Although most of the world uses the internet every day, not many people take the time to understand how it all works. But getting your bearings when it comes to internet basics is a good first step toward making smarter decisions online.
So, whether you’re just learning how to navigate the online world or you’ve decided it’s time to finally learn what all goes into it, here’s a quick and basic guide to the most common internet terms you’ll encounter and how they’ll affect your internet experience.
What is the internet?
To put it simply, the internet is a network that connects billions of devices across the world and allows them to share information with each other. If you’d like to learn more about the technical history of the internet, there is a lot you can read that traverses across decades of recent history. If you’d rather get the quick take, just know that the earliest versions of the internet started out as a simple connection between computers that allowed them to transfer data to each other. Scientists and engineers continued to iterate on this system until it became the internet we know and use today.
Along the way, the developing internet industry led to the viability of internet service providers (ISPs). Internet service providers maintain and facilitate the backbone of the internet: basically, we pay them to give us access to the network. Similar to seats at any major event, not all access to the internet is created equal. Usually the more you pay, the better service you get (unless you live in an area where satellite internet is your only option). The amount of speed and the quality of connection available are just a few of the factors that make internet access easier for some people than others.
What is the difference between Wi-Fi and the internet?
Wi-Fi is just a wireless way that you can access the internet—it’s not a different form of internet. You can connect a device to the internet physically with an Ethernet cable or wirelessly through a Wi-Fi connection. They’ll both give you access to the internet. Nowadays most homes and businesses rely solely on Wi-Fi because it’s the simplest and easiest way to connect to the internet from anywhere in your home or office—you can surf the web from your bed or the couch without a second thought. If you use an Ethernet cord to connect, you can only move around as far as your cable can reach.
To get a bit more technical, even wireless internet typically comes through cables (fiber, DSL, or coaxial cables) and connects directly to your home or business. That connection then comes through a jack that’s usually located on your wall in one or multiple locations throughout your home. When you attach your modem and router to that jack, your modem can access the internet and translate the signal into something your device can understand. The router portion of your device directs the internet traffic where to go. If you have a wireless router (which most routers are nowadays), it can also create a Wi-Fi network within its range that allows you to access the internet even when you aren’t directly plugged into it.
Using the web
What is a browser?
A browser is an application on your computer or device that allows you to view web pages and interact with them. You can access every website from any browser—it just depends on what you like. Examples of browsers include Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. Chrome is by far the most popular option, mostly due to its spiffy user interface, easy integration with Gmail and other Google features, and its vast library of add-ons. But other browsers, like Safari, claim to offer more browsing efficiency. And Firefox comes with built-in privacy protection that promises to keep you safe from cookies and other tracking mechanisms that are often hidden in websites.
What is browser history?
Browser history is a log of every website you’ve visited using that particular browser. Your browser will track this history automatically, but you can clear your browsing history if you’d like. Keeping a browsing history is handy when you can’t remember what website you were on the other day that had those shoes you liked. Browsing history is also a useful tool if you want to monitor the web activity of someone else, be it a teenager or an untrustworthy partner. In addition to logging which web pages you visited, your browsing history will also log what day and time you last accessed the page.
What is a cookie?
Cookies are also used in regard to a website remembering your password—but your passwords are not stored within the cookie. The cookie simply tells the website that you’re a return user with a certain ID, and then the website fetches your stored login information and populates it.
This means that hackers can’t steal your password directly from the cookie. Although if you log into public Wi-Fi and access a website that remembers your password via a cookie, there is a chance that a hacker with some serious code skills could hack your cookie and use it to fool that website into thinking it’s you. They couldn’t get your password directly from the cookie, but they could use it as a sort of disguise to fool the website into populating your saved login information. So, in short, using cookies to log into websites more quickly is usually fine as long as you’re always doing so on a safe and protected network.
What is a cache?
A cache is a stored version of a web page that logs within your browser to help it load the page or app more quickly the next time you visit or use it. Most of the time this isn’t something you need to worry about if you’re just casually using the web. But if you’re working on updating a website and you’re having trouble seeing your changes reflected in the live version of the site, it’s likely because your browser is still serving up the cached version of the page rather than the new one. You can solve this by clearing your cache in your browser history. How you do that varies depending on which browser you have, but you can usually Google how to do it or go to Help and type in “Cache.”
What is an address bar?
An address bar is what appears at the top of your browser (or sometimes at the bottom if you’re on a mobile phone). It’s where the URL of the internet page you’re currently viewing or interacting with is located. If you’d like to visit a different site, you can simply put a different URL in the address bar. As you move through different web pages online, the URL in the address bar will automatically update. If you want to save or share a link to the website or web page that you’re currently viewing, you can copy and paste what’s in the address bar.
What is a URL?
URL stands for uniform resource locator, which refers to an address that you use to access a particular website or web page. It’s what appears in the top address bar of your browser. Every page on the internet has a unique URL. People also commonly refer to URLs as websites, although they have slightly different meanings. To help illustrate the difference, think of a website as the apartment building and a URL as the individual apartments. For example, if you wanted to buy cookies at cookies.com (this is not a real website), then “cookies.com” is the website and URL for the home page. If you wanted chocolate cookies specifically, then you’d go to the URL “cookies.com/chocolate.” All URLs on the “cookies.com” website will include “cookies.com.”
