What Is a Web Browser and How Does It Work?

Without a web browser to interpret web code, the internet would be inaccessible to us all. Here’s how browsers work to connect you to the World Wide Web.
John Gormally, Author
Catherine McNally, Editor
Last updated Oct 7, 2022

We all use web browsers every day to access the internet and display web pages. Without these software programs, we can no longer watch YouTube videos, send emails, or shop online.

The most common browsers are Microsoft Edge (formerly Internet Explorer), Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, and Apple Safari. But dozens more exist, and each one provides different features and levels of privacy.

Keep reading to find out more about how web browsers work and how to make them more secure.

In this article
What is a web browser?
What are some popular web browsers?
How can I change my browser privacy settings?
5 web browser privacy and security tips
How have web browsers evolved?
What web browser am I using?
Web browser FAQs
Bottom line

What is a web browser?

Web browsers act like translators, taking the code that creates web pages and using the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) to show us images, text, and videos. HTTP is basically a set of rules that determine how those images, text, and videos are transferred across the internet.

This means you don’t need to understand hypertext markup language (HTML), JavaScript, or other code to navigate the internet. For example, here’s the HTML code for our ExpressVPN review:

A snippet of the HTML code that built our ExpressVPN review.

And here's the view of that same ExpressVPN review we see when our browser loads the page:

A screenshot of how the ExpressVPN review looks when a web browser renders the HTML code.

How does a browser work?

When you type a web page address, or uniform resource locator (URL) such as www.allaboutcookies.org, into your browser or click on a link, you’re giving your browser directions for where you want to go.

Once it knows your destination, your browser sends a request to the server or servers where the web page’s content is stored, then retrieves that content and displays it to you. In other words, you're actually calling up a list of requests to get content from various resource directories or servers on which the content for that page is stored.

The web page you requested to see may be made up of content from different sources. Images may come from one server, text content from another, scripts from a third server, and ads from a different server.

Your browser then retrieves the data from each server and uses rendering engine software to translate the web page’s HTML and other code into images and text.

What are HTTP and HTTPS?

HTTP is the primary communication protocol, or set of rules, for internet surfing. Hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) is similar to HTTP, as both translate web page code into the more visual elements we’re familiar with.

The difference is, HTTPS encrypts any data transmitted from the web page to you (or vice versa) using secure sockets layer (SSL) and transport layer security (TSL) technology.

  • HTTP: Hypertext transfer protocol is used by browsers to receive and send data to and from web pages.
  • HTTPS: Hypertext transfer protocol secure is used by browsers to securely receive and send data to and from web pages through an encrypted connection.

Features of web browsers

Web browsers have several important controls and features that you may or may not be familiar with yet:

  • Address bar: This is located at the top of the browser and is where you type the URL of the website you want to access.
  • Add-ons or extensions: App developers create add-ons and browser extensions to help enhance your web experience. These can include focus timers, web clippers, or social media schedulers.
  • Bookmarks: If you want to quickly pull up a website you visited previously, you can bookmark it and easily navigate to it in the future without having to type out the URL.
  • Browser history: Your browser history is a record of what websites you’ve visited within a certain time period. This can be beneficial if you need to find some information again, but we recommend clearing your history if you share a computer.
  • Browser window: A browser window is the main feature of a browser that lets you view web page content.
  • Cookies: Cookies are text files that store information about you and the data you share with a particular website. Cookies can be helpful by saving your login info or shopping cart, but they can also be a privacy concern.
  • Home button and home page: You can set a default home page that acts as a starting point when you launch your web browser. This can include links to your favorite sites or it can be just one of your favorite sites. You can easily navigate to your homepage any time by clicking your browser’s home button.
  • Navigation buttons: At the top of the browser, you’ll see several navigation buttons that let you go back a page, go forward a page, or refresh/reload a page. Other buttons let you bookmark a page (usually a star or bookmark symbol), access settings (usually three stacked dots or three bars), or see your browser extensions (usually a puzzle piece).
  • Tabs: When you open a new web page by clicking on a link, sometimes the new page opens in a tab. This allows you to easily switch between different web pages.

