Learning Computers: Search Engines


Links to all articles included in this series:

  1. The Beginning: Opening introduction to the series
  2. Browsers: What are they? How to make them a safer door to Web.
  3. Search Engines: The Good, Bad and Ugly. Understanding search results. (you are here)
  4. Malware and Virus: What is Malware? – What is a Virus? What is the difference in their types? How to avoid them. How to know if you are infected. How to remove them.
  5. Phishing: Signs of phishing, phishing emails, phishing sites
  6. Computer Optimization: Why is my computer slow? What can I do about it?
  7. Improving Your Email Experience
  8. Enjoying Your Computer: Social Media. Entertaining Activities. Educational Activities.

Making yourself aware of the pitfalls on the web and doing what you should to keep them at bay is the best defense.

Caution - Pitfall

Caution – Pitfall

Programs like WOT shown in the previous post can help, but nothing can take the place of common sense. While a browser may unlock the door to potential threats on the Web, search engines can be the key that throws it wide open.  Ok, that sounds ominous, but what is your actual exposure to threats? Before I get into that, I want to point out that scare tactics are not something I would do or condome.  It worries some clients to the point that, they would rather stay off the internet than use it.  A single message that screams “you are infected” with 125 malicious files is the type of technique scammers use to get you to purchase that useless program they are hawking. Therefore, the answer to the question in the previous paragraph is; I want to assure you that if you take the proper precautions, the web is safe. Thieves are always going to find a way but like car thieves, if your car is locked and the one next to you is not, who do you think is a risk?

Search Engines

Users have a very wide selection of Search Engines, (listed as SEs in this article) and naturally, not all of them are created equally.  Exceptional examples are Bing and Google, and I will tell you why.

Most of you use the SE installed on your machine when you purchased it. If Yahoo, AOL or MSN were pre-installed, you are probably still using it. Why switch to a different program after you have invested time in trying to figure out this one.  Additionally, if you have an Email account associated with them, it is even harder for people to leave.  Companies usually pay computer manufacturers for the privilege of being “the” factory installed software and therefore the first thing you see when you turn on your computer.  They make money on the ads you click and the products you purchase.

Many of these factory installed SEs are very flashy, they are intended to catch the eye and interest of the user, they bombard you with mini-videos, photos and story leads. They are specifically designed that way.  In the example below, I left all my settings to normal and just visited the Yahoo.com website.


Yahoo Search Engine Home Page

Yahoo Search Engine Home Page

This site had an ad that listed “Jim”, my name, and a warning that “Jim” is a victim of Identity theft. Even if the name is just a coincidence, these scare tactics are just the type of thing that leads to actually identity theft.  I am not saying that AOL, Yahoo, and sites like MSN are malicious, they just lend themselves to paid advertisements that can be.

It is not common for them to have any viruses or malware on the actual site but they are not responsible for any links you click.  Several items in the “Trending Now” box are just paid advertisements and I find it troubling that they are not indicated that way. I tried clicking on several items in the Trending Now box and in three clicks or less I was on a page that WOT could not declare trustworthy. Continuing on those sites could lead to malware that would not be the original site’s problem. They just posted a paid ad.  Unfortunately, if a user trusts a site, they tend to believe any links are trustworthy, not so.

If you take the time to look at the above page and similar search engines, you will find a load of celebrity gossip articles, snippets of news and just about anything they can throw on the page to get your attention. Hackers know this an therefore this makes it a rich area for them to target. Many of these sites act more like a one-stop news, weather, and dating site with the actual search ability a second thought. Their number one job is to get you to click on an ad not results.

I always suggest trying something like Bing or Google to my clients but, all too often, they are happy and familiar with what they are using.  They are, after all, legitimate SEs, and all provide a service to their customers.  So why would I want to change a person’s personal home page?  Good Question.  The answers, safety, speed, and accuracy.

My goal is to keep my clients safe. Sure, if you are cautious, you may be safe on any of the major SEs, but, the big guys like Bing and Google are just more likely, in my opinion, to present you with far fewer bad choices. These SE sites have much less clutter on the opening page, but they have excellent search abilities and after all that is why you should use a SE.  Not to see the latest Kardashian farce.


MSN Home Page

MSN Home Page

google

In these two screen shots, the one on the left is a single page of www.msn.com, it is actually too big to show in detail. The middle one is www.google.com.  It does not take much to see that one is full of unnecessary clutter while the other is strictly for searching, and searching I might add, with probably, the best search engine out there. Bing and Google reduce or eliminate ads on their home page. Then they try hard to filter bad sites from the results windows after you make your search. They also present you with results more related to your actual search and they present many fewer ads in the result.

