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"WORKING THE NET"

By Art Glick


You Can't Get There from Here

(Originally Published in October, 1996)

What's in a name? When it regards the Intenet, quite a bit. If you've been on the Internet for even just a short while, by now you probably have at least a vague idea of what a URL is.

It stands for Universal Resource Locator, and it is the often rather cryptic string of letters, numbers and characters that represents the "address" of an Internet site. When you're in Netscape, the URL for the current site appears in the "Go To" box near the top of the screen.

Have you ever noticed what happens when you click on a link to jump to another site on the web? As you move your cursor over the link, it changes from an arrow to a pointing finger. At that point, Netscape users will notice that the URL for that link appears in the thin gray box at the bottom of the screen. Click on the link and you're on your way there. Ultimately, the "Go To" box at the top of the screen will contain the new URL, at which point you can add it to your bookmark list, enabling you to jump there immediately at anytime from any other site on the web.

I like to say that a URL should only ever be typed in once at the keyboard. It's a good thing, too, because URL's are not always intuitive, and the mistake of a single character will mean total failure in reaching the site. If you discover the site as a link from another site, which is frequently the case, you can bookmark it and never have to worry about typing it in at the keyboard.

Want to share the site with a friend? Did you know that you can "copy and paste" from and to the "Go To" box in Netscape? Let's say you're at a particular site and know someone that would enjoy going there. Highlight the URL in Netscape's "Go To" box, click on "EDIT, COPY", open Eudora, start a message to your friend, position the cursor in the body of the message, then click on "EDIT, PASTE" and voila, that long, involved URL has been pasted into the message to your friend without you ever having to type a single keystroke of it.

In the same manner, if someone else sends you an e-mail containing a URL, you can "EDIT, COPY" from the message (whenever you use "EDIT, COPY", Windows places the marked text on its "clipboard"), then "EDIT, PASTE" into the "Go To" box in Netscape. Simply hit the ENTER key or click on RELOAD once you have pasted your text into Netscape.

You may wonder about the various segments of the URL and how they are generated. It's not nearly as involved as it may seem when you're looking at a complicated address. The first part, or prefix, pertains to the "protocol" and tells your browser what type of page can be expected. The most common of these, by far, is http://, which stands for Hyper Text Transfer Protocol. This is the standard protocol for a web page containing links and graphics, and the prefix can often be omitted when entering a URL into your browser.

The next most common prefix is ftp://, which stands for File Transfer Protocol. It is quickly becoming the standard for transferring binary data, such as program files. Other prefixes include file:||| (referring to a file on your own local system), mailto: (for sending e-mail) and news: (for Usenet Newsgroups) as well as several others that are much more obscure.

After the prefix, you generally have the "Domain Name". If your account is with WVNET, the domain name with which you are most familiar is www.wvnet.edu, and the main home page of this domain is probably set as your default page when you start Netscape.

The first part of this domain indicates that the server is on the World Wide Web, the most significant subset of the Internet. Like http://, it can often be omitted. The last part of the domain name (or "extension") is also very significant. For domains in the U.S., it represents the type of entity which has instituted the server - "edu" indicates an educational institution, "com" denotes a commercial entity, "gov" refers to government agencies, "org" is assigned to non-profit organizations and "net" implies a main Internet server. For international servers, you will find a secondary extension representing the country, such as "ca" for Canada.

Armed with this knowledge, you can often guess at a URL. For example, I had heard that you could contact President Clinton at a page that had been set up by the White House staff, and I didn't even have to make a note of the URL - whitehouse.gov. For other companies and agencies it can be equally easy and obvious, especially for acronymous company names like IBM and TWA (just try ibm.com or twa.com).

All too often, however, you click on a link only to be greeted with the annoying "Error 401 - URL not found" message. If you've gotten to this error by clicking on a link, you know it can't be because of an error in your typing. It may be that the designer of the web page with the link committed an error when placing the URL into his site, or it may be that the URL has changed and the link was simply never updated to reflect this change.

To add to the frustration, the information which you are seeking probably does exist somewhere, but how do you determine the correct URL? You can go to your favorite search engine and look for the site using specific search criteria, but more often that not, there is a much easier and more dependable way of finding the site specified by the errant link.

A particularly obvious example of "fiddling with a URL" pertains to the NASA site mentioned in my last column for sighting the Space Shuttle. When this URL was originally given to me as www.osf.hq.nasa.gov/shuttle/sts78/vis/, it was during shuttle mission STS-78. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that sts79 should replace sts78 for the following mission (although, occasionally, NASA does launch them out of order, but it illustrates the point).

You start with the URL that generated the original "not found" error. After the domain name (separated by "dots" or periods), there are usually sections separated by the forward slash, and this is most often where the error exists. Essentially, the usage of the forward slash here is the same as it is on your own local hard drive with the backslash, and you can think of each segment between the slashes as a subdirectory of the one that precedes it.

Let's look at our NASA example again, but let's pretend that replacing the sts77 was not quite as obvious. Since the STS-77 mission is over, you can depend on encountering a 401 Error (URL not found) if you try to go to this site, whether you are typing it in at your keyboard or clicking on a link elsewhere on the web.

When this happens, the best technique is to try the URL again but minus the last part (i.e. ending in sts77). Simply click your mouse in the "Go To" box of your browser and edit the URL, erasing its last part and hitting ENTER to instruct the browser to go there. Of course, in this example, you'll still get a "not found error". But, if you then erase the next to the last part, you'll reach the proper page (in this case www.osf.hq.nasa.gov/shuttle), which will definitely have links to where you really want to go.

This method has worked in more than half the "not found" URL's that I've encountered, and it's usually required when a link is either outdated or, even more likely, mistyped (webmasters don't always check their work). URL's are "case sensitive", which means that "Abc" is different than "ABC" or "abc". I've seen quite a number of URL's which were erroneous only because of this.

Since very little is actually removed from the web once it's put on there, if fiddling with your errant URL doesn't work, don't assume that what you're looking for is gone. You can always turn to one of your favorite search engines.

Search engines are surely one of the most useful of the various types of web sites, and it would be unfair to mention lycos.com (as I did previously) without mentioning infoseek.com. Of course, you probably want to precede this address with the ever present http://www (or at least the www).

Often, search engines are complimentary, that is, each one will be able to find sites that the others cannot. Therefore, be certain to bookmark any search engines you encounter that look good. Lycos and Infoseek are probably the two most popular, but there are literally hundreds more, most designed for a specific subject or discipline.


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