Personal computing: VPNs: When sniffing your data is rude

As with much in life, much about security on the Internet depends on how much risk you’re willing to take, if you know. If you don’t know, much depends on how lucky you are.

Should you sit back and take your chances? “Sniffers” can make this risky, but a “virtual private network,” or VPN, service can put the odds back in your favor.

With Internet security in general, the

idea is to prevent hackers from finding ways into your computer, where they can capture your data, access your bank account or credit card, or take over your computer and use it to send out spam or take over the computers of others.

Many procedures are set up to protect you by default. Today’s computer operating systems come protected with their own firewall and antivirus software, though as usual better software can be had elsewhere through third-party vendors such as Symantec and Trend Micro.

Today’s best websites are protected through “Secure Sockets Layer,” or SSL, which encrypts information to or from the site and your computer or other device. Sites protected this way have Internet addresses beginning with “https” instead of “http.”

Passwords are required for many sites, and you can further your own protection by picking difficult-to-crack passwords that consist of a combination of at least eight letters, numbers, and special characters, with 10 or 12 being even better.

Banking and other websites holding sensitive data of yours typically require or give you the choice of two-factor authentication, such as asking you for the answers to selected questions you’ve previously given or texting to your cell phone a second temporary code or password when you try to log in.

Making sure you keep your operating system and software updated is also important in preventing hackers from finding cracks that let them find their way into your system.

In the office or at home, if you’re using a router, make sure it’s secured. You should have had to type in a security key, a type of password, to access it initially. The security key is often written on the outside of the router.

When you’re on the road, you should take special precautions. The free or lowcost Wi-Fi provided by many hotels, airports, libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops can be a great convenience. But not all such Wi-Fi providers provide a secure connection.

Secure connections require you to type in a security key or password provided to you by the facility. The best Wi-Fi security today is WPA2, with the earlier WPA a step behind. WEP is even less secure. And many facilities providing free Wi-Fi provide only unsecured connections.

The problem is packet analyzers or sniffers. This software serves legitimate purposes such as letting a company analyze its network traffic to best use its bandwidth or to monitor intrusion attempts. But the same software can be used by a would-be intruder sitting two seats down from you in the coffee shop. Such programs include Firesheep and Reaver.

At a Barnes & Noble bookstore once, I thought the connection was secure. But someone had captured my email address, password, and the email addresses of people I emailed. The next day my email recipients got an email impersonating me and making me sound foolish, a sophomoric joke probably by someone around the age of a college sophomore. It could have been worse.

Now I use a VPN service. Three highly recommended VPN services, getting good reviews in the computer press and anecdotally from fellow users, are Hotspot Shield (www.anchorfree.com), WiTopia (www. witopia.net), and Private WiFi (www. privatewifi.com).

In some cases a free, limited VPN version exists. When you’re protecting yourself in this way, it probably makes sense if possible to spring for the beefed-up pay version. You simply download and install the software before you use a public Wi-Fi hotspot. You can keep the software running all the time, or you can disable it temporarily when you’re back to using a secure business or home connection.

Other benefits of VPNs are anonymous browsing and access to content in foreign countries that may be be restricted to U.S. users.

VPNs use authentication and encryption to provide virtual private tunnels for your data through the public Internet. In some cases, with VPN vendors that have lots of servers, your Internet speeds actually increase. In other cases speeds can slow down slightly or remain about the same.

What it comes down to is: How sensitive is your data? How much risk are you willing to take with it?

Personal Computing: Helping others find you on the Web

Helping others find you on the Web

Building a website can put you on the Internet, literally, whether you run a for-profit enterprise or you dabble in a nonprofit hobby. But creating an online presence doesn’t necessarily mean that people will find you.

The most common way that people find websites remains Web search engines, and search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing do a good job of sending out digital “spiders” to crawl the Web and index its pages. But you can help them do their job.

The idea is to improve where your site winds up on the search engine’s results pages after any given person’s search for a particular word or string of words related to the content of your site.

The process of improving your site’s search results is called search engine optimization (SEO). It’s a part of search engine marketing (SEM), which in turn is a part of the larger category of Internet marketing. Entire businesses have sprung up to provide SEO services to clients, and SEO is now firmly engrained in the services that most general advertising and public relations agencies provide. But there’s a lot that you can do yourself.

Along with helping others find you, SEO can also boost any advertising revenue generated by your site, if you include ads on it, through people visiting it. The single most important step you can take to help people find your content is to create great content, said Michael Wyszomierski, a project manager on the search quality team at Google. Start with something substantial — a good product or service and quality information. “We want people to be happy with Google results,” he said.

Think about what people will be searching for when looking for you and include those “keywords” in a natural, organic way in the content that you provide. Include synonyms and similar phrases as well since not everybody says the same thing in exactly the same way.

Minimize the use of jargon or technical terms that insiders might know and make you sound like an expert but wouldn’t likely be the words that people would type in a search query. Use plain language instead of — or at least in conjunction with — the more specialized language.

Avoid “keyword stuffing” and other techniques that are considered “black hat” SEO and deceptive. For years, people have tried to trick Google and other search engines by loading pages with keywords that a searcher might type. These words are typically placed at the bottom of a page, off screen, or in a font color that’s the same as the page’s background color to make the words visible only to search engine spiders.

Google and other search engines can lower a site’s search ranking or even eliminate it from their results for engaging in this. Similarly, don’t repeat keywords too many times within the text of any given page because Google could regard that as search engine “spam” as well.

Include keywords as appropriate in your pages’ title and meta description “tags” when coding your site. The title tag is the text in the <HEAD> section of a page between <TITLE> and </TITLE>, and it shows up to visitors in their browsers’ tab.

The meta description tag is optional but useful. It typically goes after the title tag, describing the site or page in about a dozen words, such as: <META NAME=“Description” CONTENT=“ The [specific] industry’s hardest working company in providing [specific] solutions to [specific] customers.”>

Google will use this in describing your site in its search results. Otherwise it will pick other text from your site that may not be as descriptive or as likely to draw people to your site.

Carefully choose your site’s headlines and subheads — the text in your H1 and H2 tags — because Google gives them extra weight as well.

Get your site linked to other sites, particularly popular sites. Google’s breakthrough in generating relevant results was basing search rankings on sites linking to other sites. Sites are returned first that other sites link to, and the more sites that link to those sites, the more weight their links carry.

Stay away from “link farms,” which are websites that aren’t bona fide directories but schemes solely designed to improve other sites’ search rankings. Being included in them can actually hurt your rankings.

Similarly, avoid duplicating the same content found at different sites.

For other basic tips, read Google’s “Webmaster Guidelines” (google.com/web masters) and “Bing Webmaster Tools” (bing.com/toolbox/webmaster). For more indepth tips, check out Google’s “Webmaster Academy” (g.co/webmasteracademy).