By Craig Buckler

What is a Web Browser? No One Knows!

By Craig Buckler

What's a web browserThis is depressing. Google recently interviewed a random sample of people in Times Square, New York, and asked a simple question: “What is a web browser?”

Fewer than 8% of people knew. Most confused it with a search engine, and the majority did not appear to know which browser they used. More worrying for Google was that no one had heard of Chrome…

That’s a little scary. Perhaps Google’s survey was performed on a bad day? Unfortunately, I’ve a horrible feeling that the figures would be similar no matter where you asked the question (except for Finland, which appears to have a disproportionately high percentage of technically-literate people!).

This leaves web developers with a problem. Whilst we may be passionate about our browser of choice, the vast majority of non-geeks in the real world use whatever browser is on their PC. Most people will only switch if a techie-friend does it for them — and I bet they don’t notice any significant differences.

How can we encourage the adoption of newer and better technology if no one knows what we’re talking about? I suspect many of the ‘kill IE6’ campaigns have a negligible effect, and ignorance must be partially responsible for the slow and lingering death of the browser.

How do you explain what a ‘web browser’ is to the 92% of people who do not know or care?

  • Anonymous

    C.H.R.O.M.E? No, I have not.
    I use Crome :)

  • Anonymously

    Why is a chrome fox exploring a spider’s web?

  • krielly

    What a great study…seriously everyone I know would give the same answers!

    Knowing that the average person truly does not understand the internet, this should help programmers and marketers develop sites and future browers (changes, additions, etc.) based around the actual users.

    As tech as our society is, unfortunately the regular joe doesn’t know anything tech :)

  • nav1

    I don’t know how to explain what a web browser is, but the internet is just a series of tubes, right :)
    But seriously, I think that people that do not know what a browser is, should not be using the internet at all. They just cause problems anyway.

  • apeisa

    Funny that you mentioned Finland in your article. As a native Finn I started to think how this survey would have done in Finland. I run digital music store and our statistics show that 57% use Firefox and 35% uses IE. I also work as a front end developer and everytime customer (or someone surfing our customers website) we can safely ask just “what browser and what version you are using?” – I don’t even know when I have had to explain that in more detail.

    My wild quess would be that 90% of people that surf the net here actual knows what is the browser.

  • apeisa

    I forgot few words…

    I also work as a front end developer and everytime customer runs into a problem.

  • Pained in IT

    Ow. That hurts to watch.

  • Well, browsers themselves don’t tell people they’re “browsers”. They tell them they’re Internet Explorer, or Mozilla Firefox, or Safari. Why would people know otherwise? People know what Word is, or sometimes what OpenOffice is, but a “word processor”? A what?

  • Tarh

    I’m not that surprised, although I would have expected it to be slightly higher than 8% (maybe around 15%). I’d really like to see them try the same thing with “word processor”, as I’m sure that would be higher than 50%.

  • nitetalker

    Going by the video, the question was not “What is a Web browser” but rather “What is a browser”. 8% doesn’t surprise me for the latter. For the former — which I wish they had really asked — I’d expect closer to 15%.

  • georgebatur

    Web browsers and, in fact, computers are appliances to most people. Do you know what brand toaster you have?

  • These people were actually pretty smart compared to some of the people I’ve had the pleasure of talking to. At least they guessed something computer related.

  • Michael

    I think part of the problem is that people don’t know the difference between the Internet and the Web. I know people that have trouble signing in to MSN Messenger and they say the Internet is broken. When it turns out either the MSN authentication server is having problems or their wireless link dropped out.

    To me it seems stupid that they can’t troubleshoot the problem by process of elimination but then again if I have a problem with my car I have no idea how to fix it.

  • leisure forte

    duh, it’s for the inter-webs

  • Anonymous Coward

    At least all those people learned to use Microsoft Office in their high school computer class.

  • W2ttsy

    This sort of study highlights how important it is to use analytic packages that can track these statistics for the user.

    The user doesn’t really need to know what they use to surf the net, but if the developer or manager knows what is most used, then they can target their efforts to the platforms that are most important.

  • piszczyk^3

    The question `What is a browser?’ is missing the point completely.
    What about naming conventions? I think people asked were able to answer the question `How do you use Internet?’ with ease.
    When average Joe sees `Internet Explorer’ (s)he stops asking questions. So will renaming Chrome to, say, `The Whole Internet’, or with regard to power outlets: `Internet Power Point’, `Internet Outlet’, `Internet Connector’ or `Internet Highway’, `Internet Gate’ … be enough? I think not, but it is a good starting point.
    Sorry about my scary English. I hope all I wrote above is clear and understandable.

