How A Website Works: A Simple Guide

Don't speak tech? It's ok. But, you should still know how a website works so you don't get hoodwinked on your next project.

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    Everybody knows what a website is.  We click the little blue letters, we Google the things, type in the www-dot-something-or-other and then you’re looking at cat pictures. That’s how a website works, right?

    Considering it’s something almost all of us use daily, for many of us the internet can still be a bit of a mystery. A few years ago, our public officials were still referring to it as a “series of tubes.” And there’s so much jargon thrown around, it’s hard to know which way is up sometimes.

    So when you’re putting together a business website, it may feel like a scary, insiders-only kind of project.

    How a website works

    Here’s the good news: you don’t have to be a professional web developer to understand how a website works. No matter your level of experience, or how “techie” you are, if you’re investing in a business website, you should know how a website works. No excuses.

    So let’s get started!

    What is a website, anyway?

    A web page is a way to display information on the internet. It’s made up of elements like text, images, links, videos, or buttons.

    Based on the information those pages contain, they are organized into an information hierarchy– this allows navigation from one page to another. The overall collection of those related web pages is a website.

    A website isn’t an application. It’s not a search engine. (Though a website might contain those things.) A website, at its heart, is just a way to publicly collect and display information. No matter how complicated a website gets, it all boils down to that basic purpose.

    Now, obviously, there’s more going on behind the scenes.

    What is a website made of? How does a web browser work?

    As a living being, you have a genetic code. Your DNA contains all the genetic markers that make you… you.

    All of the elements that make you unique are defined by this code. Your eye color, whether you have straight or curly hair, your height. There’s a replicating molecule that reads your DNA when your body makes cells. The cells follow the plan laid out for them.

    That’s kind of how a website works. A website is also made of code. HTML code is a programming language that allows a web developer to plan out a web page. All of those page elements we discussed earlier, be they text or visual elements or whatnot, are all written out in code.

    When you access a website, your computer is using a browser. There are several different kinds of web browsers… Safari, Firefox, and Chrome are probably the most popular.

    Regardless of which browser you use, the browser works like that replicating molecule. It takes the code that the web developer has written out and decodes it into what you see when you type in a web address.

    This is why it’s important to have a current browser. If your browser is too old to understand the code, it doesn’t translate the website properly. This is why new websites can look different or fail to work entirely on old computers.

    Whether you work with a developer or use a DIY website building service, all the information you are providing for the pages on your business website are translated into HTML code so that any computer can download and understand it. Which brings us to our next question:

    Where is a website stored? What is web hosting?

    All data has to be stored somewhere.

    So much of our digital lives exist in web-based applications, it can be easy to believe that information exists “on the internet.” But here’s the thing: the internet isn’t a physical place. The internet is a system that connects computers together.

    This means that, if the information isn’t being stored on your computer, it’s being stored on a different computer somewhere else.

    So your Facebook photos don’t exist in a vacuum. That data is sitting on a physical computer in one or more of Facebook’s facilities waiting for you, or your grandmother, to access them.

    In the same way, a website doesn’t live “on the internet.” The HTML code for that website is being stored on a computer somewhere, waiting for a computer with an internet browser to access that information.

    So if you are building a website, where do you store that coded information? On your computer?

    Well, technically you could if the site was small enough. But you’d have to leave your computer on constantly and have a very stable internet connection. It would be expensive. And risky. The site would be incredibly slow. And if enough people tried to access it at the same time it would probably crash your site… or your computer.

    So if the website doesn’t live on your computer, where is all that data stored?

    Well, that’s why servers exist. Servers are big, beefy computers that store a ton of information, and can pull even more information out of databases, and serve it to your browser. (Preferably securely.) And there are companies with a bunch of servers that charge you to let your website live on their servers and databases. They host your website… sort of like a digital hotel.

    Hosting services are sometimes free, but those tend to be very limited or have restrictions associated with them. (Facebook provides free hosting for their users’ pages, as does Google.)

    For the most part, it’s hard to find something for nothing. So unless you have the money to buy and power your own servers, you’ll probably have to pay for hosting for your business website.

