Windows users are increasingly exploring the World Wide Web. Fewer than 20 per cent of Windows PCs don't have Internet access, according to a recent Microsoft press briefing.
But looking at a Web site and having confidence that the site is legitimate and trustworthy are two different things.
Now a new, free service can give you vital information on how popular a Web site is, and how many people liked and disliked their interactions with it. Even better, you can jump to related sites without having to resort to a keyword search, and you can retrieve old Web pages that have disappeared from the Net.
Alexa is a relatively small freeware download (918KB in size), that works with Netscape Navigator 3.0 or later, and Internet Explorer 3.0 or later on Windows 95 and Windows NT. (If you are using Windows 95, you need a version of the file Kernel32.dll dated later than February 2, 1996. You can download the updated version from Alexa's site.)What you getWhen you install Alexa, a small toolbar appears at the bottom of your screen when your browser is active. While you're viewing a Web site, clicking the "Where am I" button on Alexa's toolbar reveals a wealth of information.
Leading the display is a ranking of the number of hits the site receives based on an analysis of traffic across the Internet backbone.
Even more useful is the name, address, and phone number of the site's owner.
This information is retrieved from the domain registrar InterNIC and includes the length of time the domain has been in existence. Because longevity alone is not a good indicator of an Internet business' reliability, Alexa collects votes from its users on whether they liked a site. Unfortunately, you can't learn why visitors voted as they did. But in one case, for example, a particular travel service developed a large number of "dislike" votes -- perhaps a hint that you should consider a different service for your travel needs.
One of the most remarkable features of Alexa is that it can retrieve old Web pages that have moved or changed. When you see the message "404 not found" in your browser, you click the Archive of the Web button and Alexa will attempt to display the most recent archived version of that Web page.
This feature grew out of the Internet Archive project, an effort to preserve Web pages for posterity. Officials at Alexa's parent company, US-based Alexa Internet, say it holds three different "snapshots" of more than 500,000 Web sites that have been collected since early 1996. This information occupies 8TB (8000GB) of storage -- equivalent to all of the data in all of the tapes in a typical video store.
Alexa uses the links between sites, as well as its analysis of how users jump from site to site, to determine other sites that may be relevant to the one you're currently viewing. Clicking Alexa's "Where to go next" button lists these suggestions. The links aren't always pertinent, but they're a start. Alexa supports itself with small advertisements in this box.
You don't even need Alexa to use some of its data. For example, set your browser to widener.alexa.com/sitedata/yahoo.com to see contact and rating information on the Yahoo search engine site. Change yahoo.com to any site you wish.
But the download is well worth it. Go to www.alexa.com/download. I would like to thank Danny Sullivan at www.searchengine.com for this suggestion.
Brian Livingston is the co-author of several best-selling Windows books, including the most recent Windows 95 Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org He regrets that he cannot answer individual questions.