If you must have a little more on the screen, then, another excellent search engine is Bing, it provides a new photo background daily and does give you some trending news from major news sites on the bottom of the screen and most of all it has an excellent SE.

Bing Home Page

All search engines make a lot of money charging people to put their name high on the results list and all have some ads listed as well, but the two mentioned, are more likely to list these ads clearly as ads or in sections declared as ad sections.

To illustrate, see the samples below.  Using the search engines, “Ask” and “Google” I performed the same one word search for a popular free antivirus on both. I entered “Avast”.

google search

In the above image using Google, it displays pretty much what you asked for in your search. Clearly displaying a Yellow Icon to indicate an Ad vs a Result.  Compare it to the search below using Ask as the search engine.

Results In Ask

It is clear that giving you the safest results is not what this website is doing.  It is posting ads and not actual search results.  If you were to click on subsequent pages you might see what you are looking for, but obviously not on page one.  Stay with a search engine that puts you first.

It is important to note that all the flashy articles listed in SEs like Yahoo!, AOL or MSN may be viewed on their original site if you wish. The argument being made here is that you really don’t need celebrity gossip or your horoscope to clutter up your SE.  Furthermore, every time you visit a page like MSN shown above, every image is placed in a cache on your computer.  The more advertisements, the more tracking cookies.

Tool Bars Revisited

Before continuing I want to go back to something I mentioned in the previous post.  Tool bars.  Regardless of the actual SE page you are viewing, if you type your search in a toolbar like “Ask” you are not searching with your SE, you just made “Ask” your SE.  In the image below, there is an Ask toolbar installed in a browser (it could be any other toolbar as well) that has Google as the home page.  If you search in area 1 you will bypass the Google SE altogether. If you search in area 2 you will perform a Google Search.

google with ask

Google Home Page With Ask Toolbar

Cookies

Tracking Cookies

Tracking Cookies Watch Where You Go

A quick note on cookies, there are Good and Bad Cookies.  Good cookies are placed on your computer by your favorite sites.  Perhaps your bank site, your search engine homepage, your recipe or fishing site.  They use them to recognize you when you return to the site.  This way they know you have been there before and they store some information about you on your computer as a shortcut to know you better.

kill cookies

Kill Third Party Cookies

On the other hand, you have the Bad Cookies, often called Tracking Cookies, they are not put there from your favorite sites, they are put there by third parties.  If you will excuse the bad English, some are Badder than others.  Bad cookies just track you and store your information in a giant database.  Not our personal information, it might include your age, gender, physical location, etc.  They then sell this information to others for a profit.  While not harmful to you, they are profiting from you. You don’t need them.  The Baddest Cookies may very well try and gather as much information about you as they can, some contain “keylogging” programs that track your password input, credit card information and so forth.

In your browsers, you will have an option of turning off “Third Party Cookies” or clicking on “Tell Sites That I Do Not Want To Be Tracked” it is usually a good idea to do this.  If you visit www.usatoday it might be OK for them to put a cookie on your computer but if the site “10 funniest people at Walmart”, wants to put a tracking cookie without you even visiting the site, you might not want that.

Finally, for those of you that use a Home Page or SE because that is where you are getting your email.  There are better choices right on your computer without even having to change your email address.  We will be covering that in an upcoming post but In my next post, we will be covering Phishing, what it is and how to avoid it.

Terminology

Hackers
Simply put, a person that attempts to gain unauthorized access to your computer's data.
Cookies
Very small bits of text installed on your computer by a site, usually for good reasons. Things like user preferences, shopping cart information, etc. Without cookies, each time you visited a site, it would look at you as being there for the first time.  Cookies can be good for the user and the site.
Third Party Cookies
Actually, no different technically than any other cookie with the exception that it was not put there by the site.  It was installed on your computer most likely by an advertiser on the site you visited, or other entity trying to track your web movements.
Keylogging
A tactic  used by hackers - keylogging is the action of recording the keys struck on a keyboard where the user is unaware. The hackers can then review the recording to determine passwords, credit card number or really anything that was input on the keyboard.

Posted in:
About the Author

Jim Canfield

My interest in computers was a natural transition from all things electronics. I was hooked after building my first Heathkit computer around 1976, which evolved into a TSR80 and a long list of Windows computers. My first full blown program was a graphics program which started my career path in graphic design and IT work for 40 years. I now run a small computer repair and service company focused on helping veterans and retirees in our area with computer and software training classes.

There are 6 comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *