An Idiot’s Guide to Good Browsing Habits

A few years ago, I was recruited by my dear mother to set up my grandma’s new computer and bring her up to speed on computing in the modern world. No big deal, right? Explaining the keyboard and mouse is fairly straightforward. Windows operates in a user-friendly manner most of the time so no problems there. And then there’s the Internet: one of the most powerful inventions of the 20th century with the power to connect users to family, friends, and free knowledge, and the evil to empty your bank account into the hands of a skivvy email spammer.

Where does one begin when laying out a framework to explain the ins and outs of the World Wide Web? How does one go about relating the etiquette of never using all-caps to type an email or the self-preservation of never falling for a Craigslist buyer’s promise of sending a freight truck to pick up your used car? I’m about to make an attempt so here goes: an Idiot’s Guide to Good Browsing Habits.

Internet Browsers

Although many savvy net users probably want me to open this paragraph by screaming “never use Internet Explorer”, I won’t do that. The truth is that yes, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser had some issues in the past that made security and Website design a nightmare for Internet developers, but much of that has changed.

Couldn’t you tell from the flashy new commercials on TV? Microsoft’s browser has come a long way, and the only thing I’ll recommend should you choose to stay with Window’s default browser, is to update it to the current version.
If you want to see what other browsers have to offer, I will recommend Google’s Chrome browser, Mozilla’s Firefox browser, and Apple’s Safari browser (available for PCs too!). Each offers a long list of features so test-driving each may be the best way to determine what is right for you.

browser icons

I would recommend Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Internet Explorer, or Apple Safari. If that list isn't extensive enough, Opera is a good recommendation as well.

Security

If you value your identity at all, then security and privacy should be near the top of your browsing priority list. With a few swift keystrokes and taps of the mouse, you can bring a mountain of woe upon yourself by unintentionally giving out personal information.

What a lot of new Internet users don’t realize is that the Internet is largely unprotected and open. While it is home to millions and millions of wonderfully average people, it is not immune to crime or sleaziness. Users often feel that the information they share is fairly inane, but those same users would likely be shocked at how much can be deduced from the accumulation of that information from all corners of the Internet.

Even information logged on social network sites and can often be readily found via search engines. So below are some ground rules for protecting yourself. Some are easier said than done and even if you follow them to a “t” your accounts can still possibly be hacked, but at least you won’t look like a lost sheep out there.

Basic Security Recommendations

  • Update your browser and plugins regularly. Updating software to the most recent version not only adds features, but it also fixes bugs and security holes. The good news is that most software today notifies you when a new iteration has been released.

    Screengrab of Google Chrome's About pane with Update button

    Tip: If you are unsure if your browser or other software is outdated, most have an update button in the About pane on the menubar or in the preferences pane.

  • Use a strong password. A good password should have a mix of lowercase letters, uppercase letters, numbers, and even punctuation or spaces (if allowed). It should also be longer than 10 characters. You should also vary your passwords from site to site. If you don’t want to memorize 20+ passwords, you can use a password manager that will generate and log a strong password for each site where one is needed, and you need only remember the master password for the service.
  • Confirm site authenticity. When entering any personal information on the Web (especially heavily guarded information like social security number, financial information, etc.) be sure that you are on a trusted site. Many scammers make fake sites to lure users into inputting their information (phishing). Most browsers now verify a site’s authenticity in the address bar. Both Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome show a clickable icon to the left of the Web address that provides more information and displays green when the site is trusted. IE has a lock icon on the right side of the address bar.
  • A screengrab of Firefox's green authenticity checker in the address bar

    Many browsers have a green icon or button beside the title bar to show a site's authenticity or trusted status. If a site is not authentic, the icon or button may be red.

  • Secure your search. Google offers SSL protection for its search engine simply by adding an “s” after the “http” in the address bar (thus resulting in https://www.google.com). This is handy for protecting your search queries when on an open, public network. It also negatively impacts targeted ads so if you want to support the sites you visit, you may want to turn it off for normal browsing.

