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How Do Websites Work?

Introduction

The Internet has quickly evolved into an integral part of the modern lifestyle. It is no longer some fringe entity that exists outside of everyday life, as it is utilized for just about everything. The Internet is used to communicate, to entertain and to inform and at the heart of all of this are the various websites that make up the world wide web. How is it, then, that when you enter a web address into a browser on your computer, you are able to fetch exactly the page that you desire? After all, the Internet is not one unified entity that exists in a single location; it is a network of computer servers from all around the world, so your computer needs to know where to look for the right information.

To best understand how websites work, it is perhaps useful to consider a simple analogy. Let’s say that the webpage that you want to visit is a cheeseburger and the website where you want to read this webpage is located at a particular restaurant called Burgers R Us. In order to buy (and eat) that cheeseburger, you must first find Burgers R Us.

What Is a Domain Name?

It starts with what is known as a domain name. This is a series of letters and numbers, along with periods, arranged in a particular order as to designate a specific address on a specific computer network. You can think of a domain name as the name or address of the restaurant that you want to visit.

For example, website-builder.com is a domain name and it is what you would enter into the address bar on your web browser in order to access this website. Using the analogy, the domain name for a website is equivalent to “Burgers R Us” for the restaurant that you want to find. The domain name is unique to a single website and no other website can be located at the same domain name; there may be multiple web pages that are there, but they all fall under the same website.

Using the example, let’s say that Burgers R Us is located at 123 Main Street in Anytown, USA. If the restaurant is located there, there cannot be any other business that take up that same physical space. In like manner, going to website-builder.com will direct you to this website and not some other website. There can only be one site for any given domain name.

The format for a domain name is typically quite standard with the final few characters after the period designating what is called a top-level domain or TLD. Common TLDs include .com, .net, and .org. You can think of these like the words road, boulevard, and highway when it comes to street addresses, except the TLDs usually carry some other information. For instance, a website located at example.ca is like a Canadian site, since .ca is Canadian, just as .co.uk is in the United Kingdom. You may have seen the TLD .gov, which designates a website of the United States government.

How Does a DNS Work?

A term that you may hear in the context of websites and the Internet is DNS. Standing for Domain Name System, a DNS is a protocol in which a domain name is translated into an actual location on the Internet where that information can be found. This is done by accessing a DNS server, which is the computer used for that operation. Your Internet service provider typically directs all your web traffic through its DNS server, or you can manually select other DNS servers by adjusting the settings on your computer or through your web browser.

“Burgers R Us” is equivalent to the domain name, but if you ask someone who is unfamiliar with the location of that restaurant, the name really doesn’t tell you where to go. That’s why you need a DNS server. It is essentially a directory that maps domain names to their locations on the Internet. You can think of a DNS server like a phone book, address book, or business directory.

When you use a DNS server to look up Burgers R Us, it will tell you that the restaurant can be found at 123 Main Street. Now, your computer knows where to go to buy you that cheeseburger, because 123 Main Street is a specific location and not just a business name. In the context of the Internet, this street address is equivalent to what is called an IP address.

What Is an IP Address?

The “IP” in IP address stands for Internet Protocol. In effect, the IP address is the actual address used by your computer and web browser to find the right website on the Internet. The domain name is simply much easier and user-friendly than an IP address, because an IP address typically takes on the form 12.34.567.89 or some variation of that. Imagine trying to remember this series of digits for every website that you ever want to visit.

An IP address is like a phone number. You might be able to remember some of the most important phone numbers in your life, but it’s far easier to simply remember the names of the people and businesses that you want to call. That would be like remembering the domain names and simply using your phone book or directory to get the corresponding IP address.

Another way to think about it is that an IP address is like getting coordinates for Burgers R Us in the form of longitude and latitude. To the layperson, these numbers will be almost useless, but that’s how real navigation systems work; it’s just the end user experience shows that Burgers R Us is at 123 Main Street. In the context of how websites work, the end user rarely ever needs to know what the IP address is. He or she just wants to know the street address or the business name.

