Geek Chic of the Week: Your Browser

posted on 7/17/09 by Meghan Wilker

The other day someone asked me, "What is a web browser?" (They had just called a customer support line, and the person asked them what browser and platform they were using, and they didn't understand why that mattered.) We've also gotten emails on the subject, but I thought the topic would be too elementary and boring. But, then I saw this video from Google that illustrates how little people really understand about what a browser is and why it even matters.

So, what exactly IS a web browser? And why should you care?

A web browser is the software that allows you to surf the Internet. Examples include: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Google's new Chrome browser.

The browser takes all of the code of a site which looks like this:

and displays it for you the way you are seeing it now, reading this.

There are slight differences in how sites look from one browser to another. Try taking a look at your favorite website using Internet Explorer and then Firefox — you'll see what I mean.

Not only that, sites will look different on different platforms (more on platforms below). So, looking at our site on my Mac using Firefox looks like this:

And on a PC using Firefox it looks like this:

Nothing too major, but notice how the fonts look different between the two?

Why It Matters

Most browsers also release new versions regularly, and new browsers are coming out all the time (like Google's Chrome, which is the subject of the video above). The browser matters for several reasons:

  • As a user: you may notice differences in how a site performs or looks from one browser to the next. It can be interesting to pay attention to how things work (or don't work) if you start using a different browser.
  • As a marketer or business owner: it's important to make sure that the differences between browsers don't cause problems for your users.

So, what to do?

First, keep an eye on your web analytics to see what browsers your visitors are using. If you are using Google Analytics, this is dead simple. For example, this is the browser breakdown of Geek Girls Guide visitors:

So, most visitors come to our site on Firefox, and next is Safari. For the record, this is not typical. This breakdown speaks to the high number of Mac users we have visiting the site. Generally speaking, the #1 browser on most sites is still Internet Explorer (IE) -- though Firefox is a close second. For us, IE is the #3 browser. But, that's not all. Earlier I mentioned different versions of each browser. When I look at the detail on IE, here's how the visitors to our site break out by version:

Second, make sure that you (or your web developer) aren't using technologies that won't work on certain browsers. As an end user, there is nothing more frustrating than trying to do something on a site and then realizing that for some reason it will only work if you use a different browser!

So, when you are developing a new site (and I know! I still owe you some tips on that based on my earlier post!) make sure that your web development team is testing the site (and all features) across the appropriate browsers. Ask them to give you a list of which browsers they are testing on; compare that list to the browsers your site analytics say are the most used (if you've got that information). Ask them what users will see if certain technology isn't available (for example, if a user doesn't have Flash and there's a bunch of Flash on your site, what does that user see?). And remember, it's not enough to know if they are looking at the site on IE — you need to know if they're talking about version 6, 7 or 8 (for what it's worth, focus on 7 and 8. Most of us web developers are hoping IE6 dies soon).

Just know that your site will never look exactly the same across all browsers, and you can't possibly test on every single browser. Just make sure that you're testing the most common browsers and that the site looks good and functions properly.

Most Common Browsers

What are the most common browsers? To answer that question, you have to understand one more concept: the platform. The word "platform" is commonly used to refer to the type of computer you are using (the hardware), and its operating system (or "OS", the software).

The most common hardware is the PC (hp, Dell, Sony, etc.), which typically uses Windows for the OS (XP, Vista, etc.). The second most popular hardware is the Mac (iMac, MacBook, etc.) which uses an operating system called OSX (Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard). But, these days, there is also a strong possibility that a visitor to your site might be on a mobile device like an iPhone or a BlackBerry. These devices also have operating systems and browsers to consider (iPhones use Safari as a browser, BlackBerries use a proprietary browser, and many other mobile devices use Opera Mini).

Confused yet? I know. It's crazy. But, with all that in mind here's a list of the most common browsers today:

For PCs:

  • Internet Explorer
  • Firefox
  • Chrome

For Macs:

  • Firefox
  • Safari
  • Camino

For Mobile Devices:

  • Safari (iPhone)
  • Opera Mini

So, that's that! Your browser runs on your hardware and operating system, takes code (like HTML) and displays it on your screen. Ba-da-bing.

Now, if you are walking through Times Square and someone from Google stops to ask you what a browser is, you can answer. So browse away, my friends! Browse away.

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