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    By Rob Pegoraro
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    March 26, 1999

    Love Online
    Local Sites
    "404 Not Found"
    Auction Sites
    Web Guides
    Alternative Medicine
    Antique Dealers
    Dog Lovers
    Greeting Cards
    Job Hunting

    Last Year's Guide

    FFWD Dept. of Clue Procurement

    I don't want to say that the Web is a completely dysfunctional waste of time, but thanks to several years of online blundering, I will never have trouble remembering my friend Doug's apartment number: 404, the "file not found" error code I have seen about 404 million times.

    Why does the Web work so badly? What can you do when the site doesn't want to be found? Like most computer-related trouble-shooting, it's all about patient experimenting – and knowing when to give up.

      Web addresses are exactly like phone numbers – no typos allowed. There's no forgiving mailman to decipher your mis-typed URL, or Uniform Resource Locator. (Some clever Web operators, however, have staked out common misspellings to lure traffic to their own sites – try visiting So check that whatever you just typed matches the address that was printed in the paper, on the side of the bus, in your e-mail, wherever. Make sure you haven't added an extra "t" in "http://" or left out one of those slashes. Remember that Web sites never have backslashes (\), like you see in Windows, nor do they include consecutive periods.

      Finally, don't assume that all Web addresses begin with the canonical "http://www." Online stores and banks often have addresses beginning with "https" – the "s" indicates a secure site, in which data transfers are encrypted against eavesdropping. And many sites replace the "www" with another term, such as "home," or omit it entirely. (See item 3 for exceptions to this exception.)

      The tilde (~), that squiggly key that sits left of 1 and above Tab on your keyboard, is probably responsible for more "I can't reach your Web site" e-mails from readers than anything else. The tilde looks like a hyphen, so people – well, non-Spanish-speaking people – type in the more familiar hyphen character instead of the tilde, therefore failing to connect to the Web site in question. Actually, tildes are much more common in Web addresses than hyphens; this character is most often used to denote individual users' directories on a single Web site. You'll most often see tildes at educational (.edu) sites and at Web servers set up by Internet providers for their own customers. The underscore (_) can be equally troublesome.
      If you try to visit a page and get a "page not found" error, indicating that there's no such file on hand, try lopping off the address from right to left, one slash at a time. Each slash marks off a directory; when you trim the address, you're moving higher up in the site. So if won't work, delete "oops.html." If that doesn't work, get rid of "wrongdirectory/" and see what happens. And so on. Eventually, you will either determine that the entire site has gone offline (see item 5), or you will find a level of the Web site that works-which, hopefully, will also lead you to an index or a site-search function that can locate your missing page.

      It can help to check the heart of the address-the stuff between the http:// and the next slash. Does it have some weird prefixes (say, "www2," "test," or names out of science-fiction novels, The Simpsons or Greek mythology) before its domain name-the, or whatnot. edu in the address? Try replacing that oddball prefix with "www"; this can often get you to the front door a lot quicker. Or not.

      What if you can reach the page you want, but it looks like junk or appears to be blank? You've just been reminded of the Web industry's immaturity. Many Web sites are "optimized" for a particular browser – meaning that they may not work in other browsers. Many Web browsers, in turn, don't correctly support the various standards for Web content-meaning a properly written site will look broken. The only choice when this happens is to fire up another browser and point it to the page at issue. It's annoying to have to keep a copy of both Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer around, yes, but at least they're both free (aside from the non-trivial time it takes to download and install these beasts).

      If you use an older browser – say, the 2.0 version of Netscape or an old version of America Online – you should upgrade if it's at all possible. Many Web sites today assume a version 3.0 or newer browser (the latest version of Netscape is 4.5, while IE is at version 4.5 on the Mac and 5.0 on Windows).

      If you immediately hit a "site not found" or "host not reachable" message and you know you typed the domain name correctly – or if you've tried all of the other debugging techniques listed here – it may be time to blame your Internet provider. If most of the Web sites you normally visit seem to have gone offline, the fault is almost certainly with your provider, or with whatever network providers are "upstream" of it. In that case, try another Internet provider – say, at work, at a Web-connected library or on a friend's computer.

      Or give the site and your provider time to heal themselves. The Internet as a whole tends to slow down during business hours and in the early evening, and popular sites can be swamped during rush hour. Likewise, if some clod has just run over one of your provider's cables with a backhoe, you'll have to wait for things to get plugged back together again.

      If you can't get to a site on two different providers – and if you've tried over several hours – the problem is more likely with the site. Send a polite note to the site's webmaster; address it to webmaster@, followed by the site's domain name (not the full www.whatever, just the name-dot-com part). Some may find it more therapeutic to stick pins in the nearest voodoo doll.

    6. GIVE UP – FOR NOW...
      Still flummoxed by that recalcitrant site? Consider what it is you've been clawing at so desperately. Do you really need to see the list of supporting characters in even-numbered Star Trek sequels right now? Will your computer explode if you don't download Microsoft's latest bug-fix in the next five minutes? Is ordering that sweater by phone an unacceptable alternative to clicking through the catalogue's Web site? Perhaps it's nothing that can't wait until tomorrow: Turn off the computer and go for a jog, read a book or bake some cookies.
    Questions? Comments? Unreachable Web sites? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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