“May contain nuts!”…….. Navigating the internet (or “When and how to search”)

“At the roundabout, take the first exit”
“In two more clicks you have reached ‘a’ destination…..(it might not be yours, and it might not be safe)”

Imagine if your car Sat Nav picked a destination with only a tenuous link to the address you first entered, ending in the sort of area where you would never willingly stop (at least not and expect to find your wheels and stereo upon your return).  It’s a situation that rarely occurs because we have a rough idea of our intended destination with the Sat Nav helping us negotiate the last few turns and also, in part, because the Sat Nav doesn’t usually have false data to try and catch us out.  Internet search engines, on the other hand, are not always as forgiving.

The first hurdle to over come is “when to search“.  I have to say that I am amazed at the number of people who, with the search engine of choice as a home page, will type a known web address into the search bar and then click the top link, e.g. to access the Amazon web page I see users type “www.amazon.co.uk” into the search engine, click to see the results and then click on the page link.  We don’t go to the phone directory to look up a telephone number we already know, we simply dial the number.  By the same token, if we know the web page we wish to visit we should really simply be typing it straight into the address bar at the top of the page.

Now on to “how to search“.  Sticking with the phone book analogy, if we know we want to contact John Smith, we don’t necessarily dial the first John Smith in the list.  We spend a little bit of time checking the given town or road name to match these details with what we know of our friend John.

I have noticed that, for many users, the habit is to click on the top result of any internet search.  Like a siren luring sailors to their deaths (sort of), the top links can sometimes promise much but deliver something else entirely.  There are various tools – some free, some commercial – designed to help with safe searching but a modicum of common sense goes a long way.

If, for example, you are looking for drivers for a particular printer, head to the manufacturer’s home page.  If you don’t know the correct address use your search engine of choice to look up the brand name.  At this point, take a moment to read the short précis of each result and look at the web link to which it intends to take you.  Somewhere in the top few hits you will probably find brandname.com or brandname.co.uk but, if the link is more like brandname.downloader.net or something with no obvious association with your printer, this is probably not the best site to use.  Quite often these non-genuine sites do have the software you are after (adding to the perception of legitimacy) but will probably also include a number of additional installations that you don’t need or want.  These can affect both the performance of your PC and, ultimately, the security of your personal data.

In recent months my colleagues and I have spent an increasing amount of our time fixing PC’s with adware or malware of one form or another, installed as part of a drive-by browser exploit or during the installation of required software where the user has searched and trusted the results without question.

If you know where you are heading use the address bar and for frequently visited sites consider using bookmarks or adding to favourites – both methods invariably require fewer clicks than typing into the search bar.  When searching, take a little time over the results before clicking.  If you listen carefully, you may just hear a soothing voice intone,

“In one more click, you have reached John Smith’s house…….and he can be trusted.”

Part of the “May contain nuts” series of short articles discussing familiar topics which we should all revisit once in a while.