Web Browser vs. Search Engine: Understanding the Differences

The Neeva Team on 04/05/22

In 2009, Google did a street survey in Times Square asking passersby if they knew what a web browser was. Most didn’t: “A website that you can search on, I think,” “A browser is a search engine,” “It’s where you put your search terms.” One just said “Google.”

The confusion is understandable: When you launch your browser it usually displays a search engine’s homepage; when you type search terms into your browser’s address bar, you’re taken to a search engine results page; and Google, a search engine, also makes the world’s most popular web browser, Chrome.

Browsers and search engines might seem like one and the same, but they’re not. The next sections explain their differences, and how they relate to each other.

A web browser—sometimes called an internet browser, or simply a browser—is a locally-installed software application for navigating the internet. Its main function is to retrieve and display web pages, like the one you’re reading right now. Think of your browser as your access to the internet, a window into cyberspace.

What is a web browser?

A web browser—sometimes called an internet browser, or simply a browser—is a locally-installed software application for navigating the internet. Its main function is to retrieve and display web pages, like the one you’re reading right now. Think of your browser as your access to the internet, a window into cyberspace.

Web browsers make it possible to surf the web by interpreting and translating web code into text, images, video, and other elements. That is, a browser takes something most of us don’t understand, like HTML and JavaScript, and turns it into the content we come to enjoy online. Without browsers, the internet is an indecipherable jumble of numbers and letters.

Most devices with an internet connection come with a browser application, and you can usually install and use multiple browsers on a single device. Web browsers aren’t the only way to access the web, but they’re the primary way most of us access information and services online. They differ slightly from one another, but most share these basic features:

  • A browser window. Also called a browser user interface, your browser window is where you view and navigate websites. Your browser window is, quite literally, your window onto the web.
  • An address bar. The text bar at the top of the browser window is your address bar. It’s where you make requests to your browser. This is where you enter URLs, like ‘www.neeva.com’.
  • Navigation. This includes the back and forward buttons, represented by a left arrow and right arrow icon respectively, to help you navigate between pages, and the refresh/stop button, which restarts or terminates the web page loading process.
  • Tabs. A single browser window can contain many tabs, which act as additional browser windows. These make it easier to shift from one web page to another without having to open a new browser window.
  • History. Your web browser keeps track of the pages you visit, including the name of the page and access time, which can be useful if you want to revisit a website—otherwise, most browsers also let you browse in incognito mode, which prevents your browser from recording your history.

The first web browser was invented by a British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee in 1991. He called it the World Wide Web, which explains the famous website prefix ‘www’. In 1993, computer scientist Marc Andreessen created Mosaic, the first graphical web browser and what became the first popular browser, setting off a wave of innovation.

Today, the world’s most popular browsers are Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge (formerly Internet Explorer), Samsung Internet, and Opera. Web developers make sure that their sites work across most of these popular platforms.

What is a search engine?

A search engine is a web-based service that helps you search for information on the internet based on your queries. In other words, it’s a website through which users can search other websites using keywords.

It does so by gathering, organizing, and ranking information from across the web. When you enter terms in its search field, the search engine runs through its database of relevant websites, then lists results in a specific order for your convenience.

The process is similar to finding a book at your local library branch. When you enter the title of the book in the search index, it returns results based on the library’s catalog, listing them based on how closely they match the title you entered. In the same way, a search engine supplies ordered information based on both the contents of its database and the cues you provide.

It’s estimated that there are over 1.8 billion websites on the internet. Without search engines, finding useful information on the web would be a difficult and tedious endeavor. Internet search engines have gotten more complex over the years, but they still follow this basic formula to help you find what you’re after:

  • Crawl. Web crawlers, also known as spiders, are programs that continuously scan the internet for URLs, keywords, and updates. They find new sites, identify new links, and send text from every website to an index to be analyzed.
  • Index. The data provided by crawlers is organized and stored in an index so the search engine can quickly locate information. The index includes an entry for every word on every indexed web page.
  • Search. When you query a search engine, it translates your words into terms that relate to its index, then consults its index to find suitable web pages by matching keywords.
  • Rank. Search engines use algorithms to present you with a list of results prioritized by what it thinks will best answer your query.

There are all kinds of search engines, some generic, and some more specialized services that offer more tailored results on certain topics. Google is the most popular search engine and most-visited website on the internet, with more than 90% of the search engine market share. After Google, Bing has 3% and Yahoo! has 1.5%. Baidu, a Chinese search engine and mapping service, is the fourth most popular search engine, and the third most-visited site on the web.

Private search engines have recently risen in popularity due to privacy concerns about mainstream search engines’ data collection practices. These include anonymous, ad-supported search engines like DuckDuckGo, and private, ad-free search engines like Neeva.

Web browser vs search engine

Web browsers and search engines are not the same. They’re related, but they don’t do the same things: A browser is a software program that displays web pages, whereas a search engine is a website that finds web pages. A search engine, the service, can be accessed through a web browser, the infrastructure. Even when you type a search query into the address bar of your browser, your web browser is still using a separate search engine service to return results to you. Here are the key differences:

  • Purpose. A web browser retrieves information from web servers to display web pages, whereas a search engine finds, indexes, and ranks information on the internet to answer your queries.
  • Location. A web browser is a piece of software you install, or that comes pre-installed on your device, whereas you don’t have to install any software to run a search engine, which is web-based.
  • Web addresses. A web browser displays a web page of a current web address, or URL, whereas a search engine gathers and maintains data from billions of URLs.
  • Storage. A web browser doesn’t have its own storage, though it stores information, like cookies and cache files, whereas a search engine produces and draws from a database of information it continuously builds and updates.

One reason web browsers and search engines are easily confused is because they’ve been slowly integrating functionalities over the past 30 years, blurring the lines between what they each do.

It started in 1996, when Opera, a lightweight browser developed by its namesake company, entered the browser race. Unlike those before it, Opera included a built-in search tool. For the first time, you could open your web browser and type queries directly into the search field at the top of the window and be taken straight to a search engine results page (SERP). You could even choose which search engine it used.

Opera never reached widespread popularity, but it offered an important glimpse at how web browsers and search engines could work together in the future, paving the way for Google, a search engine company, to develop its own web browser: Chrome. It’s no surprise the two so often get mixed up. And Google doesn’t seem to mind the confusion. For example, its iOS app, called Google, with the slogan “Search made just for mobile,” is essentially a web browser.

Note that you can set your browser’s default search engine, which determines which search engine your browser uses when you type search terms into its address bar. For example, if you set Neeva as your default search engine and enter something like ‘best ramen in la’ into your address bar, your browser will take you directly to Neeva results when you press enter.

Ready for a private search experience that was built for people, not data mining or advertising? Try Neeva, the world’s first private, ad-free search engine. We are committed to showing you the best results for every search. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Try Neeva for yourself, at neeva.com.