you a bit more control over the process, but don't expect searches to yield only relevant results. Even with good search terms, you may have to search through one, two or even three pages listing possible sites to find what you're looking for. And you might not find anything, so don't be afraid to try again with a new combination of keywords.

If you're getting too many results, try a more specific search. If you're getting too few, make it more vague. Another option is to use a site such as DogPile, which accesses multiple search engines at one time.

Plug-ins

Although early Web pages featured just text and maybe a couple of images, the Web now integrates sound, video and even small programs. Newer browsers have most of these capabilities built-in.

When your browser encounters a file format it can't handle, it'll suggest that you download a plug-in. Plug-ins are tiny helper programs that add new capabilities to our browser.

Here are some recommended plug-ins:

  • Real Networks' RealPlayer - supports streaming audio and video
  • Apple's QuickTime - supports sound and video
  • Macromedia's Shockwave and Flash players - support animation
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader - supports portable document files (PDFs), which are like electronic photocopies. They're common for online user manuals and other print type documents.

These programs allow you to download and extract compressed files from the Internet

  • WinZip - Windows
  • StuffIt Expander - Mac

You'll need them if you'll be doing any downloading from the Net.

The Web minus the computer

If we're to believe all the hype - and I'm not sure I do - the new rage is accessing Internet sites on our cell phones, PDAs etc. The problem is that sites are much more difficult to read on a two-and-a-half-inch-high screen that they are on a monitor. Sites are starting to design special mobile-ready versions of their Web pages to appeal to this growing market.

NEXT - Chapter 23 - Interacting with others