How the Web Works

May 11th, 2022


Let's say your phone charger just stopped working and you want to order a new one. You open our internet browser, type “” into the address bar and hit enter. The Amazon home page appears and you start shopping away. But what happened there when you hit enter? A whole lot happened there.

Some insane amount of web pages are visited every day. But what's going on behind the scenes? What allows you to "visit a web page"? Let's start with what you typed in: “”. This is called a URL address. URL is short for uniform resource locator. Basically it's a way to locate some resource on the internet. Resources can be web pages, image files, user profile data, etc.

There are two main concepts to keep in mind here. There's our internet browser (chrome, safari, edge, etc.) and there's the server. Our internet browser is known as the “client” in web jargon speak. Typically the “server” refers to a computer located somewhere in the world that's tied to a database with a bunch of resources. This is what we call the "client-server model". The client requests a resource/service and the server provides it.

So when you hit enter you told one of Amazon's (many, many, many) servers to send you back the Amazon home page - and a moment later it got delivered to you. This isn't unlike ordering food at a restaurant - you tell the waiter what you'd like to order and they deliver it to you.

After a web page loads up, if you double click the address bar you can view the full address text:

No doubt this looks familiar. The message (request) we send to the server is formatted based on a protocol called HTTP - this stands for “Hypertext Transfer Protocol”. The “s” added to the end essentially just means it has an extra layer of security - this is important for websites dealing with any sort of sensitive information (e.g. Amazon uses your payment information). In a nutshell, HTTP is the language that clients and servers use to talk to each other - but let's ignore this for now.

Here's a simple example of an HTTP request:

GET /index.html HTTP/1.1 Host: Accept-Language: en-us
  • on the first line it says that it wants to get a page or a file called “index.html” using HTTP version 1.1 (in most cases, “index.html” is the main file for a website)
  • the second line tells us the host
  • the third line tells us the language our browser is using

This is just a little sample, you don't need to worry about memorizing it.

Every data exchange using the HTTP protocol involves two messages - a request and a response. We just took a look at the request, now let's take a look at the response.

After the server receives a request, it takes a look at it and figures out what it needs to send back. If we revisit our restaurant example, this is like the chef taking a look at your order - they need to figure out what to cook. They prepare the order and give it to the waiter. Our HTTP response is like the waiter delivering you your meal.

Here's a simple example of an HTTP response:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK Date: 1 Jan 2022 09:00 Content-Type: text/html <!DOCTYPE html> <html> ... </html>
  • on the first line you can see the version of http protocol used, followed by the “status code” (a 200 status code means the response was successful)
  • the second line tells you when the response happened
  • the third line tells you the type of content that's being delivered
  • lastly, you can see the content itself (some HTML code)

Once our browser receives the response it now has the main building blocks it needs to show us the Amazon home page. As the browser reads the HTML document, it constructs what we call a “DOM” (document object model). The DOM represents the elements that make up an HTML document. HTML elements are the foundation of every single page on the web.

As the browser goes through the document, it typically sees references to other resources the page needs. For example: images, fonts, scripts, etc. In order to successfully build the page, each resource will need to be requested from the server in a similar manner. So when all is said in done a standard web page will make quite a few requests to one or more servers. Luckily, these requests happen in parallel so web pages to load quickly. Once the browser has everything it needs we're presented with the content on our screen.

Another important thing to understand is how requests know how to reach the server they're looking for, and how responses know how to reach the client they're looking for. In order to understand this we need to understand two things: what an IP address is, and how clients and servers are connected.

Going back to our URL:

The “” part (or just is the “domain name”. A domain name is actually a sort of translation that helps us memorize the address. Under the hood, a request or response is actually using an “IP address” to figure out where it needs to go. A typical IP address looks like this:

This is much more difficult to memorize than "". So the address a request/response uses would look like:

When we enter a URL into our address bar and hit enter, the first thing our computer does is access “Domain Name System” (or DNS for short) in order to translate the domain name to an IP address. The numbers contained in an IP help a request or response navigate the complicated journey to their destination. Let's take a look at what that journey may look like.

The physical internet exists as a huge, complex network of optical fiber cables. Essentially it's just a bunch of cables connected to each other. Anywhere two or more cables intersect there's a piece of equipment called a router. Routers direct requests/responses around the internet. Every request you fire off from your browser will hit upwards of a dozen or more routers. In addition to the client and server in question, each router has its own IP address. So if your browser hits 15 routers, a request will reach its destination with 15 IP addresses attached. This is like a trail of breadcrumbs the response will use to find its way back to your browser. So when the server fires off the response, it has the directions it needs to make it's journey.


It's kind of overwhelming to think about - but this complicated process happens every time you visit a web page. It's even more overwhelming when you think about the number of people browsing the internet every second. No doubt we take the technology at our disposal for granted!