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Hypertext Transfer Protocol: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Sudha Aravindan

Sudha is currently an Information Technology Specialist and a EdD student at the University of Delaware.

HTTP is short for Hypertext Transfer Protocol, and includes the basic rules for displaying a web page on the screen of a computer, smart phone, tablet, or any mobile device. In this lesson, we'll learn about Hypertext Transfer Protocol and how it works.

What Is Hypertext Transfer Protocol?

John was working on a science project about polar bears and his teacher told him that he could find useful information on the National Geographic website. So John went to his school librarian and asked how he could get to the National Geographic website. The librarian took John to a computer, opened up a web browser and typed in the web address for National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.com. John then asked the librarian how he could access this website on his personal laptop. The librarian explained that John would need to open any web browser on his laptop and type in the web address, also known as the URL, of the National Geographic website. A web browser, the librarian explained to John, is a program on John's laptop that will allow him to view web pages.

In the process of learning about polar bears, John also learned that in order to access a website you need a web address or a URL, and that most URLs start with the prefix http://. This 'http' is short for Hypertext Transfer Protocol, and we'll learn more below about just what that phrase means.

You may also notice that some websites, such as those where you might type in your credit card information for making purchases, use the prefix https://. This indicates that the website is using a secure method of communication to transfer data. It used to be that you'd have to type in one of these prefixes by hand to go to the correct web address, like the librarian did for John. But since http:// and https:// are so commonly used, most websites now allow you to access their site by leaving out the prefix. So when John gets home to his own computer, he can type in www.nationalgeographic.com and his web browser will know that there's also an http:// in the address. In this case, the http:// protocol is used even though it is not reflected in the URL.

How Does Hypertext Transfer Protocol Work?

All of the pages, files, images, videos, and other data of a website live on one or more computers that are also known as web servers. When you type the web address or URL of any site into a web browser, the browser finds the server and transfers that content from the server to your browser so that you can see the information on your computer as a web page. Using the HTTP protocol (protocol here just means 'rules'), information is exchanged between the web server and the web browser. Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, is the set of rules (or protocols) used by the browser and the server for transferring information on the web.

As noted above, when you type in the URL of any web site into your browser, it sends a request to the web server that corresponds to the address of the URL. So when John typed the web address of National Geographic into the browser on his laptop, his laptop sent a request to the address of the web server where the National Geographic files are stored. When the web server received the request, the server then gathered all the information relating to the National Geographic website and sent it back to John's browser.

A web server holds all the information about a website, and the server may be constantly receiving requests for the site from any number of people who are browsing the site. The server has to respond to each and every one of these requests and transfer the required files to each person's browser. The server and the browser communicate using the HTTP method, which helps the server understand what the browser is requesting and how to interpret the requests made by the browser. HTTP protocol thus includes rules about how web content should be formatted, how dates are formatted and how web addresses or URLs should be identified.

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