ARTICLE TABLE OF CONTENTS
The difference between a web browser and a search engine might seem obvious to a lot of people.
In fact, people use these buzz words every day without even thinking about them.
You’ve probably used them both interchangeably at some point, but do you know the difference between them?
Let’s get right to it!
Easy Definitions: Web Browser vs. Search Engine
For the sake of clarity, there’s a definite difference between the two, even though the confusion is understandable.
A web browser is a piece of locally installed software, such as Internet Explorer or Safari, that you open and use to browse the web.
You can use a browser to surf to your favorite social media giant, for example.
A search engine is a site that lives on the world wide web. You can use a browser to go to or access a search engine.
You can then type in a search term and the search engine will bring up a huge list of all the sites that match your search term.
For example, you open up Internet Explorer on your laptop and want to look up the summer fashions for 2020.
You use the browser to go to Google and then type “summer fashions 2020” into the Google search box.
The Story of 8%
A funny thing happened when Google conducted a street survey on the mean streets of New York City in 2009.
The question at hand was what a web browser is. Fewer than 8% of people knew what a web browser is—most people confused it with a search engine:
So less than 8% knew what a web browser is, then at least the same amount, or probably even less knew the difference between a web browser and a search engine.
Out of fifty people, only 8% or even less of them knew the difference between a web browser and a search engine. That’s a whole four people out of fifty knew the difference!
It’s even funnier when you consider that Google, a massive name in technology that made their fortune out of a seemingly simple search engine, conducted the survey.
What does that tell us? That most people don’t seem to know the difference.
So why don’t people know the difference?
Okay, the survey took place in 2009 and that is some time ago—however, the question of the difference between a web browser and search engine is still legitimate. Now it’s probably not 92% anymore who doesn’t know the difference, but more like maybe 75% (just a guess).
Why, in this age of fast information and the Internet, are so many people still confused about something so seemingly clear?
To get part of the answer to this, we have to go back in time a bit to the early days of the web.
The First Search Engines
To some of us, the ‘80s seem as if they were just yesterday, or at least sometime last week. But for the new generation, it existed sometime long before they were even born.
Did you know that the first search engine existed long before the world wide web was even a thing?
It sounds strange, but in 1982, there was something called WHOIS. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it still exists and is still used widely.
In 1989, the Knowbot Information Service allowed tech-savvy people to look for other early Internet users, not that there was anything really called the world wide web at that time.
As the world wide web coalesced and new standards such as HTML took hold, other search engines were developed. Those of us over a certain age probably remember those old search engines, such as:
Some are still with us in one form or another and others have long since disappeared into the digital ether.
The Early Days of the Web Browser and the Search Engine
In some ways, the early days of the web were a bit similar to the Wild West.
The rules were all still being hashed out and most people using it were geeks and industry specialists. The rest of us were busy watching reruns of ‘70s sitcoms on TV.
Back then, there seemed to be a pretty clear divide between web search engines and web browsers.
The earliest web browsers, such as Lynx, were entirely text-based. It seems strange now to think of a browser not even displaying your favorite GIFs.
Not too long after, browsers such as Netscape became super popular and really revolutionized the way that we used the world wide web.
We’d dial up on our little modems and connect to our local ISPs. From there, we’d open up a single web page—no tabbed browsing back then—and go to our favorite search engine. This is where we’d start our journey on the web.
Some Web Browsers That You Might Not Have Heard of
Just for the sake of completion and geeky interest, here are some web browsers that you might not ever have heard of but are very important to the history of the world wide web:
- WorldWideWeb/Nexus: This is probably the most important web browser of them all because it allowed everyone to view the web in a standard way. It was developed by Tim Berners Lee the man who invented HTML—in 1990 and is the great-granddaddy of all modern web browsers. It was later renamed to Nexus because calling it the WorldWideWeb would clearly have caused some confusion.
- MidasWWW: In 1992, we got MidasWWW. Clearly, they liked using “WWW” in names back then because it was so new to people. This one was all text-based.
- Lynx: The other text-based browser of 1992, Lynx, was quite popular.
- NCSA Mosaic: Mosaic was revolutionary in 1993 because it allowed display of images and text for the first time.
It wasn’t until 1995 that we saw the release of the ever-popular Internet Explorer from Microsoft. And of course, after that, we got a slew of more modern browsers, such as the first iteration of Opera and Mozilla Firefox.
Things Started to Get Blurry
At some point in the next 20 years, technology started to get a bit blurry. With more and more people getting online and using web browsers and search engines, more development happened.
The web browser was the key to people being able to go to their favorite sites and people started to associate it with everything on the world wide web. All of those early browsers had a very clear distinction between the browser and the search engine.
You opened a browser and then surfed to your favorite search engine. That started to change when Yahoo envisioned their popular search engine as a web portal. At that time, Yahoo was hugely popular.
The Yahoo web portal service included not just the ability to search for stuff but also email and local weather and news.
Yahoo saw this as the future of the web—getting people to stay on their site as long as possible by providing useful information so that ads could be run in front of their eyes.
Merging the Browser and Search
In 1996, the Opera web browser was released to the world. It was small and lightweight; most people had no idea about it. In fact, it kept a low profile for many years, but it was actually quite an innovative little browser.
Before Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox had it, Opera glimpsed the way of the future and included an inbuilt search tool right inside its own web browser. It seemed to be a small thing, but it made everything easier for end-users.
Currently, Google Chrome is leading the internet browser industry but Opera remains as one of the top internet browsers used worldwide:
You could even choose what search engine Opera used, making it a cinch to open up the browser and simply type into the search field right up to the top of the program. In some ways, this started to blur the lines between the browser and the search engine.
Google went even further than this and released a version of Chrome with what they liked to call the Omnibox. In this single empty field, you could do any of the following:
- Type in keywords just like you can in a regular search engine
- Type in a specific website URL address
- Ask a question, such as “what’s 2 + 2?”, or convert weights, currencies, and measures
- Use shortcuts that point to websites
- Set a timer or countdown
- Drag and drop words for their definitions
It might already be clear that Google has also contributed to the confusion around the web browsers and search engines.
Since Google runs a very big, popular search engine and they also provide a browser called Google Chrome, it’s easy to see how confusion can arise.
The truth is that lots of people get the two mixed up all the time. This works for Google because it means that their products are perceived as more important than they really are, and more indispensable.
A typical scenario might go this way:
Jenny: “I’m just going to open up Google and see if I can find that new cell phone I wanted at a good price.”
Mark: “You mean Chrome?”
Jenny: “Yes, Google.”
Mark: “Do you mean Google Chrome or Google search engine?”
Jenny: “They’re the same, aren’t they?”
What’s in a Name?
The scenario above is a good example of how easy it’s to get things mixed up. But how much does it matter?
Yes, there’s a clear difference between a web browser and a search engine but for lots of people now, the web is just something that they use every day and they are not that much interested in what happens behind the scenes.
But if you’re professionally involved in IT, then you should know the difference for sure—and you do by now.