5 Really Simple Things Everyone Should Know About the Internet

I spend most of my days working on Web sites. It's what I do for a living. So, naturally, I also answer a lot of questions about the Internet from people who don't know how to do things I consider simple, everyday tasks. Sometimes, this can be frustrating, but I then remind myself that mechanics change the oil in cars every day and I couldn't tell you how to do that, so what do I know?

Still, when I go to the mechanic, I have enough knowledge about my car to explain what is wrong or what needs to be done. I also know enough to keep from getting billed for things that aren't necessary. The same should go for your knowledge of the Internet, a place you visit far more often than you do your mechanic. Based on years of being asked similar questions, here are the five most basic questions and answers.

5. What is a URL? The Internet is loaded with acronyms. In this case, URL stands for "uniform resource locator." In short, the URL is the address of every Web site. So, http://www.houstonpress.com is the URL for the Houston Press Web site. Additionally, http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs is the URL of the Hair Balls blog. This can go all the way down to the actual page, like my last blog post, for example: http://blogs.houstonpress.com/hairballs/2013/03/and_then_there_were_two_fillin.php

These addresses are designed to make it easier to find a particular Web site or page of a Web site, for reasons that will soon become clear.

4. What is the difference between a domain name and a Web site? In short, houstonpress.com, fark.com, google.com, these are domain names. Just the text. That's it. The Web site is what shows up when you type one of these names into your browser. In essence, the Web site is just a bunch of files that have code in them. They allow you to read what you are reading, see images, leave comments, etc. Think of a domain name as being like the address to your house and your house like the Web site.

In fact, the domain name is basically a shortcut to a Web site. The addresses used behind the scenes are simply a combination of numbers that would be much more difficult to remember -- and not nearly as interesting -- as names. Just as the address to your home is easier to remember than zone c, grid 5, plot 207.3 or a set of coordinates.

Bottom line: No one would confuse their house for their address. Don't do that with domain names and Web sites.

3. How do I choose a browser other than Internet Explorer (or Safari) and why should I? Choosing a browser on your computer or your phone is very easy. You're not required to use Internet Explorer (IE) or Safari (though it could be argued you're doing fine with Safari). In fact, there are quite a few browsers out there on the market and none of them cost a cent. There are plenty of arguments about which browser is best, but it is basically universal that IE is the worst in most respects -- speed tests have recently shown newer versions to be faster than alternatives, but it still doesn't handle displaying Web sites well.

Your other primary options are Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox, though there are others, like Opera for desktop and iCab for mobile. Most offer more options and better ease of use than IE (some even better than Safari). Give them a shot. Once you get used to them, you'll be glad you did.  

2. Can I do more than just search with words on Google? Of course, you could always use the Google Advanced Search option, but there are quicker ways to get what you're looking for just by going to Google (or you could just type it into the URL line if you are using Google Chrome -- see what I just did?). If you are searching for a phrase or exact name, put quotes around it. This is particularly helpful if you have words like "a" or "the" in a phrase or name. Searching for Andre the Giant will get you good results because Google is smart enough to know who that is. But if you really want to make sure you don't get results just for Andre or just for Giant, type it like "Andre the Giant." Google will search for the phrase.

Also, if you have a search that includes a lot of responses you don't want, you can refine it. For example, if you are looking for Texas Cowboys but don't want responses related to that crappy team in Dallas, type in "Texas Cowboys -Dallas." The minus sign tells Google to omit any results with Dallas in them. You can do the reverse by using the plus sign before a word. There are a ton of things Google can do with shortcuts. Check this link for more.

1. How do you reload a page (and refresh your cache)? This is, without a doubt, the single most repeated bit of information I provide to customers. In short, the cache (pronounced like "cash") is a repository for Web sites and images in every browser (like IE or Chrome). The browser stores this information to make surfing the Web faster. Basically, if you went to a page of a Web site in the last 24 hours, it will be stored in your cache. So, if anything has changed since then, you must reload the page in your browser to see those changes. You do that by clicking the little reload/refresh button found at the top of every browser. Also, CTRL+F5 will work on Windows and Command+R for Mac.

Sometimes, a page will get stuck in your cache and you need to dump the entire cache just to get it out of there. Here is the best explanation of how to do that I have found.

It should be noted that there are some Web sites that force you to reload a new page every time, thus bypassing this issue. There are also times when your inability to see changes to a Web site has nothing to do with the cache and requires the intervention of an IT professional. But this is a good, basic rule of thumb and a great starting point.

Bonus: What is the difference between a Web host and an ISP? This one has vexed clients of mine in the past. They go to their Web site and it isn't working. They immediately call me to ask why the server is down. When I realize it isn't, I ask them to try another Web site, like Google. When they go there and it isn't working either, I tell them it is not a problem with the hosting but with their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

To simplify, Comcast/Infinity, ATT U-verse and others are ISPs. They provide you with access to the entire Internet. Web hosting companies are organizations that store Web sites and make them accessible to the Internet. So, to access any Web site, you must first be able to connect to the Internet. If you can't, you won't see ANY Web sites, let alone your own. Now, if you can reach Google and other Web sites but not your own, then it's time to call your Web hosting provider.

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