Understanding websites and how they work
The following is a brief outline of the components of a website and how these components are put together to generate the web page on the computer screen, and how to ensure that a particular website can be found when searching for it in a search engine like Google or MSN Search. This article is meant to de-mystify website jargon for the average website user. (Webmasters be warned; you’ll find this is old news!)
Before the webmaster can publish a website, the domain name must be registered and a website hosting service must be purchased.
1. The registered domain name
First, some terminology explained:
URL (Uniform Resource Locator) or URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) is the “address” the browser uses to find the web page, e.g. http://www.mywebsite.co.nz/index.html. Note that http://www.mywebsite.co.nz is a shorthand form of http://www.mywebsite.co.nz/index.html and the browser understands it needs to add /index.html (or any of several other options) to the end of that text string.
Domain name is the name that identifies a computer (the website server) on the internet. This type of domain name is also called a hostname. One computer may host several websites. The domain name appears as a component of a web site’s URL, e.g. http://www.mywebsite.co.nz is the domain name in our URL example.
Registered domain name is the part of the URL that is unique and identifies the specific website, e.g. mywebsite.co.nz in our example. This name needs to be registered by a domain name registrar, a company accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and/or by a national authority to register Internet domain names.
There are several companies in New Zealand that can register domain names and any hosting service provider will arrange registration on behalf of their clients.
A domain name is registered for a certain period, from three months to several years. Normally the name is registered for one or two years at a time, with a registration fee payable at the start of the period. Automatic renewals and payments can usually be arranged with the service provider.
When the domain name registration lapses the website ceases to exist on the World Wide Web.
2. The website hosting service
Web hosts are companies that provide space on a server they own, for use by their clients, as well as providing Internet connectivity and various software applications typically used on web pages, e.g. email service, database application, website statistics application, web page editing application, online commerce platform, etc.
Hosting services for smaller websites would typically place your website on the same server as many other sites, ranging from a few to hundreds or thousands. This is called a shared web hosting service. Typically, all domains on one hosting service may share a common pool of server resources, such as RAM (Random Access Memory) and the CPU (Central Processing Unit).
If your website is country specific, for example New Zealand, it is a good idea to make sure that the host server is actually located in New Zealand (the service should not be reselling a hosting service based in another country). The reason for this is to ensure the website will be found when a user searches for your type of website and selects the “Pages in New Zealand” filter option. That particular search filter (in Google) checks the Internet Protocol address of the server on which the website is hosted and if it is not hosted in New Zealand, your website will not be listed.
Different website hosting service providers offer different packages for different website requirements. It pays to shop around once you know what your website requirements will be. Consult with a web designer or the hosting service provider to determine the requirements for your website.
Hosting services can be purchased for different periods of time, with a fee payable at the start of the period. Automatic renewals and payments can usually be arranged with the service provider.
When the website hosting service lapses the website ceases to exist on the World Wide Web.
3. Website requirements specification
Before starting to design or build the website the web designer (who may or may not also be the web developer) needs to determine the client’s (website owner’s) requirements for look and feel and functionality for the proposed website, and obtain all content material from the client.
Typically the designer will draw up a specification to outline what the website will look like and how the user will navigate the website. All functionality must be specified before development work begins, so that the developer can plan the build phase and so that an estimate of cost can be provided and agreed with the client.
4. Website design and build
It is very easy to publish a website, but is not at all easy to design and build a good website that
- Follows the rules and conventions of good visual design and layout with a menu system that provides easy navigation in a consistent manner
- Has photographs and other graphic images that are optimised in terms of looking good and fast loading in the browser
- Complies with the World Wide Web Consortium’s standards for web page markup and style sheet (the (X)HTML and CSS code behind the page) and will validate to those standards
- Complies with the Web Accessibility Guidelines of the W3C, to ensure that users with disabilities can access your website
- Is optimised for search engines, e.g. keywords, descriptions, titles, content
- Contains sitemap files in different formats for the various search engine robots, e.g. robots.txt, sitemap.xml, sitemap.html, urllist.txt, ror.xml
- Has been tested to perform correctly in a variety of browsers, e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera (on both Mac and PC computers, as relevant)
- Has customised static and scrolling favourites icons added
- Has a good website statistics service installed
HTML and CSS explained
HTML or XHTML are Hyper Text Markup Languages used to code a web page. The markup tags used in the HTML file tell the browser what to do with the text between the beginning and end markers of a tag. The DTD (Document Type Definition) at the top of the HTML file tells the browser which of the standards this page complies with, so that it knows which rules to use to render the page.
