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What is a web browser?

Most people don't know what a web browser is.

It's not "Google."

Why you should care.

Your web browser is important for how fast you can access the Internet, and how well it works for you.

So what is a web browser?

Allow me to demonstrate. Let this represent your computer.

your computer

Your computer connects to the Internet.

your computer The Internet

The Internet includes the World Wide Web (sometimes called "the web"). The World Wide Web is made of web sites. The Internet also includes e-mail, instant messaging, and more. Your computer connects to the web through the Internet.

your computer Internet and World Wide Web

For your computer to do anything useful, it needs a program. A program is also called an application, or software, of course. Examples of programs are: word processors (like Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, and more), spreadsheets, and games. There are many kinds of software. Among each kind are several different programs.

For your computer to visit a web site, it needs a software program that can do that for you. That kind of software program is called a web browser.

With your web browser, your computer can browse—or surf—the World Wide Web. You can visit web sites.

Why is this important?

There is more than one web browser to choose from, they are free to use, and they offer different features, speeds, and capabilities.

If you want to improve your Internet experience, one of the easiest and best ways is to try another web browser.

What web browsers are there?

The major ones are:

What browser do you have? To find out, go to the Help menu, then select "About." That will tell you. If you don't see a Help menu, press Alt on your keyboard once. Let it go. Then the help menu should appear.

Brief Comparison of Features

All of the browsers have basic web browsing capability. What else can they do?

What web browsers can you try?

It depends on what computer system you have.
  Click or select one to download     Windows PC      Mac       Linux   
Firefox
Internet Explorer    
Opera
Safari  
Chrome    

(The above table includes only the major web browsers. There are many others to choose from.)

How can I try another web browser?

Click or select one of those listed above. Download it. Install it on your computer. Then run it and see how you like it.

Quick tour of the web browser

diagram of a web browser
  1. Upper-left corner. Back, forward buttons.
  2. Center: address bar.
  3. Upper-right: search box.
  4. Central area: web page display area

You probably know how to use the back and forward buttons already. If you want to go to a new site, just type in the address (like example.com) in the large address bar on top, and press Enter ⏎. If you want to search for a site, type in what you are searching for in the search box and press Enter ⏎.

The companies and organizations that make web browsers can earn money by selling the rights to their search box. Search engines pay money for that right. Note that Microsoft Internet Explorer's search box links to Microsoft's own Bing.com. Google Chrome does not have a search box. Searches typed in Chrome's address bar link to the Google search engine.

Of the browsers discussed here, only Firefox is produced by a non-profit organization.

Reload and Stop

Users of web browsers often want to reload a page, or stop a page from loading. The reload and stop buttons are usually located near the back and forward buttons. You can also reload by pressing Ctrl+R. On a Mac, press +R.

You can stop the page from loading by pressing Esc. (If you are using Safari, press +. (Command+period).)

What is a web site?

If a web browser can visit a web site, what is a web site, exactly?

A web site is a domain of web pages. Every web site has at least one web page. Most web sites have more than one web page.

Each web page is referenced via a separate address. Sometimes this is called a "URL." The address example.com/one.html is different than example.com/two.html. Those would be two different web pages.

A web address is a hyperlink, because it can link two different things together.

When you click on or select something on a web page, and it takes you to another web page, what you clicked or selected is a hyperlink. Hyperlinks are often presented in a different color, such as blue. Sometimes hyperlinks are underlined.

What is a web page?

A web page is one viewable unit on a web site. Every web page is written in HTML (or a variant of HTML). Every web page has at least one web address.

What is HTML?

On the web, hyperlinks are contained in HyperText Markup Language (HTML).

HTML is data that your web browser can process. It is the data coding system that makes a web page display in a certain order, with a certain style, and with a certain meaning. For example, HTML can make text bold, italic, big, and small. Every web page is made from HTML.

Note that updates to HTML have been made over the years. One important update is called XHTML, which is based on HTML.

Here is an example of HTML code:

<h1>Welcome</h1>
<p>Hello and welcome to the web page.</p>

When displayed in a web browser, that code produces a large heading <h1> that says "Welcome," and then a paragraph, <p> with the text included, as above.

There are many rules associated with HTML. Web browsers have to follow them closely so that the web pages display the right way. Web page designers also have to follow the rules, or standards. That way their visitors can efficiently experience the web sites they design.

What is an Internet domain?

An Internet domain would be something like example.com. There are suffixes other than ".com," such as: .org, .net, .edu, .jp, and many more. Thus, there can also be Internet domains like "example.edu," "example.jp," "example.org," and so on.

When people speak of an Internet domain, they usually use the term domain name. When people speak of the name of a computer on the Internet, they usually use the term host name. To be technical, domain name and host name refer to the same thing.

What is WWW?

Many times web site addresses are given as something like "www.example.com". Where does the "WWW" come from?

WWW stands for "World Wide Web," often just called "the web." The web is of course just one kind of service available on the Internet. Some Internet domains handle their web site on www.example.com, and their e-mail on mail.example.com. The "WWW" in an Internet address typically refers to the web site at that Internet domain.

