One of the great pleasures of being online is discovering new and unexpected sites, but that carries a parallel risk: they can contain useless information, scam solicitations and dangerous drive-by downloads. Here's some basic guidelines to make sure that your online time is safe and productive.
Picture by David Howard
Unfortunately, Internet browsing is not a risk-free activity. As we've detailed on Lifehacker before, an activity as simple as visiting a web site can result in your computer becoming infected with malicious code that can steal your personal information or use your system as part of a 'botnet' for distributing spam and other nefarious activity.
If your operating system isn't kept up to date and you don't have a security system in place, the risks are much greater. Having a sensible security strategy is critical, but you can also take a more active role by exercising caution when visiting new sites.
For the purposes of this article, we'll presume that you're coming by most of your results via a search engine, and emphasise clues you can look for in the results pages themselves. However, the same basic rules apply if you get sent a link via email, on a social network or by noting it down on a piece of paper.
If you have security software installed, it will often identify sites which are suspect or which have been known to host malware in the past. Google and other search engines will block known malicious sites, but that doesn't happen automatically. For that reason, running any link you're about to click on through your own checking process is also sensible.
Never trust the hyphens
There are occasional exceptions, but years of experience suggest that sites where the domain name is a collection of words separated by hyphens (best-travel-deals-around.com) are not going to contain any useful content.
Look out for lots of repeated words or incoherent lists
Google's algorithms try and block sites which don't contain any useful content but instead feature endless lists of words, but they still pop up now and again. At best, they're just trying to attract your attention through dodgy search-engine optimisation practices; at worst, they've got nothing whatsoever to do with the terms listed.
Check the country code
Useful information really can come from anywhere. However, it might pay to think twice about a site with a country code (the two letters at the end of the domain name) which you don't recognise. That's doubly true if you're seeking out free software.
Check for really bad spelling and grammar
Language use online is arguably slipping, but shoddy expression is often the hallmark of a shoddy site.
Check out a given site
A site might not raise any of the alarm bells discussed above, but still leave you feeling uneasy. If you're not entirely confident about a particular site after visiting it -- particularly if you're considering buying something through it -- do some research first. A simple but effective trick: do a search looking for the site name plus the word "problem" or "fraud". More broadly, search for the site name but exclude the site itself by using this format for your search (replacing address.com with the site you're investigating)
address.com - site:address.com
What indicators do you watch for that suggest a site isn't legitimate? Share your tips in the comments.
Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?