  • persilj

    People generally give better answers to anything, if they can take a warm-up round first. Also, it isn’t that easy to describe the essence of something, compared to just using it or looking somebody else use it, because it takes a lot more cognitive effort to describe something by using words. Especially, when a question comes out of blue and you are not used or orientated to describe such a concept like “browser”.

    Non-techies really do have a tendency to not upgrade their current browser or change to alternative browser, but I’m not entirely sure, what reason applies to whom. Some are just not used to do so, some have bought their computer together with “internet” and use it as such for next 5 years (what.. more?.. 10?) like they use their tv or washing machine. Some are just so filthy rich that they don’t need to bother with such questions like: “what is a browser”.

  • Priyantha

    There are people who think that internet is not available if the internet explorer is not working and can not get rid of IE even I’m not an IE pal. Google should have asked “What is Internet Explorer?” then the result would have been other way around.

  • seci

    Actually most people do not know the difference between the operating system and a particular program (e.g. had many issues with users having problems with Windows that turned out to be issues with MS Word).

    But actually it does not even matter. You may stone me dead but I would be happier to have one browser, call it whatever name you like. At least I won’t (and users in general) have problems like opening a web-page properly with one, and failing to open with the other.

  • Scott Petrovic

    I am not surprised at all by this either. People don’t think about starting up IE, Firefox, whatever. They just open up “Internet” Explorer. If Microsoft didn’t name their browser that, there would probably be less confusion. People don’t care about standards, extensions, or new browsers like Chrome. They just want to get their task done that they came on for.

    We are doing such a great job as web designers that complete newbies can figure things out in no time. People can do things without even knowing what they are doing. Kudos to us!

  • Duke


  • Anonymous

    @nitetalker I agree. Not only was the question “What is a browser”, but it was undoubtedly preceded by “Hi, I’m from google”. So of course the people who were caught by surprise on the street started thinking “Search Engine”

  • Anonymous

    The results are frightening but not surprising.

    I think a better question would be “Does anyone at Google know the difference between a browser and a Web browser?” While all Web browsers are browsers, not all browsers are Web browsers.

    Their questioning is similar to someone asking you to describe what a flower looks like, when the answer you’re really looking for is what a red rose looks like.

  • Mizou

    I have been teaching the ECDL Internet module for the last 5 years in Dublin, Ireland and with every new group of students I run into the very same problem as they mix up browsers with search engines and it is with great effort over a few weeks that I explain the terms and their connection.
    The mix up is understandable as people in general pay more attention to the content of the browser window and not so much to the window frame itself, the same way if one goes window shopping for clothes you are not going to pay attention to the look of the actual wood, metal, glass,, plaster or chrome out of which the window is made … or would you?
    No, you pay attention to what is for sale behind the window so …
    to my experience to most people the browser brand is not that important.

  • FiZ

    This doesn’t surprise me at all. For all the studies that show how much more technology is being integrated into our daily lives, I still have family members that remind me how little people actually have to understand the technology to use it. The internet has become large enough that nearly every niche audience you can think of has a dedicated social network, but that includes people who still think DogPile is relevant to technology.

    I’m not overly impressed or disappointed in the responses the video has because I know all too many people who could have this conversation:

    Me: What is a WEB Browser?
    Them: Facebook.

  • Galen

    Man… you’d think that in the kind technilogical world we live in today, more people would know what a web browser was.

  • ArticleScholar

    It’s Time Square, try Silicon Valley :P

  • I am not suprised. That survey was taken in the US and alot of people are quite naive or choose to be over there. i might sound sterotypical but i have seen a lot of talk shows where ppl on the streets are asked basic to questions relating to history or geographical location and the responses were quite shocking!!!

  • jonhas

    if developers use tools like with their sites and prompt users to upgrade then we might have some luck.

  • Wow, that’s disappointing.

    Compare “using a computer” to “driving a car”. I would imagine that most people seem to know the functional names of the subsystems they use on a car: the engine, the steering, the brakes, the suspension. Yet it seems less common – according to the survey, at least – that people are able to distinguish the functional subsystems of their computer: the hardware, the operating system, and the applications (like the email client, the word processor, the web browser, etc). [ Maybe because licensing is required? ]

    Yeah, disappointing. Sigh…

  • John

    I recall a lady that said to me once,

    “…I dont see what all the fuss about the internet is, Ive already read it all”

    To which I asked, “..You’ve read the entire internet..?”

