Google logo magnifiedAlmost everyone I know uses Google’s Search engine. And very nearly everyone seems to use it at its very simplest level: just type something in and see what comes up.

Trying to get a detailed grasp of Google products can be mind-numbing and I don’t advocate it. Nevertheless, with something as ubiquitous as Google Search I thought it might be worthwhile to spend just a few minutes becoming aware of some of the simplest ways to make it work better for us, so I’ll just “bullet-point” a few hints and facts.

To make it a bit clearer which parts of the following text are search terms to be keyed into Google, the search terms are enclosed in square brackets [like this]. These square brackets are not included when you type something into Google. They are just here to distinguish the search term from the surrounding text.

  • Google searches are case-insensitive – typing in [Clapham High Street] is the same as typing in [clapham high street], so just type in whatever is easiest for you.
  • If you want to search for a specific phrase (as opposed to just searching on more than one word) then enclose the search term in double-quotes – eg [“clapham high street”] will only return results where those words appear together and in that order.
  • Google will try to match ALL of the important words in your search term, So, if your search term is [ham or bacon] then it will, in fact, return pages that contain references to both ham and bacon! This is because Google is ignoring what it sees as an unimportant word (the word or). The way to force it to recognise the true meaning of your “or” term is detailed below (confusing, isn’t it ?)
  • The way to force Google to return results containing either one word or another is to type the word “or” in capital letters eg [bacon OR eggs] will return results where the page includes either of those words. In other words, the results you see will have some pages referring to ham and some pages referring to eggs (but not necessarily on the same pages). As I said – confusing.
  • Google will usually ignore “unimportant” words. For example, if you enter [I want to buy a plasma TV, preferably from a shop in Camberwell], you will get (more or less) the same results if you type in [buy plasma tv camberwell]. Grammar and normal syntax are irrelevant. Google is just matching the important words in your search term with web pages in its index.
  • Google will usually ignore most punctuation and unusual characters such as @#$%^&*()=+[]\. There are exceptions to this – see below.
  • If you want to exclude results that include specfic words then add the word to the search term preceded by a minus sign. For example, if your search term is a street name then the results will be swamped with pages from estate agents. Maybe Google will sort this out one day, but in the meantime you can try filtering the results by searching for (for instance) [“edgeley road” clapham -property -estate -agent]. This will return results that contain the exact phrase “edgeley road”, that also contain the word “clapham”, but which do not contain any of the words “property”, “estate”, or “agent”.
  • Despite all the rules above, Google do sometimes tweak their searches to take account of facts in the real world. For instance, the character “&” is usually ignored in a search term but if your search term is [M & S] the result is what you probably wanted – Marks & Spencer come at the top of the list of results. Similarly, if you just type in [who] the results relate to just that word, but if you type in [the who] it will recognise that you are referring to a rock group.
  • Finally, you may remember that Google’s search page used to have an option that said “search within results”. You would expect that this means that if you enter a new search term it will narrow down the previous results to take account of the new criterion. This option has now disappeared. I’ve been reading a rather “lively” exchange on this subject. Google claims that all you have to do is add the new search term to the original search term and you will get exactly the same as you used to since the previous “search within results” was just a con. Google claims that the second search merely repeated the first search but with the second term added to it. The other side in the exchange maintains that that’s just not true and that the previous “search within results” produced a better and different result. I don’t know the truth. I just know that I sometimes used “search within results” and it’s not there any more, so don’t bother looking for it. Just add your new term to the end of your previous term and search again.

There are lots of Google web pages that go into far more detail on the subject of search. If you want to investigate further, I suggest starting here.

PC Magazine defines antimalware as

“An umbrella term for antivirus programs, spyware blockers, intrusion detection systems (IDS’s) and other software that detects and eradicates unwanted input, which in almost all cases comes from the Internet.”PC Magazine

Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining' stares out of screenThere are two types of antimalware programs – real-time scanners (also called on-access scanners) , and on-demand scanners. Real-time scanners run on your system all the time. This term covers all programs that call themselves “antivirus” programs. This is the type of protection that this blog post addresses.

