The World Wide Web - an Introduction Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The World Wide Web - an Introduction

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The World Wide Web is what you're sifting through right now in your browser. It is big, noisy, sprawling and riddled with a particularly sloppy form of free speech. In short, the World Wide Web isn't like anything that's ever been before. It's the type of freedom you dreamed of as a child, at about 1/8th of the load time.

These days the WWW has taken over from many of the things which were once distinct areas of the Internet. Chat is now available on the Web, as is the whole of Usenet and various email services too.

You see, if it exists, it's on the World Wide Web. You've just gotta learn to ask sweet and make sure it's the right question. You see, there are millions of lovely pages and billions more that aren't so nice. The trick is to work out which is which and then get there before the person who put it up gets bored and pulls it back down.

The web is like a library with a logical filing system. Rather than sorting information by category or letter of the alphabet, the Web sorts things by their relationship to one another, connecting them by hyperlinks. Just like the one that came at the end of the last sentence.

A hyperlink joins any two points anywhere on the Internet together. A hyperlink can hook up with another web page, an email address, an image or just about anything else on the Internet. By clicking a hyperlink, you could download a new operating system, buy a cat, order a case of champagne, fall in love or be introduced to things you'd never thought actual people ever did in real life.

Hyperlinks are typically blue, but can come in other colours depending on what the builder of the page has specified. If the link is text, it will generally be underlined. If it is an image, it might be surrounded by a blue (or other coloured) border. Visited links usually morph into a different colour, so you'll know that you've been there before. The easiest way to tell if something is a hyperlink is to move your mouse pointer over it and see if it changes (usually to a hand).

An image map is another form of linking. An image map is a large image (what did you expect?) with different links embedded in it. Clicking on different parts of the map will take you to different spots on the Internet.

A new form of hyperlink involves DHTML. What happens is this: you run your mouse over an image. The image moves or changes. It's a link. You click it. Simple.

Basic Browser Functions

At the top of your browser you'll see a few basic functions. These vary from browser to browser and from version to version: for the best results, always get the most updated version you can find. The language of the Web is always evolving, and it takes a clever browser to keep up with it.

These are a few basic buttons and how best to use them. The most fruitful thing to do, however, is have a play. Don't worry, you won't break anything. If the program or computer does crash, however, it is most likely because you bit off some bad Java, or inadvertendly downloaded something your browser hadn't been properly introduced to yet. Don't worry. Open the browser back up or restart to computer. Be brave.

  • Back - As you may already suspect (and if you don't suspect, lie) the Back button allows you to go back through the pages you've already seen. Your browser will remember all of the addresses you've been to since that browser window was opened, so you can go back as far as you want, and it will actually store a certain number of pages temporarily on your hard disc for faster reloading time.

  • Forward - If you've been using the Back button, the Forward button will let you go, well... forward again. You can't visit pages you haven't already been to in this way, however.

  • Stop - In theory, the Stop button stops the page from loading. In practice, by the time you realise you're not on the right page, or you have enough of it downloaded for your purposes, your computer is so absorbed in its task that it ignores you completely. It's worth a try, however, particularly if it's a big gristly page that's taking its own sweet time.

  • Refresh/Reload - If you have a page loaded in your bookmarks or favourites, or if it's set up as your home page, it will often be stored somewhere in your computer, so even if the page has been updated, it will look exactly the same in your browser. You can then refresh/reload the page to get the new information. Alternatively, your page may have stalled during loading for whatever reason, and the Refresh/Reload button may remind it of what it was doing. What can we tell you? The Web is an imperfect world.

  • Home - This will take you back to the page assigned as your browser's home page (you can change your home page in the Preferences or Options window, which is accessible through one of the menus).

  • Favourites/Bookmarks - This is where you keep track of different pages you think you'll want to visit again. If you have a whole load of these, you may want to sort them into folders so they're easier to browse.

  • History - This is where all the information about your past visits is stored. Fortunately, most browsers allow you to delete compromising information.

  • Search - This button is tied into whatever search engines your browser is favouring at that particular moment. You'll usually have the choice of a few different ones, but eventully you'll be brave enough to strike out on your own and find the search engines that work best for you (more information available here).

  • Preferences - A shortcut to your browser's preferences menu, where you can input all of the settings for your browser.

  • Print - If you're connected up to a printer, this will print the contents of the page in the browser. However, not all pages are print friendly, so don't be surprised if your printout doesn't look much like the screen version.

  • Auto Fill - Gives you the option of allowing the computer to fill out a form with basic information instead of you having to type it in every time.

  • Mail - Takes you to the emailer specified in your preferences menu.

