Friday, January 29, 2016

Oh, MYYYY [or, why you should always watch what you are clicking on the Web]

Or, how your search can become NSFW in a big hurry...

Librarians spend a lot of time trying to educate our users about websites and their content - how to find them, how to evaluate their content, how to select them to use for your assignments. It's all part of information literacy / information competency (well, that what we librarians call it, anyway), which is an attempt to help library users understand the word of information that we are all exposed to every day, how to identify and utilize information in an ethical and responsible manner, and how to make the resources available through our subscription services as well as the open Web useful for what you are trying to accomplish.

One of the basic lessons is doing a Google search, and then trying to evaluate the expected content based on the address of a link, the accompanying text under the link, and so on. It is really easy to overlook this basic step - we get in a hurry, we don't look closely at the text that accompanies a link and we just click on the link and see what comes up on the screen. Sometimes, it works out just fine. Sometimes, it is a bit odd, and sometimes, it can just be downright embarrassing.

Well, just here to tell you that librarians are NOT exempt from this - and it was most definitely in the embarrassing category. I was looking for a visual aid to help explain the Library of Congress Classification system, which we use here at the Lake Land library. It is VERY different from what most people have grown up with in their public and school libraries [the Dewey Decimal System], and I thought that I would find a nice poster with LC Classification divisions listed on it to post to our website to help explain this to our students. So I do a Google search and start clicking links. The first two were OK, but not really what I wanted to use for this, so I went back to my search page and just clicked the next link on the page without looking at the address or the accompanying text. A few seconds later, I am looking at some VERY inappropriate content. [Thank goodness I didn't do this in front of a class full of students!!!]

I was aware of a moment of incredulous "WTH?", then I closed the browser - blushing like a very innocent schoolboy, though no one but me actually saw my screen. I waited a minute, reopened the browser, ran the search again, and looked at the results list. Sure enough, there was the link I had clicked on. The link itself was pure vanilla - but the URL was kind of wonky, and the text was the kind of text that gets generated for generic web page samples, meaningless drivel with random words. If I was practicing what I was preaching, I would have spotted it right away. FACEPALM.

So, in case you don't understand how this happens, here is a very basic explanation. Web sites often put things called Meta Elements into their pages to help guide search engines to their content. The tags are commonly used on the Web. Usually this is a good thing, and very straightforward - good web page designers use them to help improve how their sites appear in search engines. But they can be abused - sometimes by people who just want to drive their site hits up for ad revenue generation, sometimes to get you to stick around and look at something they are selling or promoting, and sometimes for more nefarious purposes (like planting web beacons, opening multiple web pages that can be difficult to get rid of, or tricking you into clicking onto a link that might infect your computer with spy ware or a virus). These folks will put all kinds of innocuous tags into their pages in order to increase the likelihood that you will stumble into their site - just like me.

So, do as I say, not as I did...

No comments: