You wouldn’t be here without it. Your web browser is the portal through which you access the web, your window into cyberspace. Knowing more about browsers can help you choose the one that works best for you and your privacy.
What’s a web browser?
A web browser—sometimes called an internet browser or simply a browser—is a software program for navigating the web. Its main function is to request, retrieve, and display web pages, like this one.
Most devices with an internet connection come with a browser application. Web browsers aren’t the only way to access the internet, but they’re the primary way most of us access information and services online.
While certain major browser developers, like Google and Microsoft, also run mainstream search engines, like Google Search and Bing, web browsers and search engines are not one and the same. A browser is a software program that displays web pages, whereas a search engine is a website that finds web pages from other websites. A search engine can be accessed using a web browser.
How does a web browser work?
Web browsers request, retrieve, and display information from other parts of the web.
Every web page has its own unique web address, or URL (Uniform Resource Locator). You request information from the web using a URL when you type a web address or a search term into your browser’s address bar, or when you click a hyperlink (a link to another page). You’re telling your browser where to take you.
Your browser then locates and retrieves the web page information from a web server. The data is transferred using the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), a set of rules for how text, image, and video files are transmitted across the web. Think of a protocol as a kind of language that web browsers understand. Your browser can also understand other protocols.
The data you receive then needs to be displayed in a consistent format. Web browsers use a piece of software called a rendering engine to translate web data into text and images. The data is written in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), which tells the browser where each element belongs on the page, ensuring commonality from browser to browser. All of this usually happens in a few seconds.
A brief history of web browser development
In the late 1980s, scientists and universities were looking for ways to automatically share information between institutions and research centers across the world. To meet the demand, in 1991, a British computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee released the world’s first web browser while working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. He called it WorldWideWeb (hence the website prefix ‘www’). It allowed text documents to be accessed and shared over a public network. You can still visit the world’s first website, dedicated to Burner-Lee’s project.
Three years later, CERN made the software publicly available, and the web flourished. Universities, governments, and corporations wanted in. Demand grew for new programs to access the web. In 1993, computer scientist Marc Andreessen created Mosaic, the first popular web browser. It was user-friendly, free on Windows and Mac, and its graphical interface meant text and images could be displayed together. Web pages started looking more like magazines and less like documents. The next year Andreessen and colleagues released Netscape Navigator, an even more accessible, powerful, and popular browser.
From Netscape’s shell emerged the Mozilla Foundation, a not-for-profit software community founded by members of Netscape, which in 2002 released Firefox, a web browser developed using Netscape’s open-source code. (Though never dominant, it remains popular today.)
Meanwhile, Apple products, equipped with the company’s own operating system and default browser, Safari, were gaining popularity. And with the release of the iPhone in 2007, web browsers were entering people’s pockets. In 2008, Google released its browser, Chrome. Optimized to run web applications, it helped broaden the appeal of the tech giant’s many online services, like Google Docs. Chrome overtook Internet Explorer in 2012, and remains the internet’s most popular browser.
Today’s web browsers offer advanced security features and instant loading times. But they haven’t changed as much as the internet. There was one website in 1991. Thirty years later, there are over 1.7 billion websites. Web browsers are as ubiquitous as the devices that house them, most of which are now mobile. Many point to virtual reality as the next web browsing frontier, inching us closer to the idea of browsers as windows into other worlds.
Web browser features
While various web browsers differ slightly from one another, most share these common basic features:
- 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.
- 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’.
- Default search engine. You can also enter search terms, like ‘best private search engines’, into your address bar. This will take you to the search engine results page (SERP) of your browser’s default search engine, which can be changed.
- Navigation buttons. The back and forward buttons, a left arrow and right arrow icon respectively, help you navigate between pages. Back takes you to the previous page; forward to the page you were on before going back. The refresh/stop button, symbolized by a looping circular arrow icon if your page is loaded, or an X icon if your page is loading, 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.
- Browsing 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.
- Extensions or add-ons. Most web browsers let you modify your desktop browsing experience using extensions or add-ons, which you can download and install onto your browser. These pieces of software have a variety of purposes; they may help you keep your browsing more private, check your grammar, or block popup ads. The availability of extensions depends on the browser, and extensions aren’t always available on mobile. Safari’s mobile browser supports content blockers and just announced full support for extensions on iOS 15 and iPadOS 15, and Samsung Internet supports a variety of extensions. Google Chrome does not support extensions on mobile.
- Cookies. These are small amounts of data stored on your computer, tablet, or phone, created by and read by website servers. The next time you visit this site, it recognizes you based on your cookies. You may have noticed this when websites save your login and password or your shopping cart. But cookies aren’t only used to improve your browsing experience. Some inform targeted content, like ads. Third-party cookies, which come from sites other than the one you’re visiting, can track you across multiple sites to build a detailed picture of who you are. It can then be sold to third-parties for targeted advertising or other purposes. This is also known as cross-site tracking.
Popular web browsers
Some browsers come preinstalled on your device, others can be downloaded from third-party developers, most are free, and each has its own advantages.
- Google Chrome. Released in 2008, Chrome is the world’s most popular browser, by far with almost 65 percent of the worldwide market share.
- Apple’s Safari. Apple released Safari in 2003 as its devices’ default web browser. It’s the second most popular browser and the most popular mobile browser in the US with just over 50 percent of the market share. Apple has been aggressively marketing its privacy features and continues to push against ad-tracking used to monitor browsing activity.
