Archive for January, 1998

Strands of the Web

Thursday, January 1st, 1998

(This column first appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Dive Report)

My last several columns have guided you from an empty desktop to being able to send e-mail and make a good impression on people when you do so. Now I’ll cover what you’ve all been waiting for: The World Wide Web.

When you think of a web, you probably think of the thing that spiders weave to catch their meals. Each part of the spider’s web is connected, in some way, to the rest of the web. Picture one  particular strand of such a Web. To get to another part of the Web, you just need to navigate through one or more nodes where multiple strands meet, until you get to where you want. The Internet’s World Wide Web, also known as just the “Web”, was named because it’s conceptually similar to a spider’s web – each part of the Internet’s Web connects in some way to another part, and you can navigate from one Web site to another via one or more interconnecting nodes. The only things that are different is that the Web is more convoluted than any horde of spiders could actually weave, and some of the terminology is different.

The Web is divided into hundreds of thousands or even millions of Web sites. A Web site is a collection of individual Web pages, with the main page on a site usually referred to as a “home page”. When you surf the Web, you look at one Web page at a time. Any part of the text or a graphic on a Web page can be a “link”. As you move your cursor across a link, you’ll get some indication that you can click your mouse on it to make something happen. In particular, clicking on a link will almost always cause you to go to another Web page. Some links, however, may send you to a different part  of the same Web page you’re on, while others may allow you to send someone e-mail.

A Web page may have no links on it whatsoever or hundreds or thousands of links (both of these types of pages reflect poor design practices). Normal, well designed pages, will have links to other key pages on a Web site to allow a site to be easily navigated, and may possibly have links to pages on other sites as well, if appropriate.

The Web differs from other Internet communications means I’ve presented in that it allows for the blending of text, graphics, and even animation and sound, which is a lot more visually pleasing than a boring old e-mail message, plus it can convey a lot more information in less space. Remember the adage: a picture is worth a thousand words? It definitely applies to the Web. The Web is the 1990s form of communicating ideas and concepts, just as desktop publishing was the revolutionary communications breakthrough of the 1980s.

Companies and individuals routinely use the Web to promote products, services, and ideas. For companies, the Web acts as an on-line brochure for what they are offering, which has the added benefit of being dynamic. That means that if there’s a typo, the company can just fix the Web page and be done with it instead of having to reprint thousands of flyers. Similarly, if new products or services become available, a Web page can be quickly modified. A growing number of companies are also successfully using the Web to sell products and services directly, so that Web surfers can  just enter their personal information, like address,  credit card numbers, etc., on a Web page and order these products and services on-line. Companies with well designed and implemented on-line  strategies tie their Web sites together with regular e-mail news bulletins about what’s new at the company and on the company’s Web site, thereby keeping people interested and informed.

Thanks to numerous individuals, universities, and companies, the Web is also becoming an amazing repository of both useful and questionable material. There are Web sites dealing with sharks, Japanese animation, dive clubs, squid recipes, Greek philosophy… you name it and it’s probably on the Web somewhere.

Getting on the Web
Of course, you can’t take advantage of the Web without a couple of key items. To surf the Web, you need access to the Internet (which you should have by now), and a Web browser – a piece of software that can translate the language of the Web, known as HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language), into the visual representations the Web page authors intended.

If you use Windows 95, chances are that your system already has Microsoft’s Internet Explorer installed on it (see Figure 1). Internet Explorer is Microsoft’s Web browser offering, and it’s free. In my opinion, however, you get what you pay for, and Internet Explorer also has some real potential for letting hackers into your system while you’re on-line Web surfing. I prefer Netscape’s Navigator Web browser (see Figure 2), which is also free (at http://home.netscape.com).


Figure 1. View of Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 browsing the PADI site. The PADI site has a separate menu of clickable buttons on the left to link you to other parts of their Web site. The underlined, colored text at right is also clickable and brings you to pages which discuss the selected item in greater detail. When I brought up the Web site, the song “A Merry Little Christmas” started playing in the background, all as part of PADI’s Christmas theme on their Web site – a nice touch.


Figure 2. View of Netscape Navigator browsing the InfoBonaire site. The InfoBonaire site (which my wife and I designed) uses a simplified front end. Menu buttons are still present on the left and the text at right is in just a single column with explanatory text and only a few links.

To look at a specific Web page with your browser, you need to know that page’s address on the Web, much as you need the phone number of a person if you’re going to try and call them. A Web address is specified as a URL (pronounced “your-ull” ), which stands for Uniform Resource Locator.

A URL has three parts, the protocol specifier, the actual name or number used to refer to the Web server where Web page you want is located, and a page location on that server, as in the following:

http://www.richterscale.org/InternetTutorial/DiveReport_97MayJun.html

or

http://www.infobonaire.com

The “http://” is the protocol specifier (it stands for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol), and tells the Web browser that you’re looking at Web pages. The “www.richterscale.org” and “www.infobonaire.com” are the names of the Web servers we’re looking at. The “www.” prefix is a formality – many sites can be accessed just by specifying the Internet domain names without the “www.” in front, as in  http://cnn.com, which gets you to CNN’s home page. Other domains may even use something other than “www.” to specify access to their Web servers. Finally, in the first example above, “/InternetTutorial/DiveReport_97MayJun.html” refers to a specific Web page, one that happens to contain the text of my May/June 1997 column for Dive Report. The page name is optional, and if omitted, as in the second example, will cause the home page to be browsed. Because the Web consists of countless millions of pages, with thousands being added daily, it’s rather difficult to know exactly where to look for a page with specific information on the topic you’re interested in. It’s one thing to be getting the latest world news from CNN’s Web site, but quite another to find the Web page (if it even exists) for a dive resort you’re interested in visiting or a dive shop near you.

This complexity of the Web has resulted in need for something called a Web search engine. A Web search engine is a Web site you go to where you can enter a series of keywords and get a list of Web pages which contain the words you entered. These search engines accomplish this by creating huge databases where they catalog the Web on a constant basis, crawling along all the links they find to other links and so on and so on. The top search engines (see Figure 3) have databases containing the text of tens if not hundreds of millions of Web pages. You’ll find out as you use any search engine, not every search result is actually applicable, but with time and experience, you’ll learn to determine which search engines perform the best for you, and which results to ignore. Because search engines are such a key part to locating specific information on the Web, it’s critical that companies wanting to reach the tens of millions of Web surfers have a good Web site and have done a good job registering their Web sites with the various search engines.

In my next column, I’ll discuss how you can create your own Web site and Web pages, including an overview of some of the software you can use to make this process go smoothly. In the meantime, enjoy your Web surfing.


Search Engine URL
Altavista http://altavista.digital.com
Excite http://www.excite.com
HotBot http://www.hotbot.com
Infoseek http://www.infoseek.com
Lycos http://www.lycos.com
MetaCrawler http://www.metacrawler.com
NetFind http://netfind.aol.com
WebCrawler http://www.webcrawler.com
Yahoo http://www.yahoo.com

Figure 3. List of the top Web search engines