A Beginner’s Guide to Web Browsers

Web Browsers

By Kate Shishkina

Can you imagine the world without the web? Today, we no longer have to memorize concepts or pore over books in search of answers. Instead, we turn to the internet to find them instantaneously — often through a web browser. Let’s walk through what a web browser is and how it works.

What’s the Difference Between the Internet and the Web?

It’s important to recognize the difference between the web and the internet. Yes, these are different things!

  • The internet is the information space; a system of intertwined networks that connect all the computers around the world. The word “internet” itself is a portmanteau for “interconnected network.”
  • The World Wide Web (the web) is a means of accessing information over the internet. It’s a system of web pages that utilize the internet to send and receive files and data. World Wide Web documents are formatted in a certain way, using what’s called markup language (HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language). These documents are distributed across the internet through a transfer protocol (HTTP, i.e., Hypertext Transfer Protocol). According to the researchers at the nuclear research organization CERN, it was initially developed in the 1960s for sharing documents from one university to another.
  • A web browser is software that provides an easy access to the World Wide Web. Browsers load and render web pages so that they are readable by humans. Think of a web browser as the tour bus that drives you around the web’s top attractions.

Fun fact: Based on a web server survey conducted in January 2018, there are more than 1.875 billion confirmed websites in the world.

The Evolution of Web Browsers

Because the internet was originally developed to share scientific documents, the initial representation of information was extremely dry. In the early days, web browsers were simple applications that only rendered plain HTML pages and had the functionality to add bookmarks. With the development of programming languages, however, the browsers have evolved as well. Nowadays, developers are able to add style to HTML documents using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and make websites interactive and dynamic using JavaScript. Every time a user visits a web page, the web browser loads and processes its HTML, assets (images, videos, etc.), style sheets, and JavaScript code.

How Searching the Web Works

It’s the 21st century — who hasn’t turned to the internet to find a funny cat video or check the age of their favorite movie star? Let’s dissect what happens when you type a URL into a web browser’s address bar. URL stands for uniform resource locator (e.g., https://generalassemb.ly/education). It’s a unique identifier for a website that tells a browser the location from which to retrieve a page (in a way that’s readable to humans). In reality, it’s just a series of numbers called an Internet Protocol (IP) address (e.g., 100.12.160.42). Imagine that you’re sending a letter to your friend in Australia. They may have a street address or a P.O. box, but you must provide this information in order for your letter to be delivered, as well as your own address, so your friend knows who sent it. IP addresses offer the equivalent for sending and receiving online requests.

So, what are the components that make up a URL?

Protocol Host Path

You can see that the address starts with the protocol — HTTP, in this case. There are many different communication protocols, but HTTP is the standard for requesting and transmitting files on the internet. Given this URL, your web browser retrieves, interprets, and renders all of the assets associated with that resource: an HTML document, images, styles, and the website’s code.

The Most Popular Web Browsers

You’ve probably heard of different web browsing applications, each with their own unique features and functionalities. Most of them are free, and each has its own particular set of options for privacy, security, interface, shortcuts, etc. The goal of all browsers, however, is to simplify access to the web. Today’s most popular browsers include:

  • Google Chrome
  • Mozilla Firefox
  • Internet Explorer
  • Opera
  • Safari
  • Microsoft Edge

All of these browsers have a similar Developer Tools functionality. (Hint: Press “F12” on Windows and “option+command+J” on Mac). For instance, all support HTML element and style inspections. You can even “hack” the styles on any website by changing the CSS to your liking — not permanently, of course. The changes will only “live” until you reload the page. Additionally, when it comes to interaction with JavaScript, all browsers support “debugger” functionality, which allows you to “pause” your JavaScript code and investigate the values of its variables.

Each browser also comes with its unique set of features. For example, Firefox offers font and animation analysis tools that are particularly useful in web design. And Microsoft Edge separates errors, warnings, and messages, while other browsers don’t. What will be your browser of choice? I suggest getting familiar with Edge, Firefox, and Chrome.

Web Browsers at General Assembly

Whether on campus or online, all of General Assembly’s coding courses dive into the inner workings of web browsers and the World Wide Web. Start with the basics for free with Dash, learn the essentials on your own time in our mentor-guided, online HTML, CSS, & Web Design or JavaScript courses, or skill up on campus with part-time Front-End Web Development or JavaScript development courses. You can also embark on a career in the field with our full-time Web Development Immersive or Web Development Immersive Remote. No matter which path you choose, you’ll leave able to create websites from scratch and host them so they are accessible by browsers in the public domain.

Meet Our Expert

Kate Shishkina is a Web Development Immersive instructor at GA’s New York campus who got her start at GA as a student in the course. Because she has experienced this immersion herself, her teaching style is a mix of compassion and “tough love.” A Brooklyn College graduate in computer science, she believes that GA’s course should be the first step upon graduating with a CS degree. College focuses on theory, while GA offers fully hands-on practice.

“If you’re curious and passionate about web development and could spend hours learning about it, you’ll succeed in the field. We all use browsers every day, so everyone should have an idea of how they work.”

Kate Shishkina, Web Development Immersive instructor, GA New York