Web Matters

What every browser user should know – preface

Why this page?

A frequently-discussed issue in web-authoring circles is how much readers know about the facilities of their browsers. It is often thought – rightly or wrongly – that most surfers are very ill-informed in this respect. Designers not infrequently do things on their pages which they think will help inexperienced readers of the Web, at the cost of cluttering the page and/or getting in the way of other readers.

I have put together this page, in the hope that:

  1. authors will link to it if they think their readers need help using their browsers;
  2. surfers can use the Web more effectively after reading this page;
  3. authors will stop this particular discussion and move onto something more productive.  ;-)

I don’t of course claim that this is everything you need to know about your browser. But it will get you a long way.

Page contents

What every browser user should know

The detailed instructions I give below apply to the Opera, Firefox, Mozilla, Safari and Internet Explorer browsers, which are between them used by a large majority of surfers. (The Netscape browser is a version of Mozilla and the AOL browser is a version of Internet Explorer.) Just about all graphical browsers will have similar facilities to those mentioned here.

Note 1: in Opera 8 some of the menu options and function keys were changed. Should you be using an earlier version, you can see an earlier version of this page.

Note 2: Safari is the main Macintosh browser. It has a “Command” key, indicated by an Apple or cloverleaf symbol. Where not otherwise mentioned below, this “Command” key is used instead of the “Ctrl” key.

Browser Basics

If you have got as far as reading this page, I gather you know how to start up your browser and click on a link. Lets run through the other basics.

Moving around a page

There are several ways of moving around a web-page. They are the same as in many other applications, except that Home/End take you to the beginning/end of the page, whereas in a word-processor they take you to the beginning/end of a line.

Changing text size

All graphical browsers provide the means of adjusting the size of the text on the screen to something which is comfortable for you, the reader. However some browsers do it better than others, and some sites are better-behaved than others (specifically, many sites block users of Internet Explorer from adjusting the text size).

I have covered this on a separate page: adjusting the text size.

Finding text

All browsers have a facility for finding text in the current page: click the find button or type ctrl-F.

Some browsers have a keyboard option for quickly repeating the find:

Full Screen display

There is no need to keep your browser window maximised the whole time; sometimes you may wish to have other windows on view at the same time, or you may simply find a smaller window more pleasant. But sometimes it is handy to view a page in full-screen mode. This is easy: use the F11 key. Press F11 again to get back to your previous window size. (Not available in Safari).

(In Mozilla and Firefox you have to switch off the sidebar separately, should you wish to do so: via the View menu, or by clicking the close-window button.)


Printing a web-page is in principle as simple as with any other application: you just press the print button on your browser or use Ctrl-P (and you may need to confirm it by clicking an ‘OK’ button).

Unfortunately many site designers are not up to the task of designing a page that looks good both on the screen and on the printer (although it is not so very difficult to do). Some of them patch this up by providing a separate “printer friendly” page. Others just don’t bother. If the printed page is a mess, see if you can find a “printer friendly” link somewhere on the page. Or find a better site.

Reloading a page

The reload button or the F5 key redisplays the current page. (Except Safari: Command-R; Firefox accepts both F5 and Ctrl-R.) This can be useful for two reasons:

  1. to see if new information has been provided (for example on a news page);
  2. sometimes a browser fails to display a page correctly the first time, but does it correctly after a reload. In my experience this happens not infrequently with Internet Explorer, and just occasionally with other browsers as well.

The Back button

The chances are you already know the ‘back’ button, which takes you back to where you were before you clicked on the previous link. You can also do this via the keyboard: Alt+left-arrow.

If your back button doesn’t work, see sections New windows and tabs and Javascript off for possible solutions.

Safari has other possibilities besides the back button: Command [ or Command ] move back or forward through previous pages in that window or tab. The curved Snapback arrow with orange circle around it that appears at the right of the address bar will usually take you back to the page at which you opened that window. Use Option Command K to mark a page as the Snapback page, Option Command P to go to the snapback page.

Bookmarks (Favourites)

You can bookmark a page, so you can easily find your way back to it.

Note however that for some sites, the ones that use frames, this doesn’t work well: you always end up at the home page of the site. (Some browsers allow a particular frame to be bookmarked, but this has its own disadvantages.) Well-informed authors are now discarding frames, for this and other reasons.

The default name of the bookmark is the page title. Sometimes this is convenient, sometimes not. If not, you can edit it to something useful to you. So, to take a particularly ludicrous actual example, you might edit "Organic Holidays, a guide to small hotels, bed and breakfast and farm accommodation, where organic food and produce is used whenever possible and according to availability, also including accommodation to rent on organic farms and organic smallholdings" down to just “Organic Hols”.

The “home” page in your browser is really just a special case of a bookmark, and you can set it to any page you like – including a blank page.

Incidentally, browsers often come supplied with a long list of bookmarks, which are simply a form of advertising. The first thing I do on installing a new browser is to delete them all so that I can find my own bookmarks more easily. Feel free to do the same.

New windows and tabs

It is often handy to open a few different browser windows – for example to compare information in different pages or because you are busy with a number of things at the same time.

This is very easy: hold the Shift key down while clicking a link to open the link in a new window. (In Mozilla, use the Ctrl key instead of Shift). Or alternatively type Ctrl-N (“New”) to open a new empty window in which you can type or paste a web address (URL).

Unfortunately some designers think that they know better than you when you’d like to open a page in a new window, and they force a new window upon you when you click a link. If your “back” button suddenly stops working, there’s a good chance that this is the cause.

Opera has recently pioneered a tabbed interface, which has since been copied by both Firefox and IE 7. You have a choice of opening a new window with ctrl-N, or a new tab within the current window with ctrl-T. Try them both and see which you find more convenient.

Slightly less basic features

Here are some more handy tips to ensure that you remain the boss on your own computer and can get troublesome web-pages to behave themselves.

One of the more irritating features of the Web is the windows (usually advertisements) that pop up of their own accord and have to be clicked away again.

There are ways of suppressing these. One is to disable Javascript (see below). A more specific method is provided by better browsers:

Javascript off

There are several reasons why you might want to disable Javascript: see my page What – No Javascript?

To do this:

Images off

Some pages have large images, which are very slow to download. It can be very handy to disable images temporarily while you are hunting around the web for information, and then re-enable them when you find a page you want to study in more detail.

Styling off

Similarly there are a quite a lot of sites with poorly thought-out colour schemes and/or fonts which can make the page hard to read if your monitor, or your eyesight, is different from that of the author. It would then be nice to quickly disable the styling and get the text in normal black-on-white.

In conclusion ...

If you’re an IE user and are beginning to get the idea it’s time to try a better browser – you’re probably right! My personal opinion is that Opera has by far the best user interface of the browsers I have tried, but Firefox isn’t bad (and has improved since I first wrote this page).

As I mentioned above, this is not by any means everything that it is useful to know about using a browser. Hopefully this page will encourage a few readers to investigate the other useful features of their browser. If there’s anything that you come across that makes you think “I really wish I’d known that before” and it’s not covered on this page, do please let me know.


Thanks to Eric Lindsay for providing the information on Safari.