As a retired computer professional I spend quite a lot of my time helping people out with their computers and tablets. I often come across confusion over internet terminology. The world of computers and technology is awash with jargon, buzzwords and incomprehensible terms. Sometimes this ‘language’ helps to perpetuate the mystique surrounding computers. Some might even say that it can add value to manufacturers’ products by making something fairly simple sound complex to entice consumers to pay more for something. Getting the wrong idea about some of this computer terminology can really hold people back from using their computers and lead them to adopt practices that they think are correct but in fact are erroneous. In this first of a series of blog posts I hope to be able to shed some light on this confusing ‘techno-babble’ and help you to see that, with a better understanding, computers and the internet are not quite such a dark art as some would claim. To start with I shall deal with the Internet, Search Engines and Browsers.
Let’s look first at the Internet. Put simply the Internet is the place where the sum total of all human knowledge can be accessed. You may say that actually human knowledge can be found in books, writing, pictures and articles, which all existed long before the internet. This is true but the internet can lead you to where this information can be found. That is why I use the term "can be accessed" instead of "is stored". But what is the internet? A common misconception is that it is a massive computer hidden in a mountain range somewhere in America or India or Russia. In fact the information is stored on thousands of computers all around the world. Information about one particular subject might even be spread across several different computers in different countries. Some individuals permit their own computers to be used to store information that other people can access. Don’t worry, however, that your own computer might be being used in this way. You would have to give explicit permission to allow this to happen. On the other hand, say that you share some information with others (perhaps by way of a post on Facebook for example), and the recipient then shares that with others, you can see how several versions of that information can exist around the world thanks to the internet. This may help you to understand that the internet is not one big computer “in the sky” but exists as a massive collection of computers all connected by electronic communication. It is true that a great deal of the information is stored on massive computers. Amazon for example hold their information on lots of huge super computers (called ‘servers’) all interconnected. While we are about it, the expression I used about computers “in the sky” is maybe the origin of the other term for the internet that you often hear – ‘the Cloud’.
Now let’s look at Search Engines. To be able to find information on the internet you need to know where it is located. Individual websites all carry a unique reference number known as an Internet Protocol address (IP address). For example, the IP address of one of the BBC’s computers is 184.108.40.206. This IP address can be translated into something more readable called a Uniform Resource Locator (URL). The URL for the BBC’s IP address is www.bbc.co.uk (where WWW stands for World Wide Web). The hundreds of bits of news and information held by the BBC each have their own URL prefixed by the BBC’s URL. Thus News would www.bbc.co.uk/news. The numbers and letters that follow the / sign after the BBC URL can be very complex indeed. Very often they consist of a number which represents the number of the page where the BBC holds its information. For example, the starting point for information on the BBC about the forthcoming election can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2019-50347661 . Of course if you know the URL of the site you want to visit it can be easier to find that on the internet by putting the address into your browser (see below to read about browsers). But very often we want to find out about something but either do not know the exact web address or (more probably) we have a generic question. This is where Search Engines come into their own. A search engine is the start point for a query. It lets you type in what you are looking for and it then “goes off” and searches the internet for sites that might contain what you are seeking. The engine then displays (returns) a vast number of “hits” usually in order of the most relevance to your search. You can then click on one of these “hits” and the search engine will take you to the appropriate site. There are quite literally hundreds of search engines globally. Many are generic and others are subject-specific. A comprehensive list of these engines can be found at this link http://www.thesearchenginelist.com/. However, if you ask most people they will tell you that they use Google. Google makes up for about 70% of the search engine market. NB. Google is NOT a browser but it DOES own CHROME which is a browser. You can, though, use Google with any browser. An important point to make about search engines is that they get paid for finding web sites and presenting them to you in a list. If you “click” on a link and go to a web site a fraction of a penny will go to the search engine and, if you consider that Google alone handles some 3.5Bn searches every day those fractions soon add up. Not only this but some companies pay large sums of money to ensure that their sites appear as near to the top of the list of hits as possible. This is why you should always look out for the word Ad alongside the hit list which indicates a paid-for entry. Search engines also present you with their list of hits based on the popularity of particular web sites or the prominence of the topic in the latest news. If you are looking for obscure references and subjects it is often worthwhile going much further down the list of hits and seeing what is there. One other point to note about search engines concerns the choice of words you use to put into the search box. Many think that you need to write lengthy, full sentences to get an answer. Say, for example, that you need to find out about wiring a United Kingdom plug. There is no need to write “Please tell me how I can wire a United Kingdom plug”. Simply “wire uk plug” will get the same answers. Note, also, that you don’t need capital letters in a Google search.
Lastly let’s look at Browsers. A browser is the software that enables you to visit sites found by your search on the internet and displays them on your computer/tablet/phone screen. All browsers have an address box and this will show the internet address of the site you are visiting. If you already know the site you want you can also start your browser and enter the site address yourself in the address box. Most browsers have facilities like Favourites, Bookmarks and History so that you can go straight back to a previously-visited site without going through the search engine or typing in a lengthy address. Like search engines, there are many browsers; some are Microsoft-specific others are not. The traditional Microsoft browser was Internet Explorer that newer versions of Windows now call Edge. Other popular browsers are Firefox (produced by a company called Mozilla), Opera (originally developed by a Norwegian company called Telenor but now called just Opera) and Chrome (which is produced by Google). In fact, there are literally hundreds of browsers around the world. Some are generic for everyday use and others are subject or profession specific. Take a look at a great list of browsers at http://www.thesearchenginelist.com/. Try some out and see what sort of information they present you with.
Hopefully this post has clarified some of the mystery surrounding computers. If you need to ask a specific question feel free to get in touch through my Contact page. In future posts I plan to explain some of the other terms we use in the world of computers.