The Invisible Web: What It Is & How to Find It

The invisible web is easy to get to, unlike the dark web

The invisible web—also called deep web and hidden web—is a section of the web that most search engines don't list in their results. The term really just means that the content is invisible to most people.

This deep web area refers to the vast repository of information that search engines and directories don't have direct access to, either because of a technical limitation or because the website has requested that its pages not be listed in search results.

Unlike web pages on the "regular" web—called the surface web or Clearnet—information in databases, secured behind user credentials, and in other locations that a link-crawling service can't access, is generally inaccessible and therefore deemed as hidden web content.

Although a normal search engine can't help you find what's on the deep web, you might be able to access some of the invisible web if you know where to look.

How Big Is the Invisible Web?

The invisible web is likely thousands of times larger than the web content found with general search engine queries. According to some estimates, search engines have access to less than half of one percent of all web pages available on the internet!

Considering that there are trillions of web pages on the internet, it's clear that there are huge amounts of unsearchable pages out there, just waiting for someone to access.

What Makes Up the Invisible Web?

You might be surprised what's considered part of the invisible web. Following are just a few examples of web pages that could be private to the point that they're part of the deep web:

  • Online banking accounts
  • Email messages
  • Articles behind paywalls
  • Social media pages
  • Forums and other communities
  • Government records
  • Web archives
  • Digital goods
  • Subscription-based video and music streaming services
  • Pages not linked to by other pages
  • Web pages that use CAPTCHAs

If you think about it, each time you have to log in to a website to access your personal account information, you're "signing on" to the deep web. You're using a very specific means to access a part of the web that no search engine can reach.

Of course, the invisible web isn't limited to just password-protected content. It's also whole websites or specific web pages that the owner doesn't want a search engine to crawl. Any site owner can instruct search engines to not crawl some or all of their pages. Those are, therefore, considered pages of the deep web.

Why Is It Called the 'Invisible' Web?

The term was originally coined in 1994 to refer to websites that hadn't registered with a search engine. If the search engine didn't know that the site existed, it was considered invisible. Nowadays, websites don't need to be submitted to search engines because the engines themselves do it.

Spiders, which are basically small software programs, meander throughout the web, indexing the addresses of pages they discover. When these programs run into a page from the invisible web and don't know what to do with it, the spiders record the address, but can't access anything about the information the page contains.

Why? There's a lot of factors, but they mainly boil down to technical barriers and/or deliberate decisions on the part of the site owner(s) to exclude their pages from search engine spiders. For instance, university library sites that require passwords to access their information aren't included in search engine results, as well as script-based pages that aren't easily read by search engine spiders.

Pages like these pop up all the time, and if they're irrelevant to a search engine, are constantly deepening the invisible web.

Why Is the Invisible Web Important?

Many users believe it could be easier to just stick with what can be found with Google or Yahoo. However, it's not always easy to find what you're looking for with a standard search engine, especially if you're in search of something a bit complicated or obscure.

Think about the web as a vast library. Most people wouldn't expect to just walk in the front door and immediately find information on the history of paper clips lying on the front desk; they'd know that they have to dig for it. This is where search engines won't necessarily help you, but the invisible web will.

The fact that search engines only search a very small portion of the web makes the invisible web a very tempting resource. There's a lot more information out there than we could ever imagine.

Deep Web vs Dark Web

It's important to note the differences between the dark web and the deep web. The two are similar in that search engines can't find their web pages, meaning they belong to what's known as the dark net. However, they are different in a few ways.

Here's a summary of the various parts of the web:

  • Surface web: This is the web you know. It's where you are now. Here you can enter a term into a common search engine like Google or Bing and receive results that point you to pages that are likely of interest to you. The surface web is the top, visible layer of the web.
  • Deep web: The deep web (invisible web) is usable in all the ways you read about above. You can open your web browser and access invisible web content in seconds, just not from a normal search engine.
  • Dark web: The dark web is (confusingly) much more invisible than the invisible web and reaches far "deeper" into the internet! Content on the dark web is encrypted, requires a special program, and is useful if you want to remain anonymous while browsing the internet. It consists of mostly illegal information, products, and services that don't hold interest for the average user.

Deep web and dark web are often conflated, which can be confusing when reading about these topics. If it helps, consider the various layers of the web as a body of water: anyone can access the surface with no problem but you need special tools (say, a snorkel) to go deeper where interesting things might live. To go deeper still requires a totally different setup (scuba gear or even a special vessel) because that level isn't accessible any other way.

So, what it comes down to is that the invisible web is harder to reach than the surface web, and the dark web is even harder to reach than the invisible web. However, it's all still web content, just with different access levels, anonymity, and uses.

How to Use the Invisible Web

Unlike the dark web which requires special software to access the hidden web pages, the invisible web is very much visible if you have the right tools. Once you find a site on the invisible web, it works just like any other.

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