The CSS or Cascading Style Sheet is a file, separate from the HTML file, which contains all the formatting instructions for the display of the content on the web page. In other words, the instructions in the CSS determine colour and size of the text, and layout of the various elements of the page, e.g. menus, headers, footers, etc.
As far as possible websites must be made accessible to disabled users, some of whom use assisting technologies, e.g. blind people have screen reader software to read out the text on screen. Keyboard shortcuts must be defined and built in so that people, who find mouse work difficult, can navigate using keyboard strokes. There are various techniques a web developer can employ to improve accessibility of a website.
When contracting the services of a webmaster, feel free to ask to see the markup, style sheet and accessibility validation reports for all the pages of your new website.
5. Search engine optimisation (SEO)
Search engine optimisation is work web developers can do to ensure that the website will achieve a high ranking on the search engine results page (SERP) for specific search terms (or keywords). Depending on the nature of your website, you might want to consult with a professional SEO company, but much of SEO success can be ensured by attending to the basics like properly constructed web pages, following the rules and complying with the standards.
Good content, carefully constructed HTML meta tags to define keywords, page descriptions and page titles, and relevant links back to your site from other websites, will go a long way to ensure a good result.
6. Website publication
The website will be developed and tested off-line. Once that phase of the project is completed, the website files must be published to the internet and tested again.
The webmaster will have obtained details of the web host’s IP address, user name and password for your website from the web hosting service, and the web hosting service will have ensured that the registered domain name is pointing to that server. If you registered the domain name with a different company (not the hosting service provider), the webmaster will arrange for the domain name to be pointed to the correct web host server.
Publishing means the uploading, via FTP (File Transfer Protocol), of the website files from the local computer, via the internet, to the web host server. From there the files are “served up” to the internet.
7. Website submission
After the website has been published you can see it in a browser by typing the URL in the address bar, like this: http://www.mywebsite.co.nz
However, the website will not yet appear in search engine results if you try to find it by entering a keyword. The new website needs to be submitted to key search engines to alert them of the existence of a new website.
Anyone can do website submission, but be warned of paid services that proclaim that they will submit your site to “hundreds” of search engines. Quite frankly, there are not that many. Even free online services that proclaim to do automatic submissions to many search engines at the same time are not very successful. Many of those submissions fail since the search engines nowadays are discriminating against automatic submissions.
It is important to submit to the big search engines like Google, Bing, MSN, and perhaps a few others, depending on the nature of the new website.
It is very important to submit your new website to the Open Directory Project (ODP). Many of the smaller search engines (and some of the bigger ones too, like Ask.com) use the ODP database and do not maintain a separate index. All of these submissions can be done for free, but the work is time-consuming if done properly, including a short description of the purpose of the website whenever possible, and doing submission verifications when requested. Different submission services may require different lengths of description (or headline), so these must be prepared in advance.
Submitting to online directories is an excellent way of making the presence of your new website known, with the added benefit of providing a quality link back to your website. There are several good online directories of a general nature that will accept free submissions, but you need to also consider paid submissions to directories that are specific for your type of website or your industry. You might also need paid inclusion in directories that are really important in your industry. These directories might require you (or your webmaster) to provide text and images in a format to suit the directory.
8. What next?
Enjoy your new website, but be sure to keep it up to date. Most web developers will offer a website maintenance service at affordable rates.
Keep an eye on the statistics for your website. You can do it yourself or your webmaster can provide you with regular reports. These reports will indicate which areas of the website needs improvement, and can also be used to determine which the popular pages are, so that you can concentrate your advertising efforts in those areas.
Be sure to advertise your website on printed promotional material or even television media (if this is appropriate and affordable), so to drive visitors to your website. Participating on social media platforms are becoming an essential component of marketing your website.