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1. What is the web browser?

It's not an exaggeration to say that the web browser is the most important tool of the digital analyst. Your customers use it, your company uses it, your partners use it, and your vendors use it. But how does it actually work?

The web browser is a piece of software so fundamentally important to technical marketing that it would be strange to start with any other Topic in this handbook.

The central focus on the browser stems from the fact that it represents the user: the person who visits a website, interacts with ads, writes social media posts, and downloads PDFs. The browser is their utility, their application, their agent.

What logically follows is that the better you, as a technical marketer, understand the web browser, the better you will understand how to interpret the actions of the user. This is a vital, fundamental skill to anyone working in marketing.

Don’t miss this fact!

The web browser is the most important tool of the technical marketer. Understanding how it works will help you understand more about all the different digital marketing disciplines.

But how does a browser work? This is a question that is impossible to answer in a straightforward way.

This is because browsers are complicated pieces of software. They comprise multiple different browser engines, components, and layers to provide the end user with a (seemingly) seamless browsing experience.

The complexity starts from the top: there are many different browsers available to use, and they all work a bit differently.

Example

If you use a Windows computer, you’ll have Microsoft Edge installed for you. Edge is actually based on the Chromium open-source project, which runs on the Blink engine. Blink is also what runs under the hood of Google Chrome. Blink, in turn is a fork of a core WebKit component. WebKit is the browser engine created by Apple, and it runs the Safari browser and many iOS and iPadOS browser applications. Webkit itself is a fork of…

OK, you probably got the idea.

This illustrates how browsers are hardly standalone, self-sufficient applications. They are patchwork – built from different parts of different projects, often with a lot of technical debt.

Although the major browsers converge on the most important implementation decisions, there are enough differences in the fringes to sometimes make web development a very frustrating task. Browser-specific exceptions to site functionality add friction at development time, and users tend to blame the website rather than the browser when something goes awry.

As a technical marketer, you need to know how the browser works. You don’t need to know all the technical nitty-gritty, but the concepts explored in this Topic will be invaluable to you when working in almost any digital marketing project.

How does a web browser work?

When you launch a web browser application like Google Chrome, you interact with the user interface layer of a very complicated system.

You would typically start with a URL – Uniform Resource Locator. This is what you type into the address bar of the browser. The URL points to a web server that is connected to the internet. More specifically, the URL points to a web page resource that you want to navigate to.

When you type an address into the address bar and press enter, it initiates an HTTP request to the web server behind that URL with the intent of navigating to the web page that the web server returns. Using the terminology of the internet, your web browser is the client.

From the moment the web browser starts processing your navigation request, differences among web browsers emerge.

Many web browsers rely on technology that has been in existence for decades and that has been built on and iterated by different teams with different agendas.

There is no absolute, universal consensus on how a web browser should work, even if there are lots of web standards to build on. While many things are thankfully standardized, browser-specific differences exist as a headache for web developers and technical marketers alike.

Example

If you are using a browser like Brave, you might find it difficult to build and test marketing campaigns. This is because the browser is so aggressive at blocking all tracking and advertising technologies. It’s difficult to test an ad if you can’t even see that ad in the first place!

If you use a browser like Safari, you might find that you need to log in again and again each time you visit a website, or that your shopping cart doesn’t include all the items you added to it the previous day.

As a technical marketer, you need to be sensitive to these differences. It will help you build marketing campaigns more efficiently, and it will help you understand possible friction points both in the data that you analyze and in the user experience of your customers who visit your site.

Ready for a quick break?

Now’s a good time to take a small break – walk around for 5 minutes and have a glass of water. 😊 Taking a small break will boost your learning and support your physical health.

Which browser should I use?

If you’re working in technical digital marketing, the answer is easy:

Use as many different browsers as you can.

This is because your work often revolves around tasks that require a web browser.

Don’t forget mobile browsers! The experience of visiting a website can be vastly different on mobile. The advertising and tracking technologies you deploy on the site might also have different outcomes depending on the device and operating system of the visitor.

Be mindful of this. Whether you’re building campaign landing pages, or deploying web analytics measurement, or optimizing your site for speed and performance, or designing creatives for your ads, use as many different browsers and devices as you can.

Other than that, it really boils down to preference.

If you prioritize speed and performance, then choosing a browser that blocks trackers and reduces browser storage utilization might be a good idea. Choose a browser like Brave or Firefox (in Private Browsing mode).

If you prioritize privacy and security, then a browser that does its best to disarm trackers without necessarily blocking them entirely might be a good idea. The Safari browser is a good choice.

If you prioritize a strong developer toolkit together with a likelihood of being the browser most websites are designed for, choose the market leader, which would be Google Chrome.

The decision usually boils down to the market leaders. You can’t really go wrong with your choice, but you need to be prepared to occasionally use another browser in case your favorite websites don’t work properly in your favorite browser app.


Read on for a short quiz on this Topic before moving on. In the next Topic, we’ll dig deeper into the technical layer of the web browser, as we explore the critical processes of how the web browser and the web server communicate.

Key takeaway #1: Browser engine determines how the app works

Modern browser apps converge into a handful of popular browser engines like WebKit (Apple), Blink (Google), and Gecko (Mozilla). The engine determines the core functionality of the browser: how it builds the page layout and renders it, how navigation works, how cross-site security is enforced, and so on. The browser app is the user interface for the engine. Differences between browsers that use the same engine emerge when the apps implement engine configurations in different ways.

Key takeaway #2: Web standards make the browsing experience consistent

The term “web standards” is used to describe a set of agreed upon principles for how web browsers implement HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (among other things) to produce the web browsing experience. Browsers are expected to follow these standards so that websites would work consistently across browser apps.

Key takeaway #3: Use different browsers when working in digital marketing

While web standards seek to make the web browsing experience consistent, there are still enough differences in how browsers are built to make some websites behave differently, depending on which browser is used. For this reason, when you work in technical marketing – whether building campaigns, or implementing tagging, or running experiments – it’s important to test with different browsers and devices so that you don’t inadvertently cause negative experiences for a subset of site visitors.

Quiz: The Web Browser

Ready to test what you've learned? Dive into the quiz below!

1. Which of the following is true regarding web browsers?

2. What are some functions of a web browser? Select all that apply

3. Which browser does this article recommend if you are interested in a strong developer experience?

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