There are scores of different real-time products available. How do you know which one is right for you? This is a very common question and is difficult to answer. Some of the criteria involved could include:

  • ease of installation and use
  • does it slow the computer down or get in the way
  • what range of threats does it guard against
  • how well does it detect threats
  • how well does it remove threats
  • what (if anything) does it cost

It must be a bit of a conundrum for the antivirus program manufacturers that the better their program, the less the customers notice it. What we want as users is to just get on with using our computers and not worry about the potential problems. I can’t imagine anyone getting excited by reading through the list of threats a particular program claims to guard against. It hurts our brains even trying to understand the nature of the threats that we are told a specific program will guard against. What we actually want is peace of mind and no hassles.

Also, I feel sure that the way you use your computer can affect the amount and type of threat you are exposed to. There is no doubt in my mind (but I have no proof for this) that having young people using a computer seems to increase the chance of catching something. I suspect that this is because young people are far more likely than older people to be using the internet in a way that involves sharing of files amongst themselves. It’s no great stretch of the imagination to think that the bad people out there have realised this and target this part of the market accordingly. Maybe it would be an idea for the antivirus manufacturers to market their products towards specific groups of people that represent the different emphases of threats that those people may be exposed to. Anyway, they don’t, so you can’t find an antivirus program claiming to be “Supreme for Silver Surfers” or “Fantastic Fort Knox protection for 15 year olds”.

So how do we make the best decisions as far as antivirus is concerned?

If you want to look into this in huge detail and make a highly informed decision then I recommend www.av-test.org. Each quarter they publish a set of results of testing many products that are available for one specific operating system (Windows XP, Vista, or 7). They then cycle through these operating system each quarter. They score each product according to protection, repair, and usability and display the results in sortable tables (see http://www.av-test.org/certifications.php)

My own experience

My own favorites tend to change a bit over time. For a few years I have been recommending AVG Free. I think that it still does a very good job technically, but their increasingly aggressive marketing often “misleads” users into installing the paid version rather than the free version and they’ve even used scare tactics once or twice in the last year.

I’ve been installing Microsoft’s own “Security Essentials” on my own and clients’ sytems for a while and I have to say that it certainly performs very well in at least one respect in that it is virtually transparent: it just gets on with the job, updating itself quietly in the background and only making its present felt when there’s a potential problem. I don’t recall a single instance (yet) of anything getting past “Security Essentials”.

One product that I’ve not used in-depth myself but which seems to be highly liked by clients is Kaspersky Internet Security. Unlike AVG Free (natch) or Microsoft Security Essentials, it is a paid-for product but it gets increasingly cost-effective if you buy a licence for several machines.

Nothing’s perfect

Whatever product you go for, keeping up with malware threats is just that – keeping up. The bad people are always going to be one step ahead. We just have to hope that our antimalware product is very very quick off the mark in detecting and dealing with new threats The only way to stay completely safe from online threats is to stay away from the internet and that really would be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. So, it stands to reason that it is possible for a threat to get past your protection.

…. and we have to live with that

You may think, then, that it would be a good idea to have another line of protection in the form of a second antimalware program. Good thinking, but don’t. You could break your system. If two real-time antimalware scanners go to check the same file at the same time the whole system could freeze.

So what do we do

Keep your antimalware program up to date, ensure that it is automatically updating its data files, and check that it is set to completely scan your system once a week or so. And, by the way, are you taking backups?

And what of Mac Users?

I’ll be investigating the current thinking on antivirus protection for Macs in the coming weeks.

Just two quick tips this week:

Re-booting a frozen computer

On/off switchIf your computer has frozen solid and simply won’t respond to anything at all that you do, then there is an easy and certain way to get it to-reboot – just depress and hold down the on/off button for a minimum of five seconds. This will definitely cause your machine to re-boot.

This is not to be done lightly as it does immediately delete the entire contents of the computer’s memory, so any unsaved work could be lost and there could just be unpredictable consequences in other respects (since the programs that were previously loaded haven’t had an opportunity to perform any “closing down tasks” before being rather brusquely dismissed). Nevertheless, I would recommend this method over simply yanking out the power lead. There is one situation in which it may be the ONLY thing you can do if your computer has frozen, and that is if you have an Apple Mac laptop with a battery that is not removable.