Currently, there are several browser options available. Most are fairly similar to each other, but some offer additional features that you might like:

  • Apple Safari: Made for Apple devices such as MacBooks, iPhones, and iPads, Safari was released in 2003.
  • Brave: Brave is a Chromium-based, open-source browser that offers anti-malware and privacy features such as an ad blocker.
  • Google Chrome: Chrome is the most popular web browser for desktop. It’s ideal if you use a complete Google workspace experience, including Gmail, YouTube, Google Docs, and Google Drive.
  • Microsoft Edge: Edge was created by Microsoft for Windows 10 and 11 in 2015, replacing the dated Internet Explorer, which was created in 1995.
  • Mozilla Firefox: Created by the Mozilla project, which made the Netscape browser, Firefox was first released in 2002. The browser is extremely popular with users looking for more privacy than Chrome offers, or those who want access to Quantum, Gecko, and SpiderMonkey tools for web development.
  • Opera: Opera is another privacy-focused browser that comes with useful features such as a VPN and ad blocker, and an alternative Crypto Browser.
  • Tor Browser: Also known as The Onion Router, TOR is an open-source browser and is considered the preferred browser for hackers as well as journalists. Tor browser allows you to surf the dark web without leaving a trace and was originally created by the U.S. Navy.
  • Vivaldi: Vivaldi is an open-source browser that defaults to blocking all ads — including video ads. Its most popular feature, though, is probably the ability to view your tabs in a side-by-side tile format.

How do browsers use cookies?

Digital cookies are created by websites to personalize your web experience better. Cookies allow a site to remember information you’ve shared, including who you are, your login info, what you’ve left in your shopping cart, your IP address, and more.

Due to privacy laws such as the E.U.’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), websites need to ask your permission to use cookies. We recommend considering every cookie request before you accept it. It’s best to avoid accepting third-party and tracking cookies if you can, as these can continue to collect your data even after you leave the website.

How can I change my browser privacy settings?

You can easily update your browser’s privacy settings, but the steps may change depending on which browser you’re using. We’ll show you how to update your privacy settings in Google Chrome.

1. Go to the top right of the browser and select the three dots. Then choose Settings from the drop-down menu.

In Google Chrome, you can adjust your privacy settings by clicking on the three stacked dots in the top-right corner of the window.

2. Choose Privacy and security. Once here, we recommend going into the Clear browsing data option to delete your browser history, clear your cookies, and clear your cache.

If you choose the Cookies and other site data option, you can tell Chrome to block third-party cookies, block all cookies, or allow cookies. You can also tell Chrome to send a “Do Not Track” request while you browse different sites.

Under Security, you can choose which level of protection Chrome should use against malicious websites and downloads.

You can update your Google Chrome privacy settings by going into the Clear browsing data, Cookies and other site data, and Security menus.

5 web browser privacy and security tips

Chrome and other browsers allow you to secure your online experience by selecting different levels of protection or using certain features. Here are the five browser privacy and security tips we recommend most.

1. Use incognito mode

If you want additional privacy, many browsers offer an incognito or private browsing option. Incognito mode doesn’t record your site history, cookies, or cached content. Instead, this data is deleted once you end your browsing session and close the private window.

On Chrome, you can open up an incognito window by going to File → New Incognito Window.

2. Use a VPN

Another level of security you can add is a virtual private network (VPN) connection. VPN clients establish an encrypted connection between your device and the website you’re connecting to. This encryption masks your internet protocol, or IP address and could also let you access otherwise restricted sites, such as U.K. television shows on Netflix.

Some of our favorite VPN providers include:

3. Use a private search engine

The standard search engines are Microsoft Bing and Google, but you might prefer to use a private search engine instead.

Private search engines, like DuckDuckGo and Qwant, don’t track your searches or sell your personal data.

