What Is the Deep Web? Understanding the Most Misunderstood Part of the Internet

By Lisa Bigelow | | Technology
What Is the Deep Web? Understanding the Most Misunderstood Part of the Internet
Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Imagine the internet is an iceberg. The icy monolith visible above the water’s surface represents popular websites such as Amazon and CNN. But underneath, hidden from view, lurks a dense expanse of digital information. Here lies a trove of content that can’t easily be found, even with powerful search engines such as Google. This trove is called the deep web. It’s a mysterious term, but what is the deep web, exactly?

The deep web is much larger than the surface web. It’s where restricted web pages live, and it also houses an area where determined web surfers can find websites that sell illegal drugs, weapons, stolen account passwords and banking information. It’s also where you’ll stumble upon malware that can permanently damage device software or even steal your identity.

Is the deep web all bad? No—in fact, you probably already access the deep web several times a week without knowing it. But it’s important to understand what the deep web is, the differences between the deep web and the dark web, and how to safely access websites located there.

What is the deep web?

The “deep web” refers to content that’s inaccessible through search. Viewing deep web content usually requires authentication, such as a password. Your email and online banking pages are two examples, but there are plenty more.

“The deep web is the entire web, the contents of which you cannot find using the conventional search engines but can be accessed if you have an address,” said Kenny Trinh, managing editor of NetBookNews. “Essentially, what the deep web offers is anonymity.”

Legal and medical records and academic and scientific databases comprise a large part of the deep web. Much of this content is public information. But because search engines such as Google don’t “crawl” and index this content, it doesn’t turn up on search engines’ results pages. And only content that appears on results pages is part of the surface web. The rest is part of the deep web.

How and why search engines find some webpages and not others

Search engine algorithms find and display websites using proprietary processes and criteria.

  1. Digital “spider” bots crawl the web looking for pages that want to be found. The bots look for websites purposefully designed to be found using search. One way websites do this is by linking to pages on other high-quality sites.
  2. The spider indexes the website’s content. As the spider bot crawls the site it categorizes the content using text, images and video. Developers can set up a site so that search engines won’t index it. Password-protected pages, like your email, are one example.
  3. Google (and other engines) serve up indexed websites after you search for a related term. Crawling and indexing ensure search results are relevant to what you’re looking for. That means searching for a term like “best pole vault techniques” won’t result in pages of instructions on how to knit a pom-pom hat.

This process of crawling, indexing and serving is why a blogger, for example, might be eager for others to link to his website. “Backlinking” increases that website’s ability to be found by spiders. And when spiders return to a website again and again, the search engine is more likely to rank that website highly—and that means you’re more likely to click on it.

But that’s the surface web. What about websites that don’t want to be found using search? As we’ve mentioned, password-protected pages such as your online banking account is one such site. And many deep web sites such as academic databases that don’t contain backlinks are others. But a small sample of the deep web—the dark web—contains countless not-so-hidden dangers.

The deep vs. dark web

While deep web and dark web are sometimes used interchangeably, the dark web is a small part of the deep web. It refers to content that can only be found by using a special browser extension.

“The dark web is a small part of the deep web,” said Trinh. “It consists of certain websites within that deep web that are linked to criminal activity and illegal marketplaces.”

Developers build websites on the dark web so they can’t be found via search. For example, dark web sites won’t allow Google indexing. They don’t include backlinks to reputable websites. And because users can surf anonymously, the dark web is home to countless websites that sell or promote illegal activities.

Not all the deep web is dark, but all of the dark web is deep. Here’s what to know about the dark web.

What kind of content is on the dark web?

The worst kind, unfortunately, as the dark web is a hotbed of illegal activity. Besides illegal drugs and weapons, users can also find pirated content, child pornography, stolen credit cards and financial data, and crime-for-hire. Dark web content represents the very worst of the internet and humanity.

Is visiting the dark web safe?

“The dark web is where criminal and illegal activities happen,” said Trinh. “Any sane, law-abiding citizen should avoid delving into the dark web at all costs for a lot of reasons. One big reason is privacy and security. The dark web is home to hackers and scammers. Once you visit it, your privacy and security are already at risk.” Plus, Trinh adds, because law enforcement regularly scour the dark web for illegal activities, anything you explore could get you in trouble with the authorities.

How do I find the dark web?

Specialized browser extensions that anonymize web surfer identities and locations enable people to access dark web content. Without an extension, dark web content is inaccessible, and the closest most people will ever come to surfing the dark web is when they view stolen content.

How can I access the deep web and is the deep web safe?

You already access the deep web every time you enter a password. But how can you search for content that’s not meant to be found using a Google search? Researchers, for example, prize the deep web for its vast collection of high-quality content. Is there a way for the average user to discover what’s there without exposing their software or personal data?

“The deep web itself is safe, as long as you don’t go to any link that’s associated with the dark web,” said Trinh. “Excluding the dark web, the deep web contains a plethora of data that are inaccessible unless you have the specific URL and sometimes credentials.”

One benefit of limiting internet browsing to the surface web is that sites such as Google can protect you from malware and misinformation. It’s important to keep in mind that non-indexed pages—even safe ones—cannot be pre-screened. So when you search the deep web it’s essential that you stick to sites that are likely to be secure. University research pages, for example, are one such type.

According to Trinh, the most common way to access the deep web is through the Tor (or The Onion Router) browser. “The Onion Router [is] a Firefox-based browser run exclusively by volunteers,” says Trinh.

Don’t be afraid of the iceberg underneath the surface, but use common sense

Now that you know the difference between the deep and dark web, you can use most of the deep web safely. But exercise sound judgment, because even checking out the dark web on a casual basis could lead to unfortunate consequences such as identity theft.

If you have already visited the dark web, IT security consultant Almi Dumi recommended monitoring your accounts for suspicious activity and changing your passwords.

“Check your credit report and financial accounts regularly to look for suspicious activity,” Dumi said. “Reputable sites such as Have I Been Pwned allow you to see if your email or passwords have been compromised in a data breach. Keep in mind that recovering your personal data once it hits the dark web is impossible. Instead, your best bet is to simply invalidate data once you discover a breach.”

Finally, remember that prevention is better than a cure, according to Dumi.

“Take the time to understand internet safety and take appropriate measures, even if that occasionally means sacrificing convenience for security,” he said.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.