What is a domain?
The domain is the portion of the URL that doesn’t change no matter which pages on the website you visit. While many people use “URL” and “website” interchangeably, as mentioned above, it’s actually more correct to use “domain” and “website” interchangeably. For example, to return to the “cookies.com” example, “cookies.com” would be the domain for that site because it’s always a part of every URL within it. Domains are usually the most straightforward or catchy part of the URL because they are also the most important part to remember.
What's the difference between http vs. https?
Both “http” and “https” are internet protocols that different websites use to communicate. Understanding what an internet protocol is will not be as helpful to you as understanding the difference in experience between these two protocols. Although they both do the same thing on the internet, the difference with “https” is that it’s encrypted, which makes it a much safer experience.
Most reputable websites now use “https,” although you might occasionally come across a site that still uses only “http.” You can check by clicking on your address bar and looking closely at the very first part of the URL that appears there. If you’re on a site that’s asking for your personal or financial information but isn’t using “https,” you should not use that website. Your information could potentially be compromised since the site isn’t following best-known security measures by using “https” across all its URLs. Learn more about how to stay safe on the internet.
What does "www" stand for?
The “www” that you often see toward the beginning of every URL stands for “Word Wide Web.” The World Wide Web is slightly different than the internet. The World Wide Web is essentially a web of web pages that are connected and that you can get to via the internet. You can think of the World Wide Web as the highway system and signs, and the internet as the actual road you have to travel to get to the destinations on the signs.
As web browsers continue to advance, it’s now a common misconception that you need to include the “www” in order to access the web page. Try typing in a URL, leave out the “www,” press enter, and see what happens. Spoiler alert: you’ll still be directed to the web page you want to visit, just as long as you entered the rest of the URL correctly.
What is a good internet speed?
A good internet speed is a download speed that’s faster than 25 Mbps and an upload speed that’s faster than 3 Mbps, which are both the FCC’s (Federal Communication Commission) definition of broadband. However, what a good internet speed is for you and your household depends on how often you use the internet in your home and who uses it. For example, 25 Mbps for two people working from home might get a little dicey—especially during Zoom meetings. But 25 Mbps might be just right for the person who lives alone but works in an office and just needs the internet to stream shows every night.
Check out our handy guide to determining what internet speed is right for you.
What is the fastest internet speed?
The fastest internet speed available is technically 10,000 Mbps, but speeds that fast have very limited availability and are usually unnecessary (unless you’re running a top-secret operation from your home). AT&T offers a fiber plan with speeds up to 5,000 Mbps that’s more widely available, and both Google Fiber and Xfinity offer 2 Gig plans, which is 2,000 Mbps. But just be warned that these extremely fast plans are not cheap. And although it might feel nice to have the fastest internet money can buy, speeds higher than 2,000 Mbps is more overkill than anything else. 1 Gig (1,000 Mbps) internet plans are much more common, and 1,000 Mbps is more than plenty for entire households to be surfing the web with little-to-no load time.
Learn about the different types of internet technology.
Let's get technical
What's the difference between intranet and internet?
Intranet is a local network that’s limited to connecting specific devices while the internet is a worldwide network that shares data on a global scale. Intranet networks are typically used by companies when they want to create a secure way to share data, resources, and other information amongst their employees. The internet, on the other hand, operates on a much grander (and less controlled) scale.
What is IoT?
The internet of things (IoT) is the network and technology within smart devices that allow them to connect to the internet and communicate with each other. One example of a smart device is a doorbell with a video camera, like Ring. Another example would be a smart thermostat that turns up the heat an hour before you get home, like Nest. Essentially, any “thing” that uses the internet probably uses IoT—Apple Watches, Tesla cars, Alexa devices, etc. All of these devices operate on their own network in addition to connecting to the internet. The way that they do this has become known as the internet of things.
What is spam?
Spam is a term usually used in reference to unwanted or scammy emails that appear in your inbox without you soliciting them. Many nefarious companies online will acquire lists of email addresses and then send them predatory emails that try to trick you into either paying them money or giving away your personal information. Most email inboxes have become relatively adept at filtering out spam into its own section of your inbox, but there’s always a chance that something will slip through. Although spam is most often email, it can also come in the form of unwanted texts or social media messages or posts. If you happen to be somebody who actually enjoys eating the food version of this word, we’re sorry it’s been tainted through this association.
Be safe out there
The internet is a truly amazing tool that has been used to elevate humanity in a multitude of ways—but it also can get you into trouble if you don’t know how to navigate it. By understanding the basic terms that we’ve outlined above, you’ve taken a strong first step toward knowing your way around the block when it comes to surfing the web.
Cara Haynes has been writing and editing about internet service and TV for six years. Previous to contributing to Helpful, she worked on HighSpeedInternet.com and SatelliteInternet.com. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your lifespan.
Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.
Michal directs the Switchful content strategy and leads the editorial team. With a bachelor’s degree in Communications, she has more than a decade of experience in the world of marketing communications. Her diverse career has included public relations, brand development, digital strategies, and more; her key skillset has always been centered around strategic efforts for consumer-focused initiatives. In her free time, you can find her camping with friends, chasing waterfalls on her kayak, or searching for the best restaurants in Salt Lake City.