  • Security - Shows any relevant security information relating to the page you are currently in.

Some browsers have other buttons, and programs are always evolving and adding and taking things away. Don't be afraid of your browser - if you move your mouse over an unfamiliar button, it'll tell you what it's for. If you still don't understand, try clicking it and see what happens.

Searching The Internet

There are billions of pages online. No one knows exactly how many billions, but billions. And as anyone with under a thousand pounds in their pocket will tell you, there isn't much to say after you've hit about three million. The question has always been, and looks to be for even longer, how? How do you find what you need to know? Thousands of search engines have tried to sort that one out, with varying levels of success.

Below are listed some of our favourites for a good, basic search. Some have a preference as to how you enter your query, and others just sit there like soggy stoats, blinking, dripping and smiling benignly. For those, the best and perhaps only suggestion is that you make your search as specific as possible. Enter in single words rather than sentence, separate words with spaces, and if you're looking for a particular phrase, put the phrase in inverted commas (these things - " - also known as speech marks). Try to use as appropriate a search engine as possible, and if you can't find what you're looking for in one, try another. All search engines search only a small portion of the net. It's possible that what you're looking for isn't under the jurisdiction of the one you started out with.

Playing with the Big Boys

These search engines have established themselves as the darlings of the Web, and are certainly neat, efficient and given to a few too many returns.

  • Altavista - A good all-rounder that searches both the Web and the Usenet. Very sleek and cooperative, and doesn't put up with too many repeats (sites showing up six times on one page for one search).

  • DejaNews - DejaNews is by far the best place to go to search out Usenet articles and spy on your Usenet friends. It's now also forming a little community, where you can vote for your favourite actor, send emails and squirrel around on the Usenet.

  • Excite - Becoming more a community than a search engine, Excite is currently an Apple darling, with international editions that provide weather and TV listings and various other things you don't really go to a search engine for. However, when you do find something with them, it tends to be exactly what you were looking for.

  • Google - Rapidly becoming a market leader (in fact, it's cleverly developed into a verb: 'to google'), this search engine ranks pages by how many other pages link to them. The more a page is linked to, the more popular it is, and the more popular it is, the more likely it is to contain the information you're looking for. What a great idea.

  • HotBot A smart search engine that excels at reading page content instead of just meta tags (the stuff imbedded in the page that gives keyword and description information about the content of the page).

  • InfoSeek - A funny little search engine that's taken to acting like a guide, picking out sites that it's already sussed out for you. Still, it's quick and pretty accurate for a search engine and provides a lot of the stuff that Excite now does.

  • Lycos - Not that great for general searches but really good for finding specifics, like sound or image files (options can be found under 'search options').

  • Magellan - Good if you want a rated site, not so good if you want something specific or if you want to set out on your own.

  • Northern Light - Searches not just the Web but also books, magazines, journals, news-wires, the lot. Nicely organized.

  • Yahoo - Rather than going out and getting the Web, the Web comes to Yahoo. For Yahoo to list a site, it must have first registered its info with Yahoo. Everything is neatly sorted into categories, and the occasional useful review is provided. It also has great email and the 'My Yahoo' site option. There are lots of other community services too, like weather, news, stocks and regional Yahoo which can search according to a particular part of the world.

Always Picking on the Little Guy

Often (call it luck, call it tenacity) the little guys can be just as good, if not better, than the big ones. They can also be more specialized, and thus more useful.

  • Ask Jeeves - On Ask Jeeves you enter your queries in plain English that the site then tries to translate into a question it knows the answer to. Sometimes it's way off, but the results can be interesting. This is all helped by the fact that it also brings back a list of results from a bunch of more traditional search engines at the same time.

  • Disinformation - What your mother always told you the net would be. Lots of geek science, religious wackos, conspiracy theories and grungy politics.

  • Electric Library - Searches for international newspapers, magazines, books, maps, photos and news-wires. It comes at a cost, but is well worth it for some elbows-in research.

  • EuroSeek - Multilingual directory and search engine.

  • Gopher - Searching Go on and pat the tired old war-horse of gopherspace. He'll be pleased to know that someone remembered.

  • HumanSearch - You submit the search to a human and they look for stuff. Weird, we know.

  • IBM InfoMarket - The stuff that's too dry for the rest of the Web: company newsletters, corporate databases, technical journals...

  • Lexis-Nexus - An extremely efficient, selective archive of information. A must for research.

  • Mamma - The mother of all search engines, apparently. Mamma searches through several search engines and ranks all of the results. Surprisingly accurate.

  • UKOnline - A sturdy British search engine.

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