What is a Website?


Anatomy of a Website, Day 1

I sincerely debated writing a post entitled “What is a Website?” for this blog. On the surface of it, the question seems really silly, right? I never really set out to be pedantic, but sometimes it happens and so I go back and forth between over-explaining really simple concepts and under explaining more complex concepts.

Lately though, when I talk to clients about what they need a website for, it has become apparent that the idea of a website is not always in line with the reality of a website. Confused yet? That’s OK, we’ll unravel the mystery together.

Why do websites exist?

Websites are a really cool idea, but most of the world doesn’t know how far back the concept of an interconnected web actually goes. In the internet world, there are a lot of big names, but the two that stand out to me are the father of HTML, Tim Burners-Lee, and the other is a man named Leonard Kleinrock who a paper on how to make “Information Flow in Large Communication Nets”. Of course, he was talking about a military defense program called ARPANET– which is the precursor to what would one day become the World Wide Web. 4 years later, researchers at MIT managed to make two computers talk to one another using packet-switching technology.

The genie was out of the bottle and a few years later ARPANET was born.

ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was a Department of Defense network that was used to connect Pentagon research facilities through telephone landlines. Of course, the military applications were pretty neat too, because of ARPANET worked then we could eliminate the need for a core military computer engine. It would be impossible to block out one computer, and cripple our command infrastructure if the responsibilities of that infrastructure were shared across multiple networks.

The military world pushed the idea of the internet, but because it was used by their various research contractors to communicate, the concept took the science world by storm. Over the next few decades, researchers would develop various means of handing data off between computers through new and evolving protocols. Network Control Protocols would give way to Transmission Controp Packets/Internet Protocols (TCP/IP) and eventually Tim Berners-Lee would develop HTML.

This evolution is what would lead to all the simple tools that make up our modern day internet system.

Where do websites fit in?

The great thing about what TimBL (that’s geek speak for “Tim Berners-Lee”) created with HTML was the ability to take the information on the net and give it structure. So now you could format your data into more easily recognizable visual forms, such as making headings larger and darker, or chunking sentences together into paragraphs that were separated by spaces.

As the internet’s data became easier to digest, the commercial applications for the World Wide Web started to take shape. The true potential of interconnected personal communication in the consumer market was hard to resist…so developers didn’t resist it. in 1994, Netscape Communications was created and by 1996 everyone would start receiving America Online discs promising 500 hours of browsing time.

The rest is history, but we’ve barely talked about websites yet…so…

What are websites?

Here’s what you probably know: a website is a series of web pages located under a single domain name, which can exist as human-readable URLs or less user-friendly IP addresses (the truth is that it’s both, but we’ll talk about that on day 3). Ideally, a website represents a single company, person, product, or idea. And for many people, it’s the marketing gambit on which all of our hopes and dreams are built.

Here’s a more technical explanation. A website is a series of files that are interconnected by a central file system and the use of linking markup. In other words, it’s a series of files with words on a page that relate to each other using linked markup. Each of these files is known makes up a web page and web pages that are all interconnected make up a website. In the old days the file relationships were pretty simple.

Today, web pages are often written on PHP files, which can call data from a database and build the page around the data called. Essentially, this is how a website is able to create unique web pages based on user input. For example, when you go to amazon there is a home page with a series of products that are chosen by various features- most of which are based on your behavior the last time you were there. Amazon is able to do this because as the internet has evolved, the ability to build pages around “fluid” content has become easier and easier.

When you go to Amazon, the home page runs through code that makes choices for what content it needs. It then plugs in the holes of the basic design template with the information the database sends.

The conversation might go something like this:

Amazon Home Page: Hey, DB! I need to load up, send my header, and my footer.

Amazon Database: Oh, yeah man! I got you. Oh, hey, isn’t that Jason? Hey AH-HA, show Jason these movies…Jason LOOOOOVES stuffed movies!

AH-HA: Cool….oh yeah, doesn’t he really like horror movies?

DB: THat’s right, he does, and looky here, we have an after Halloween special on monster movies.

When the page loads this is what they give me:

This is an image of my Amazon Home Page, minus any personal information
Yeah, I also like electronics and I bought my wife a shirt 😉

There was a time when this kind of automation was pretty rate, but in the era of Web 2.0, it’s basic playground stuff.

Myths about websites

Now that I’ve explained what a website is, I always like to cap off an article with some fun piece of trivia. This week, I’m gonna drop some science on you about some common website myths.

Myth 1: Once you take your website online, you will automatically build your audience.

Getting your website online is not the end of a marketing journey. It’s the first step in your digital marketing plan. You still need to promote your website and offer some type of content-driven value for it to really attract customers. websites are not your end game, they are a part of a process.

Myth 2: Once a website is built, it requires very little upkeep

I’m not sure this was ever true, but modern-day websites are built on complex coding platforms. As new exploits are discovered on these platforms, developers patch them up and make them run more efficiently. To benefit from this constant stream of development you need to keep your site updated and keep your finger on the pulse of changes that might affect site functionality. This is why many businesses hire a web developer on retainer because maintaining a website isn’t hard, but it does require consistent overwatch.

Myth 3: Google will immediately see your brilliance and put you on page 1

This is my favorite one, I have a lot of friends who put their website up and immediately call me wondering why they can’t find their page anywhere on Google. The internet is a huge place, and Google is on a mission to index all of, but that takes time. Billions of websites is a lot of information to parse, so sometimes it can take months to really see any results. The more saturated your industry, the harder it can be to find your footing on search engines.

Anyone who has lost track of time when using a computer knows the propensity to dream, the urge to make dreams come true, and the tendency to miss lunch.Tim Berners-Lee

Have we learned anything fun about websites yet?

Websites are awesome! I try to always have 5 projects going at once because every project has its own ebb, flow, and personality. When I got my first taste of the internet, I went nuts. I knew there was something special about it, even back before anyone was really using it (I may even have been one of the world’s first teenage internet addicts.) There are so many fascinating aspects to the internet, that I forget not everyone is as enamored as I am. I hope this article has taught you at least something you didn’t know, and stay tuned because I’m just getting warmed up.

Jason Usher

Jason has been studying design and web programming for over 10 years. He's a big fan of brand-oriented design with an emphasis on value for value growth. When he is not neck-deep in market research, he enjoys photography, time with his wife and kids, and a good movie.

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