Beyond Basic Security

  • Make a fake identity. There are many sites on the Web where your actual identity is not necessary. For example, when interacting on a forum, you never really need to use your real name or location. You can be Steve from Idaho even if you’re really Bill from Nebraska. If you do choose to be genuine, fine, but I recommend only using your state and first name.
  • Make a spam/shopping e-mail address. This really could potentially be in the basics section, but having an email address dedicated solely to newsletters, email forwards, and other junk, is awesome because it allows you to keep your normal email inbox free of clutter. If you’re online shopping and a store requires your email address to make an account, use your spam one and keep your other for friends and family.
  • Surf (mostly) anonymously. The major browsers all come with the option to browse the Internet privately. This means that cookies, browsing history, and other temporary Internet files will not be saved. I’ve linked the instructions for this below for each browser:
  • Privacy

    Though some of the ideas are similar, I decided not to lump privacy in with security because largely the amount of privacy someone maintains is at their discretion. Privacy is a topic that has made some waves in the last few years with the rise of social networking. The main reason for this is, by and large, social networking sites own rights to all content placed on them.

    Yes, you read that correctly: all content. Many Internet users don’t realize this (because who reads the Terms of Service?) or just choose to trust that their pictures, statuses, and information won’t be misused. Thankfully, due to mounting pressure about privacy protections, many Internet companies have added privacy options to their services.

    Screengrab of Facebook's Privacy page

    Many sites, like Facebook, allow users to control privacy settings. All users should at least consider the options therein.

    I think the gravity of giving your lifestory, complete with pictures, to a corporation is falls on deaf ears. The general feeling seems to be that users are okay with the current uses of their content, mostly targeted ads and recommendations. Maybe I should put my tinfoil hat on, but I think it’s important to consider what you put on the Internet. I’ve heard it said that “the Internet never forgets”, and it’s scarily true.

    Between the aforementioned terms of services, the Google cache of sites, and the proliferation of free cloud storage options, you can practically guarantee that, once distributed, it’s impossible to retract a file or even a tweet. So while your privacy is up to you, I at least recommend checking the available setting for each Web service you join before unloading all of your thoughts, locales, and pictures.

    Downloading Content

    Obtaining content from the Web is one of the Internet’s best attributes. Music, movies, books, software and other files; it’s all out there for the downloading. There’s no one best place to get all your material, but if the site seems too good to be true, it often is. Online files can be rife with malware or viruses, or at the very least piggyback software you didn’t ask for when downloading.

    For software, one of the ways to make sure you aren’t going to download a malicious piece of code is to go directly to the provider’s site to download software (Ex. To update Flash, go to http://get.adobe.com/flashplayer). For media, ask a trusted friend where they download their content or go with a “name-brand”, trusted site like Apple’s iTunes, Amazon.com, or Google Play. It will keep you from ending up with a bug.

    Netiquette

    Netiquette, the fun combination of the words “net” and “etiquette”, refers to one’s manners while interacting and posting on the Web. I’ve put together a short list of rules you should abide by or at least consider while perusing.

    • Don’t type in all-caps, ever. Chances are at some point you’ve come across a relative or friend with this problem. Perhaps when mad or maybe all the time, the offending individual appears to have left their caps-lock on. Typing in all caps is seen as the equivalent of yelling via text. Luckily, though, the English language has already afforded its speakers the ability to use the exclamation point (!) to yell. So really, there’s never a need to type in all-caps. So don’t.
    • Don’t be obnoxiously self-righteous. You probably have a friend who’s sarcastic and ribs you now and then for the beliefs you hold about this and that. Maybe he/she occasionally steps over the line and the sarcasm is unnecessarily pointed. On the Internet, the equivalent of this is shooting your mouth off on a forum or social network about how everything you touch turns to gold and every idea you have is the stuff of genius.
    • Give grammar your best shot. Even if English is your second language, good grammar helps communication flow. If English is your first language, you have fewer excuses. Actually, you should go the extra mile and at least capitalize your “I’s” and correctly use “your” and “you’re”. And now readers will search this article for grammatical errors…
    • Don’t troll. Wikipedia defines an Internet troll as “someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.” Trolling can be in jest but usually has a streak of malice so avoid it and encourage kindness toward others on the Web.

    Get educated

    The good browsing habits I’ve listed above cover some of the basics but the Web is chock full of information to make your browsing better. There are still topics like buying and selling on the Web or understanding how a site is made that can help you be a more informed Netizen (it’s like a citzen of the Internet). Happy surfing!


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