Digital Toolbox

Research 101: The Web Browser

Although there would be little online research without the web browser, few people appreciate its importance. Not only does the right browser improve your online experience, some can be customized to provide awesome research support tools. It is probably the most important tool in your digital research toolbox and chances are good that you may use more than one.

The browser is your window to the Internet. Every computer comes with a browser application installed. Windows computers have Internet Explorer. Macs come with Safari. Linux computers have either Firefox or Chrome. Like automobiles, all browsers have the same basic features. And, like automobiles, it’s how things are arranged and styled that make it the right one for you.
Browser menu

First, let’s take a quick tour of the basic browser components. In this example, you are looking at the Safari browser installed on a Mac computer. The application’s menu shows two things common to all browsers: bookmarks and history. As you browse the Web, you will find sites you want to return to regularly. You can bookmark a site, then later just click on that saved bookmark to return to the site whenever you wish. And, as you browse, your browser maintains a history of the sites and pages you visit. Should you decide you want to go back to one of the pages you visited earlier in your browsing session, you can look at the history list to help you find it, then click on it to return to that page. Note: If you are an Internet Explorer user, you probably aren’t familiar with the “bookmarks” term. Internet Explorer uses the term “favorites”.

Browser Tabs

The page title is an important reference point when browsing. It tells you the site – and frequently the page – you are viewing. In this example, I have two sites open – each identified in a separate tab. The site/page name appears in the browser tab bar. Most browsers allow you to have more than one site open at the same time and use tabs to make it easy to navigate between them. The titles make it easy to identify which is which. A change in the tab’s color generally identifies the site currently displayed. Some browsers allow me to “pin” sites in the tab bar so they’re always available. The tabs for pinned sites are much smaller and usually display a site icon. To move between sites, just click on the appropriate tab. Tabs are a researcher’s friend. Among other things, they mean you’ll never lose a screen of search results once you get in the habit of opening the links you want to explore in a new tab.

Some browsers display the address bar and search bar separately, but a growing number have combined them into one as you see in this example. The address bar is used to manually enter a URL (web address) for a specific site. You can use the search bar to enter a search word or phrase for a particular search engine. Most browsers let you choose your primary search engine, but make others easily available.

Often you’ll find additional tools in line with the address/search bars. You’ll probably see two buttons with icons facing left and right. These are the back and next buttons. If I click on a link to visit a new section of a site, then decide I want to return to the original page, I would just click the back button – the icon pointing to the left. A click on the next button – triangle pointing to the right – would take me to the new section again.

When you open a web page in your browser, the site delivers a snapshot of the site as it appears at the time you requested the page. Some sites are constantly adding new content and to see if any additional content has been added to the current page, you will need to “refresh” the page. The circular arrow icon shown at the right of the address box in the Safari example above is the refresh button. Other browsers may have it as a separate button on the browser’s toolbar.

Every browser has a home page. This is the first page that appears when you start the browser app. You can choose the site you prefer as your home page. For example, if the first place you want to go when you get online is your Facebook page, you can make that your home page. You may see an icon that looks like a house in your browser’s toolbar. This is the home button. Click it and you’ll be taken directly to your home page.
 
Earlier I discussed the ability to create a bookmark to make it easy to return to a useful site. (Reminder: Internet Explorer users work with favorites instead of bookmarks.) Many browsers have a bookmarks bar like the one you see here so you can easily access your saved pages. In this case there are so many bookmarks that most have been arranged within folders. The titles with the down triangle icon immediately after them indicate it’s a folder. Click on the triangle icon to display that folder’s contents.

Screenshot2015-08-01_09-18-57_AMLast stop on our tour is the scroll bar at the far right side of the browser window. Web pages operate more like ancient scrolls than paged books. The scroll bar lets you “roll” the text up and down to read. You can drag the highlight up or down to adjust your view. You can also use the up and down arrow keys on your keyboard to scroll through a web page.

Just because a browser comes with your computer, it doesn’t mean you are stuck with it. Like most applications, each has its own idiosyncrasies and you may want to “test drive” different browsers to find the one that best fits your research style. It’s not unusual to have more than one browser installed on your computer. I currently have three installed on mine. One works better for research, while another has features I find handy when I’m building web sites. The third makes my “social” browsing a lot more fun.

See Toolbox Resources for Browsers for more information.

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