Going further, each webpage on a website can be thought of like a menu item. Just because Burgers R Us is at 123 Main Street doesn’t mean that there is only one thing for sale. You want a cheeseburger, but someone else might want a chicken burger and someone else might order a soda. These menu items are like the different webpages, like how there’s a page with a Volusion review on this website. That’s one item on the menu.

Web Domains and Hosting Are Separate?

A common misconception that people have about how websites work is that they can simply “buy a website” and that it will be up and running. What they fail to realize is that a domain name is separate from web hosting. Your website consists of a number of different files, just like the files that you have on your computer. Those files take up space and they need to be saved somewhere, just as you need to have a hard drive on your computer to save your files. The same is true with how websites work.

When you purchase a web domain name, you are effectively buying a “business name” where people can find you on the Internet. This is like registering “Burgers R Us” as a business name. However, that means you only have a business name; you don’t have a location to open up that restaurant yet and that’s why you need to also get web hosting. This is like taking a lease on a building where you can have your restaurant. This is getting the actual physical location at 123 Main Street.

While it is traditionally true that web domains and web hosting are separate, there are many website builders on the Internet that provide a more inclusive service. Several of them are listed here, like Wix and Squarespace. When you sign up for an account with one of these, they provide you with not only the tools to build your website, but also web hosting space and sometimes the domain name too. You don’t have to buy them separately.

Where Is My Website Hosted?

There are many web hosting providers on the Internet and you can think of these like landlords where you can rent an apartment or, in the case of Burgers R Us, a location where you can put your restaurant. These web hosting providers typically have a series of computer servers containing several hard drives to save all the files associated with a website. These servers can be located in many different locations around the world.

While most web hosts only provide you with a set amount of space — like 1GB of storage and 100GB of monthly bandwidth — there are others that provide unlimited disk space and bandwidth like Web Hosting Hub. That particular provider also lets you host unlimited websites and subdomains with a single account, as well as a free domain registration for the first year. That’s a better deal overall.

So, when someone tries to access your website, what they are really doing is connecting their computer via the Internet to the web hosting provider, like Web Hosting Hub. They enter the domain name, the DNS server translates the domain name into an IP address, and the web browser is then directed to the corresponding page on the corresponding server. Using the analogy, the hungry patron says they want to visit Burgers R Us, the DNS server (directory) points them toward 123 Main Street (IP address), and the diner goes there to order a cheeseburger (webpage).

What About Coding and Design?

This is a whole other discussion when it comes to how websites work, because there are many different “languages” associated with the design and coding of a website. You might hear of terms like HTML5, PHP, CSS and JavaScript. The coding of a website has to be written in a specific way so that the webpage displays correctly.

The analogy here is that while the final webpage is like the final menu item (cheeseburger), the webpage is composed of different ingredients and put together with a certain recipe. That’s the website coding and it can get very complicated, just as food recipes can get very complicated. Coding a website by hand is like cooking without any high-tech tools or appliances. It can be done, but only by experienced experts. It would be like trying to make a milkshake without a blender or baking a cake without an oven.

Thankfully, there are easier ways to do this.

Complexity Made Simple

There are several website building tools available and many of these are integrated into certain website builder and web hosting providers like those listed on this site. Big Commerce is one example of an e-commerce site that already has a shopping cart and online store engine built into you. You don’t need to code these manually, because it is all automated.

Back to the example of ordering a cheeseburger at Burgers R Us, this is like having a magic machine that will not only cook and assemble the cheeseburger for you; it will also take the customer’s order, process the payment, and deliver the cheeseburger to the hungry patron in a timely fashion. The key difference is that it isn’t magic. This is really how your website would work if you used Big Commerce or one of the other providers listed on this website.

Imagine having to ground your own beef, bake your own buns, grow your own lettuce, make your own cheese, serve your customers, take their payment, give their change, and assemble it all into a customer-friendly package that will have them coming back for more… all without the help of tools or machinery. A comprehensive solution that automates this process is far superior.

Yes, the technical underpinnings of a website and the Internet can be very complicated, but using the right tools can make the process far simpler to understand. You don’t need to know how a microwave works; you just need to know that it heats up your food quickly and efficiently.

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Erez Zundy

About

Erez is an experienced web designer and also the founder of website-builder.com. He writes for dizyne.net and IM Now.

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