5 Secret Ways to Use Your Favorite Websites


NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Web sites are many-layered entities, and if you look beneath the surface you’ll find all sorts of surprises.

And we’re not talking about Easter eggs, those cute little hidden treats Google made famous (do a Google search for “let it snow” or “do a barrel role,” for instance). Rather, we refer to important functionality and interesting features that for one reason or another are largely undiscovered by the public at large.

For the most part, these “secrets” aren’t deliberately hidden from users. But companies have to make strategic choices about what links and functions are presented on the front page of their sites, and some stuff inevitably misses the cut. It sometimes takes a bit of clicking around to stumble upon a page or setting that most users overlook.

Here are a few pages and functions from the world’s most popular sites that you may have overlooked.

Google's Ad Preferences

Google’s Ad Preferences

Ever noticed that online advertisements – especially those with “ads by Google” at the bottom – are uncannily accurate? Often they’re tailored to stuff you’re interested in, and sometimes when you visit a retailer’s Web site you’ll suddenly find that site’s ads following you around the Web.

It’s no secret that advertisers track your browsing habits to provide more targeted ads (and various efforts are afoot to limit the practice). Google, which makes billions of dollars off advertisements on its various services, is no exception. But did you know that it’s possible to see what the company has learned about your interests from years of browsing?

While signed in to your Google account, visit Google.com/ads/preferences and you’ll be greeted with an online dossier on yourself – the gathered intel upon which your ads are tailored. My page reveals that I like TV comedies, coupons and discount offers, online communities and video games. Aside from Google’s mistaken belief that I enjoy the outdoors, it’s a scarily accurate picture of my personal and professional interests. It even correctly inferred I was a male aged 25-34, based simply on the Web sites I visit.

If you’re creeped out by all this, the page offers the ability to remove this ad personalization, though keep in mind that this just means the ads you see won’t be as relevant to you. And if you’d like to get ads that are even more closely tailored to your personality, you can go in and edit your interests as you see fit. Hey, if you’re going to see banner ads everywhere you go, they might as well be for stuff you like.

Amazon's Top Rated Products

Amazon’s Top Rated Products

Most people use Amazon by searching for the product they need, or – if they’re in more of a browsing mood – navigating to a category of interest and scrolling through the thousands of products contained therein.

But what if you’re simply in the mood to buy something, and want to see the best stuff Amazon has to offer? Go to Amazon.com/top-rated and you’ll find a listing of the products in each category getting the highest customer reviews (with emphasis placed on products with a high number of reviews). In the toaster category, for instance, you’ll discover a four-slot pop-up toaster with an attachment that lets you fry two eggs, a gadget its owners apparently adore. In the automotive section you can find a car battery charger that maintains a five-star rating after 61 votes.

In addition to seeing the top-rated products in each category and subcategory, you can also see top sellers, hot new items and the “movers and shakers” – those products that have moved up in sales rank the most in the past 24 hours. These options certainly aren’t intended to be a secret, but it’s a different way to shop at the world’s largest online retailer that many users may not take advantage of.

Bonus tip: To simply see the 100 highest-rated products on the site without any kind of category breakdown, visit Topazon.com, which shows you the dart board, bread knife and HDMI cable Amazon users can’t stop raving about.

Facebook's Hidden Inbox

Facebook’s Hidden Inbox

A hat tip on this one goes to Slate’s Elizabeth Weingarten, who recently publicized the fact that Facebook has gotten in the nasty habit of hiding messages it thinks you don’t want to see. It seems that when Facebook overhauled its messaging system, one of the lesser-known adjustments was the “social inbox,” which makes it so only messages from your Facebook friends wind up in the primary message inbox. The theory, explains Facebook, is that your friends’ messages shouldn’t get mixed up with bank statements and bills.

That’s good in theory. In practice, the change flew largely under the radar, so many people remain unaware that there’s a secondary inbox filling up with unanswered mail. The messages going into this “other” inbox don’t trigger any kind of alert upon receipt of messages, so if an old family friend or business contact messages you through Facebook without becoming friends first, you’ll never know it unless you check the other inbox.

To see what you’ve been missing, click the “messages” tab on the left side of the Facebook home screen and then the “other” tab that suddenly appears below it. Then get ready to apologize to some people for taking three months to write back to them.

YouTube's Free Movies

YouTube’s Free Movies

YouTube is best known for its short, user-submitted videos. But over the past couple of years it's made a play to be a more comprehensive video service, most notably by adding the ability to rent full-length movies. Since adding movie rentals in early 2010, YouTube has steadily built up its  library of movies, which can usually be rented at a cost of $2 to $4.

That much is no great secret. But what some people might not realize is that a few of the movies are just as free as the site's 30-second cat videos.

Now, there's not much in the way of big blockbusters in the free section, where you're much more likely to see straight-to-video fare such as Curse of Pirate Death than Pirates of the Caribbean. But there are a few diamonds to be found in this rough, including classic Val Kilmer comedy Real Genius and crime drama Donnie Brasco. They can be watched on your TV if you have an HDMI cable or a set-top box with YouTube support.

If there's nothing good on TV, it might be worth a look. It certainly beats going to the video store and rifling through the bargain bin.

Wikipedia's Download Page

Wikipedia’s Download Page

We could probably dedicate an entire article to the hidden gems on Wikipedia. There is, for instance, the article on “non-human electoral candidates,” which chronicles the various dogs, cats and wild animals who have run for elected office. For a great primer on these must-read articles, check out the Tumblr blog Best of Wikipedia.

Yes, there are loads of fascinating tidbits on Wikipedia, which according to its own metrics boasts nearly 4 million English-language articles. That’s why we were intrigued to hear that it’s actually possible to download the whole thing.

Just visit the Wikipedia Database Download page and you’ll get a rundown of the various ways you can download the entirety of the Wikipedia database in its current form. The page is a bit heavy on the jargon, but the main takeaway is that the current version of every Wikipedia article (without images) will take up about 31 GB of space on your hard drive once uncompressed. (Completists who want the entire edit history and all talk pages will need to find five terabytes of space.) The page also links to third-party applications for navigating the offline database, including WikiTaxi.

We can think of various reasons why you might want to have an offline version of Wikipedia that you can take anywhere. Perhaps you’re going to a rural area without Internet access but can’t stand the idea of being unable to access the site’s vast stores of facts. Maybe you want a backup in case of an Internet outage. Or maybe you’re trying to go back in time and want to be able to bring humanity’s assembled knowledge without lugging a bunch of Encyclopedias with you. Whatever the reason, it’s there for the taking.

Matt Brownell is a staff reporter for MainStreet. You can reach him by email at matthew.brownell@thestreet.com, or follow him on Twitter @Brownellorama.

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