Lost Internet Connection

Sometimes your internet connection may disappear without any obvious reason. You can usually tell that it is a connection problem outside of your own computer if a red light appears on your router/modem. If this happens then I recommend doing the following:

  • If you have a telephone on the same line as your broadband connection then see if you have a dialling tone. If you don’t, then report the fault to your provider as a telephone fault – don’t even think of reporting it as a broadband problem if the voice line has gone. It’s far easier to get them to investigate a voice line failure (which will also be the reason for your internet connection failure).
  • Assuming that you still have a voice line, re-boot your router/modem – ie switch it off (or, more likely, remove it from the power supply as they don’t usually have on/off switches) and re-connect it after a minimum of 30 seconds. There is a very good chance that after you’ve given it a minute or so to get itself started then your connection will return.
  • If re-booting the router doesn’t work, then re-boot the router and the computer at the same time – ie switch them both off before switching them both back on.
  • If that doesn’t work, then disconnect your router from both the power supply and the telephone line and leave it disconnected for 30 minutes. This gives the equipment further back up the line the opportunity to see that you’ve “gone away” so your connection will be closed (and re-opened when you re-connect).

I estimate that about 80% of internet connection problems are resolved by carrying out these simple steps and it can be a very great relief to regain your connection without being subjected to the torture of speaking to the average ISP’s technical support department.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get decent technical support from ISPs. It doesn’t matter what you try and tell them. They still absolutely insist that you jump through all their hoops, exactly as they demand, despite what you may have already tried. There have been several occasions in the last few months when I have spent hours – yes, hours – trying to persuade ISPs that we have investigated all the possibilities of problems at the client’s end and that we now want them to carry out a line check. There is no doubt that they carry out support by following a very rigid pre-defined set of steps and they will not deviate from this. I can’t offer any help here – just sympathy and the hope that simply re-booting your router will save you from this Kafkaesque nightmare.

Finally, I don’t apologise for plugging my own ISP – Zen Internet. Their technical support (based in Rochdale) is still first-class. Maybe they are not quite alone, though. I had reason to contact PlusNet a few days ago and their response was also fast and human. Yes, this is the same PlusNet as the one that lost the plot regarding technical support about 3 years ago. Maybe they have learned from Zen how to do it. I can’t help thinking that it’s probably not just a coincidence that PlusNet have been running a television advertising campaign boasting of their technical support based in Yorkshire – not a million miles from Zen in Rochdale.

By the way, several Mac clients have pointed out to me that it isn’t always obvious if I’m talking about PCs or Macs in these blogs. I’m going to start to categorise them so that it is more obvious. In the meantime, the topics in today’s blog are equally applicable to Macs and PCs.

Monthly broadband costs can now be reduced to well under £10 per month. If you are paying substantially more than this – because, for instance, you’ve had your current contract for a couple of years or more – then it may well be worth either shopping around or contacting your current provider to see if they can offer you a better deal (I’ve heard that AOL will now drop your monthly charges substantially if they think you are about to abandon them – how the mighty are fallen).

If you have been wondering if your broadband speed is all that it should be, or wondering whether you are getting a good deal on your broadband contract, or puzzled about the terminology or technology, it could well be worth visiting http://www.broadband.co.uk/

A good site for checking your current speed and comparing it with other people in your neighbourhood is http://www.broadbandspeedchecker.co.uk/

Personally, I think that the overall service and the quality of the technical support are more important than the monthly cost or the speed of the connection (within reasonable limits, of course). I’m paying about £18 per month to Zen and I’d much rather do that than pay £7 per month elsewhere.

Why? They answer the phone quickly, they are based in the UK, and their focus is on solving the problem rather than obeying the list of instructions they have been given regarding support calls. They don’t spend 20 minutes asking you everything from your postcode, to your mother’s maiden name, to your inside leg measurement, and then force you to do the umpteen checks that you already did before picking up the phone (eg re-booting the router). If the problem isn’t fixed there and then, they send progress emails and these are signed by the person responsible for the issue. Why can’t other organisations realise that this is the way to keep customers?

Discover Award Winning Broadband from £17.99 per month inc. VAT. Order Now.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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