The motivating insight behind topology is that some geometric problems depend not on the exact shape of the objects involved, but rather on the way they are put together. For example, the square and the circle have many properties in common: they are both one dimensional objects (from a topological point of view) and both separate the plane into two parts, the part inside and the part outside.

A continuous deformation (a type of homeomorphism) of a mug into a doughnut (torus) and of a (holeless) cow into a sphere

To deal with these problems that do not rely on the exact shape of the objects, one must be clear about just what properties these problems do rely on. From this need arises the notion of homeomorphism. The impossibility of crossing each bridge just once applies to any arrangement of bridges homeomorphic to those in Königsberg, and the hairy ball theorem applies to any space homeomorphic to a sphere.

Homotopy classes are larger, because the tails can be squished down to a point. They are:

To classify the letters correctly, we must show that two letters in the same class are equivalent and two letters in different classes are not equivalent. In the case of homeomorphism, this can be done by selecting points and showing their removal disconnects the letters differently. For example, X and Y are not homeomorphic because removing the center point of the X leaves four pieces; whatever point in Y corresponds to this point, its removal can leave at most three pieces. The case of homotopy equivalence is harder and requires a more elaborate argument showing an algebraic invariant, such as the fundamental group, is different on the supposedly differing classes.

Although algebraic topology primarily uses algebra to study topological problems, using topology to solve algebraic problems is sometimes also possible. Algebraic topology, for example, allows for a convenient proof that any subgroup of a free group is again a free group.