What Is a Web Browser?

What a web browser is and how it works

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a web browser as "a computer program used for accessing sites or information on a network (such as the World Wide Web)." This is a simple yet accurate description. A web browser talks to a server and asks it for the pages you want to see.

How a Browser Retrieves a Web Page

The browser application retrieves (or fetches) code, usually written in HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and other computer languages, from a web server. Then, it interprets this code and displays it as a web page for you to view. In most cases, user interaction is needed to tell the browser what website or specific web page you want to see. Using the browser address bar is one way to do this.

URLs Are Key

The web address, or URL (Uniform Resource Locator), that you type into the address bar tells the browser where to obtain a page or pages. For example, when you enter the URL http://www.lifewire.com into the address bar, you're taken to the home page of Lifewire.com.

The Google Chrome web browser

The browser looks at this particular URL in two main sections. The first is the protocol, which is the http:// part. HTTP, which stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol, is the standard protocol used to request and transmit files on the internet, most web pages, and their respective components. Because the browser knows that the protocol is HTTP, it knows how to interpret everything located to the right of the forward slashes.

The browser looks at www.lifewire.com (the domain name), which tells the browser the location of the webserver it needs to retrieve the page. Many browsers no longer require the protocol to be specified when accessing a web page. This means that entering www.lifewire.com or lifewire.com in the address bar is usually sufficient.

You'll often see additional parameters at the end. These parameters further pinpoint the location, which is, typically, particular pages within a website, for example, https://www.lifewire.com/about-us. Anything after the / (slash) is an additional web page within Lifewire.com.

A webpage within a website in Google Chrome

Once the browser reaches this web server, it retrieves, interprets, and renders the page in the main window for you to view. The process happens behind the scenes, typically in a matter of seconds.

Popular Web Browsers

Web browsers come in many different flavors, each with their own nuances. The best-known ones are free, and each has options governing privacy, security, interface, shortcuts, and other variables. The main reason a person uses any browser is the same: to view web pages on the internet, similar to the way you see this article.

These are the most popular web browsers:

Many others exist, however. In addition to the big players, try these out to see if any fits your browsing style:

Microsoft Internet Explorer, once the go-to in browsers, has been discontinued, but the developers still maintain Internet Explorer 11 that comes with Windows 10.