    And she replied “..Yes, Ive read it all, It didnt take long, and honestly I think the whole thing is over rated”

    Turns out her home page was set to Yahoo, she double clicked on the IE icon on her desktop, read Yahoo’s homepage (all of it) then closed it.

    She had no idea she could browse or search externally to that.

  • The term “internet browser” isn’t a universally understood term. If they asked “which one of these do you use: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, or Chrome”, they would have a more accurate representation of usage.

  • Cooty

    No big surprise! Although I would question the statistical and methodological accuracy of this ‘survey’. (I think regular people just get socked if someone puts a mic and a camera in there faces on the street, so it might be possible that a few people would have none the answer, but just got kinda freaked in the situation…)
    None the less I think a professional survey would give similar results. But I think the old principal – “The user is stupid!” Still stands no matter of ‘Web2.0’ ‘user generated’ content and all the other buzzwords. When developing you have to put your self in the position of someone who has never used a computer before in his/her life. I guess thats the right mindset.

  • acronin

    The fact that most of us have no clue of the difference between a browser and a search engine is a good thing. We use what we use because it works! It’s the exeperience of the ‘ride’ that keeps us from switching. You’ve heard it said, “I don’t care what makes my car run or what makes my watch tell time”. I just want to arrive at my destination in style and on time.

  • whyulil

    most people I work with dont know how to find google. For example, i took the google logo off the intranet as ive never used it in the 5 years ive worked here, assuming most people would just type the address in. how wrong was i! It amazes me how supposed intelectuals know nothing about what they use on a daily basis. I think people dont want to know as everything scares them.

  • busy

    I see the ongoing campaign of “Just erase the icon for IE and tell them they use Firefox now” has been working. As a participant, this pleases me.

  • DEZ

    I think by not knowing what software tool he/she is using to do a task, actually leads us quicker to the realization of technological convergence.

    Google should think beyond being the best “browser”. Think beyond being an operating system.
    Google Won.
    One gadget for everything.

  • charlesroper

    Most people I speak to still don’t know what the difference between Windows and Microsoft Office is. Generally, most seem to think that Windows is Office (i.e., they think that Word, Excel et al. are Windows). This realisation has come about when people buy a new PC and discover it doesn’t come with Office.

    So this isn’t just about browsers: it’s about computers in general. The vast majority of users think about computers in the same way they think about appliances: they’re tools that do stuff and if they work, why would you want to change them? Apple deeply understands this. Microsoft knows it too, but in a more cynical way (although I think that may be changing).

    What’s important is that pressure from Firefox, due to increased uptake by tech-mavens, forced MS to change IE for the better. As long as we mavens keep the pressure on, keep trying out new things, keep pushing the new, the good stuff will eventually filter down to the masses, in one way or another.

  • johnny silver

    So let’s get this straight, google is ‘the internet’ and a ‘place you can search’ and a ‘browser’… ;)

    (actually some of those guys answers are surprisingly/scarily nearer the mark than you’d think – how many of us rely on googles API’s on our sites)

    The scary lesson we can learn from this video is that these are the people that are using the sites we build (and I bet they all use IE6!).

    …I’d love to have seen the response to ‘what is web 2.0’ – anyone..?

  • norrisism

    Considering that the average user has Internet Explorer with toolbars blocking half of their screen, this doesn’t come as a surprise.

  • sashamore

    this article is absolutely made for me…..but it doesnt explain anything.i use my computer (dell infiron) daily
    but i havent a clue what a browser is….i know i am on aol
    and windows……but that’s about it….can someone tell me
    how to find a/my browser via windows?


  • DEZ

    Google should think beyond being the best “browser”. Think beyond being an operating system.

    In the second half of 2010, Google plans to launch the Google Chrome OS

    I called it!
    Only problem is, its still just Linux with a fancy shell.

    Not quite thinking beyond yet.

  • DEZ

    Google should think beyond being the best “browser”. Think beyond being an operating system.

    In the second half of 2010, Google plans to launch the Google Chrome OS

    I called it!
    Only problem is, its still just Linux with a fancy shell.

    Not quite thinking beyond yet.

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