4. Use a pop-up blocker

Some pop-up ads are harmless, but some are created by hackers and designed to trick you into giving up your personal information.

You can block pop-ups and redirects inside your browser settings. Third-party ad blocker tools such as AdblockPlus work effectively too.

Tired of Facebook ads? Here's how to change your settings to block certain types of ads — plus how to block Facebook ads completely.

5. Delete and disable cookies

Removing cookies is recommended for anyone who wants additional privacy and security. You also have the option to opt-out when websites request permission to use cookies.

If you use Google Chrome, here’s how to get rid of cookies:

  1. Go to the top right of your browser, and click the three vertical dots.
  2. Go to Settings, then Privacy and security. Select Clear browsing data.
  3. In the Time range, choose All time.
  4. Make sure to check Browsing history, Cookies and other site data, Download history, and Cached images and files to delete this data. You may also want to check and clear Passwords and other sign-in data, Autofill form data, and Site settings if you share your device with others.

A screenshot of the Google Chrome web browser's Clear Browsing Data window and advanced options, showing a time range of "All time" and with browsing history, download history, and cookies and other site data checked.

How have web browsers evolved?

Prior to the commercial side of the internet in the late 1990s, only universities, governments, and global think tanks accessed the internet in order to send files to each other. Information was almost all text-based and quite simple, as you can see on this replica of the very first web page, which was hosted on Tim Berners-Lee’s (inventor of the internet) NeXT computer.

Because web pages started out simple, it makes sense that many of the first web browsers were simple, too. The first browsers had a very specific purpose: to make web page code readable and understandable.

As web developers created more web objects and software libraries, browsers needed to be updated quickly to keep up. Eventually, plug-ins were also developed to add capabilities to existing browsers so they could render new types of objects on web pages.

Browsers have changed and continue to change in order to support everything from shopping carts to embedded videos. Private browsers have also started popping up to address concerns over data privacy and cookie tracking.

Here’s a list of some of the more well-known browsers and the year they were created:

  • Mosaic: 1993
  • Netscape Navigator: 1994
  • Internet Explorer: 1995
  • Opera: 1996
  • Mozilla: 1998
  • Apple Safari: 2003
  • Firefox: 2004
  • Google Chrome: 2008
  • Microsoft Edge: 2015

What web browser am I using?

  • Your web browser is CCBot/2.0 (https://commoncrawl.org/faq/)
  • Your IP address is 35.172.224.102
  • Your hostname is allaboutcookies.org

Web browser FAQs


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How do I close my browser?

To close your web browser, look at the top right or top left of your browser window and click the red button or “X” button. This closes your browser window. You can also press Alt + F4 on your keyboard.


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Does closing a browser log you out?

Closing a browser could log you out of a website, but your login session could stay active thanks to session cookies. But session cookies are set to time out or expire after a certain amount of time, so you won’t stay logged in indefinitely.


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Why is it a good idea to close all browser windows?

It’s a good idea to close all your browser windows because that forces all of your online sessions to end or timeout.

Closing your browser window or tabs can also free up system resources becuase multiple open browser tabs can impact your memory and CPU usage. If your browsing experience or computer seems slow, make sure you don’t have multiple browser windows or tabs open.

Closing your browser window is also good practice because you likely use your computer to log into banking and other personal sites. If you get up for a moment and walk away from your device with a tab still open to your bank account, someone could access it and steal your personal information.

Bottom line

Web browsers play an important role when it comes to navigating the internet. No matter which web browser you use, it's important to update the privacy settings so you don't accidentally share your personal data with websites. Other ways to protect your online privacy and browse anonymously online include using a VPN, ad blockers, and antivirus software.

Author Details
John Gormally
John Gormally is a seasoned global cybersecurity expert, freelance writer, and blogger. With a mix of 25 years in technology sales, marketing, and content creating, John enjoys sharing his experiences with the business community through his various writing projects.