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Dr. DigitDr. DigitDr. Digit 'Splains It All

What is a web browser? It is a piece of software that allows you to view items on the World Wide Web (yep, that's the "www" in the web addresses you have been typing).

Here is more than you ever wanted to know about what goes on under the hood of your web browser when you surf the Web.

The World Wide Web is a protocol on the Internet that allows you to view graphic and text items like the Lansing Star. Other protocols include File Transfer Protocol (FTP), e-mail and other ways of transferring data.

When you type in a Universal Resource Locator (URL), or web address (with that "www" in it) there is a lot going on under the hood to make the Lansing Star or appear. What happens when you type "" and click the "Go" Button?

Well, the first thing your browser must do is find the Lansing Star. If you didn't type a fully qualified address including the "http://" the browser fills it in for you. Most browsers know you don't want to type all that! Some addresses require "www" and some don't. You can reach the Lansing Star either way, but if you can't, try it with the "www."

The browser sends the URL you typed to a name server. This is a computer that keeps a list of all the domain names (like and the numbers that are the actual web addresses. What's that you say? isn't our address? Nope, it isn't! Our real address is Try putting that in a browser and you will find us! People would have a heck of a time remembering so that is why the URL is used. It is much easier to remember.

Another word about web addresses: the number is unique in the world, and it points to a folder on the hard drive of a web server. Web servers are simply computers that have web page files on them. They are very much like your own computer, but with special software that allows them to assign addresses and is able to serve these files onto the Internet.

Now that the browser knows the real address of the web page you want to look at it downloads the HTML page. HyperText Markup Language (HTML) is a script that tells the browser what to display. This little script is stored in a text file on your hard drive in your "Temporary Internet Files" folder in Windows or a similar folder on a Mac.

Are we done yet? Not quite. Now the browser reads the script and figures out which other elements like pictures, sound files, movie files or other items that go with the HTML script. It downloads them to your hard drive, too.

Finally, with all the pieces on your own hard drive, the browser loads them up and displays them on your screen.

Phew! Seems like a lot of work! But all you did was type the URL.  The browser software does the real work.

Now when your computer-geek friends ask you if you have cleared your cache you will know what they are talking about, and why it is a good thing to do. The cache is that place where all those temporary files from all the web pages you view are stored.  They quickly add up, taking a huge amount of hard drive space if you don't periodically delete the files.

What happens if you delete them? Nothing. The browser will download them again if it needs them.

That, in a nutshell, is what your browser is doing. There is a lot more to web pages and displaying them, but that's the basic drill.  You do this:

  • Type a short web address
Your browser does this:

  • Find the files
  • Download the files
  • Display the files


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