    The good news is, once the website’s code has been stored on the host’s servers, it’s ready to be accessed by your visitors!

    How is a website accessed? How do domain names work?

    Okay, so there’s a website. It exists, as HTML code, on a host’s server. I want to visit that website. I have a computer, and it’s equipped with a web browser.

    That browser is going to unpack that HTML code and convert it into a shiny web page filled with text, images, and buttons for me to click.

    But first, my browser has to find it.

    If you want to send a letter to my house, you need to know where it is. That’s why I have an address. You can put the address on the letter and the mail carrier will know exactly where to go to deliver it. That letter will have a return address so that I can reply to it if I need to.

    In the same way, your website needs an address. A registered designation for users to request information from so that they can read the HTML code you’ve got stored on your servers.

    That’s where domains come in.

    You see domains all the time. www dot fill-in-the-blank dot com. A domain is a unique designation that you pay to register so that your visitors can find you.

    A common mistake that website novices make is to confuse domain name registration with hosting services. Part of that comes from the misconception about how information lives on the internet that we just touched on: the idea that information is somehow just out there, floating around “the web.”

    So the misconception is that, if you paid for your domain name, you must have bought that part of the web, and therefore can store whatever you want on it.

    But remember: information lives on computers. If you just registered a domain without buying any hosting service, you didn’t actually buy any computer space for your website to live on. You didn’t buy the house… you just reserved the mailbox.

    If you host your website on a server and register a domain, then a user can access your website! They type your domain into the browser, which sends a request to your server. Then they can access the HTML code on the server and translate it into a web page that they can interact with.

    So there you have it! You know the basics of how a website works. For you visual learners out there, here’s a pretty graphic we made:

    Or, you can download it here.

    Infographic showing how a website works

    How can I make a website for my business?

    That brings us to the practical question: if you need to build a business website, how on earth do you get started?

    Well, there are a few factors to consider.

    • First, technical expertise. Do you or someone on your staff know how to program HTML code? How comfortable are you learning new programs?
    • Second: time. How much time and energy do you have to devote to the care and updating of your business website?
    • Third: budget. There are website options out there to fit every budget, but it’s important to have that question worked out before you start the process so that you know exactly what options are open to you.

    Once you’ve had a chance to ponder on those factors, it’s time to look at your options:

    Program & Host The Site Yourself

    If you have the resources to hire an on-staff web developer and build and maintain the necessary servers, you can always just do it yourself. This may take a lot of time and resources. Most small businesses won’t pursue this option, but if you are a big enough company where it makes sense to build and maintain your website in-house, that’s always an option.

    Hire A Developer

    You can hire a professional developer on a contract basis to build you a website. If you hire a good developer, this is a great way to ensure that you build a quality site without taking up too much of your valuable time. But keep in mind that this relationship is usually short term. They may not be around to help you maintain the site once it’s built and the check has cleared. You will probably still need to invest in hosting, domain, and maintenance services if you go this route.

    DIY Website Building Services

    Services like Wix, Squarespace, or even Google Business are an inexpensive alternative to hiring a developer. You don’t need any coding knowledge to set these up, which is a major plus. In addition, these services usually offer hosting and domain services and allow you to bundle all three in a monthly recurring fee.

    Where this can end up costing a business is time. Even with relatively simple tools that do the HTML for you, websites can be complicated. While throwing up a cheap-looking web page may not require much effort, a quality, professional site takes hours of work and a lot of troubleshooting to build.

    Rely On The Pros

    SuperWebPros combines the affordability and ease of a DIY website system with the time savings and peace of mind of hiring a professional developer. The Pros can hostbuild, maintain, and even provide ongoing content for your small business website for a reasonable monthly fee. We take care of your website so that you can take care of your business.

    Reach out to us to learn more. If you already have a website, sign up for a free audit to learn how we can optimize it to drive real, measurable traffic to your business. If you’re starting from scratch, we’d love to hear all about you and your business. Let’s build an online strategy together that will help you draw new online customers.

    Duke Kimball

    Duke writes words, good. When he's not crafting content for The Pros, he's crafting stories, enjoying craft beer, or gourmet coffee. He is Portlandia.

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