Do you need to type WWW before a web site address? Usually, you don't have to. Most Internet domains that feature a web site have the same web site for their Internet domain (example.com) and the WWW subdomain (www.example.com). They go to the same web site. There are rare exceptions, however.

Internet vs. internet

When should "Internet" be capitalized? When Internet is a proper name, it is capitalized, as in "the Internet."

the Internet
The large, interconnected network that spans the globe.
Internet Protocol (IP)
A detailed, technical coding system that allows communication over a network. Every computer on the Internet has at least one IP address.
internet
Any network that is tied together via the Internet Protocol.
intranet
An internet network contained within a single organization. A private network. An intranet may have a web site in it that is not accessible through the Internet.
extranet
Like an intranet, except that certain people outside the organization, such as partners or customers, are granted access to it through the Internet.

What is HTTP?

HTTP is the Hypertext Transfer Protocol. It is the application protocol that a web browser uses to communicate with a web site. HTTP runs atop the Internet Protocol.

To reference a web page in a precise manner, you need to specify the protocol used to retrieve it. Thus, a typical URL, or web site adddress, looks like this:

http://www.example.com/webpage.html

If you just type something short into your web browser's address bar, like ask.com, your browser assumes you are asking for the same as http://ask.com as this can save you time.

What is a URL?

A URL is a hyperlink that is used on the World Wide Web.

The uniform resource locator (URL) is a general category of Internet address. One kind of Internet address, hyperlink, or URL, is the web address. An example of a web address is http://www.example.com/. Some URLs are not web addresses. One would be mailto:joe@example.com.

What is the process of getting a web page?

Let's put it all together.

Using your computer, you start your web browser. You type in a URL (also known as a web address) into the web browser. Your web browser checks to see if it can find the Internet domain referenced in the web address. If it can, it gets the Internet Protocol (IP) address for that domain name. Then your web browser uses HTTP to request whatever might be at the web address, such as a web page. The web site receives the request and, using HTTP, sends back the HTML code of the web page back to your web browser. Your web browser displays the web page on your computer according to what is in the HTML. Of course, it actually gets more complicated than that, but that is the basic process.

What is the proper capitalization of Internet addresses?

The general rule is that addresses are not case sensitive. That means they can be capitalized or not. EXAMPLE.COM is the same Internet domain as example.com.

There are two main exceptions: the username of an e-mail address, and the path portion of a web address.

JOE@example.com might be different than joe@example.com. Many servers are configured to ignore this difference, but not all are. If you want your e-mail to go through, make sure everything before the "@" is capitalized exactly right.

Furthemore, http://example.com/PATH/TO/PAGE might be different than http://example.com/path/to/page. Again, for many sites there is no difference, but there could be.

URLs are often all lower case, of course.

A search engine is a web site. Periodically, a search engine goes out on the Internet, looking for new web sites, and web sites that have new content. Then the search engine adds that to its index. When you go to a search engine and search, it checks its index and shows what it found.

The largest search engines are, as measured by market share:

  1. Google
  2. Yahoo
  3. Bing (incorporating Live.com and MSN.com)
  4. AOL
  5. Ask

Source: Market Share.

Note that Google's search engine market share is in excess of 80%.

The Quiz

Just seven questions.

  1. What is a web browser?
    1. Google   
    2. the Internet   
    3. search engine   
    4. a software program that provides access to the World Wide Web   
  2. What is the Internet?
    1. the web browser   
    2. the search engine   
    3. a global network   
    4. it doesn't exist   
  3. What is Google?
    1. The World Wide Web   
    2. a for-profit corporation   
    3. the government  
    4. tubes   
  4. What is a hyperlink?
    1. when you click on the back button on the browser, that is a hyperlink   
    2. a rambunctious child   
    3. the same as an e-mail address   
    4. when you click or select a word or image on a web page, and you are taken to another web page, what you clicked on, or selected is a hyperlink  
  5. What is HTML?
    1. technology invented by Netscape and Real Networks to stream movies over the Internet   
    2. HyperText Markup Language, an underlying building block of the World Wide Web   
    3. the Internet   
    4. similar to a bacon, lettuce, and tomato (BLT) sandwich   
  6. What is a web site?
    1. anything that ends in ".com"   
    2. the prey of arachnids   
    3. an Internet domain that provides web pages   
    4. Firefox and Internet Explorer   
  7. What is a web page?
    1. HTML data on a web site that has a URL   
    2. a hyperlink or a URL   
    3. a web browser on the Internet that displays it  
    4. the Internet itself   

More Information

Want to learn more?

Why is this web page here? People should know this. In a non-scientific street survey, only 8% of people in New York knew what a web browser was.

Useful for anyone who doesn't know all the techno-speak, but just wants to be more effective with, and knowledgeable about the Internet.

This page is current as of 15 July 2009.


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This page last updated: September 25, 2011.

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