- Mozilla Firefox. A descendant of the first popular web browser, Netscape Navigator, Firefox was released in 2002 and is the world’s most popular third-party browser with just over 3 percent of the worldwide browser market share.
- Microsoft Edge. Derived originally from Internet Explorer’s code and designed to be compatible with other modern browsers, Edge is Microsoft's new flagship browser and the default for devices running Windows operating systems. After an underwhelming release in 2015, Microsoft rebuilt Edge to run on Chromium, the same open-source web rendering engine that powers Chrome. Edge has better overall security against attacks than Internet Explorer (which is now retired and no longer supported).
- Opera. Released in 1996 by Opera Software, Opera has never gained widespread popularity, but its key features, like a built-in proxy and ad blocker, have earned it a steady following over the years.
- Brave. Released in 2019 by Brave Software (started by Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich), Brave is a privacy-focused browser and runs on Chromium. By default, Brave blocks most ads on all pages and sites. It then gives the option for publishers and users to opt into its program for running ads and shares some of the revenue with them.
Privacy considerations for popular web browsers
The leading web browsers are easy to use and free. But they still come at a cost: privacy and performance. Cookies are currently the primary way browsers collect your data. Websites constantly pull up information about you based on the cookies in your wake. Tracking cookies not only encroach on your privacy—they also slow down your browser.
Unless you change the default settings, some leading browsers can expose you to browser tracking, where—thanks to cookies—websites and companies, including ad-supported search engines, follow your online activity to gain insights into your behavior and preferences, which they then use to serve you targeted ads.
Worse, browser fingerprinting, or device fingerprinting, is when a website creates a unique profile based on your system configurations, like your device, browser, extensions, timezone, etc. Stitched together, these details form an identifiable fingerprint used to track you across the web.
Thankfully, several browsers have added privacy-focused default features:
- In 2018, Firefox made its Enhanced Tracking Protection a default feature and has built-in fingerprinting blockers. Users have the option to block cookies and storage access from third-party trackers.
- If you have Apple devices, Intelligent Tracking Prevention, a default feature on Safari, uses machine learning to determine which websites can profile or follow you. Safari also presents a simplified version of your system configurations to trackers, making it harder to single you out for fingerprinting.
To protect your privacy beyond default features, consider taking the following steps.
Clean up your settings
Consider these three quick and easy actions for basic privacy hygiene:
- Keep your browser up to date. Doing so ensures you get the latest version of the browser, which will have patched any security vulnerabilities and the most up-to-date set of tracking protection rules. Whenever your browser tells you there is an update available, install it and restart your browser so the update can be applied.
- Consider clearing your cookies when you’re done browsing or configure your browser to clear cookies automatically.
- The more browser extensions you use, the more unique your browser fingerprint is. Consider uninstalling extensions you don’t use, and/or replace some of your extensions with stand-alone apps. This makes your browser less likely to stand out and a bit harder to profile.
All major browsers have a private browsing mode, sometimes called incognito mode (File > New Private Window, or New Incognito Window). Using private browsing mode means your browser won’t store your browsing history, nor will it automatically save cookies, temporary files, or passwords after you close the browser window.
Note that while incognito mode prevents your browser from storing and using your history, it doesn’t keep your history private from anyone else. Your internet service provider (ISP) can still see that traffic to a website is coming from your IP address. Any website you visit can see that the traffic is coming from your IP. The only guarantee you get is that your browser will not record a history of your incognito activity.
Browsing incognito also has user experience tradeoffs, as it limits some assistive features.
Use a secure browser or extension
A recent competitive focus on privacy means there are several web browser options if you want to avoid being tracked online. Secure browsers like Opera and Brave don't collect any data about your online activity, block ads by default, prevent phishing attempts, and come equipped with privacy extensions and fingerprinting protection.
You can also use browser extensions to bolster your privacy. DuckDuckGo, Neeva, and Ghostery offer extensions and mobile apps that rank sites for their privacy features and block attempts to track your online activity.
Use a VPN
Regardless of their privacy features, most browsers can’t make you anonymous, but a trustworthy VPN can help. A virtual private network hides your IP address and encrypts your connection, keeping your personal information, including your browsing activity and location, hidden from onlookers. VPNs also add a layer of protection when browsing on public Wi-Fi networks. Most good VPN services, like ExpressVPN or NordVPN, charge a small monthly fee.
Some web browsers also offer VPN features. Opera, for example, includes a built-in, browsing-only VPN, and Avast Secure Browser comes with a free unlimited VPN on mobile.
Switch your browser’s default search engine to a private one
Mainstream search engines like Google and Bing are notorious for their tracking and advertising practices. Any word or search term you type into your browser’s address bar brings you to the results page of your browser’s default search engine. Changing your browser’s default search engine to a private option can shield a lot of your data from trackers and advertisers. Private search engines don’t sell or share your data.
Making the switch is easy. Go to your browser’s preferences menu, select the ‘search’ or ‘search engine’ section, find where it says ‘search engine’ or ‘default search engine’, and select your preferred option from the drop-down menu. Some browsers allow you to add a new search engine to the list by clicking ‘add’.
Consider DuckDuckGo or Startpage, neither of which save, share, or sell your personal data, or Neeva, a new ad-free subscription-based private search engine that balances privacy with personalization by collecting some data to improve your experience but gives you ultimate control over your information.
Neeva is the world’s first private, ad-free search engine, committed to showing you the best result for every search. We will never sell or share your data with anyone, especially advertisers. Sign up today and try Neeva for yourself: neeva.com/signup.