The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Websites

By Kate Loyola | Last Updated: July 10, 2018

Contents

 

So you want to start a website.

The internet houses millions upon millions of users. Plus, the web only gets bigger every passing year.

Luckily, it’s easier than ever to carve out a space for yourself, too. There are tons of tools for setting up everything from a personal blog to a full-blown business.

But starting a website and understanding it are different things. In a web replete with abandoned or error-riddled sites, knowing how your website ticks is the first step in building a virtual space to call your own.

Don’t worry—you don’t have to be a full-fledged network whiz or hacking genius! In this quick primer, we go through all the basics you need for a good start.

 

How Does the Internet Work?

Illustration of appliances and devices connected by the internet
As the name suggests, the internet is a mesh of connections between devices like computers and mobile phones. Think of it as a vast, global neighborhood.

When you create a website, you’re basically working with two elements:

  1. Your files: all of the content you intend to put up, from the codes behind your site’s design to your blog posts or product catalogs, and everything in between.
  2. Web hosting: your web real estate, AKA the lot where you construct the house for your files.

So what happens when visitors come calling?

Domain Names: Your Internet Address

Well, they’ll have to find you first. With millions of websites on the internet, that’s not as easy as it sounds. Luckily, there’s something called domain names.

Illustration of web domains plotted around a globe

You might have seen them before: Google.com, Facebook.com, PBS.org, BBC.co.uk.

Every house needs a street address, and a domain name serves the same function for your website. They make it easy for you, or any other visitor, to remember specific corners of the web and tell browsers where to go.

How Do You Get a Domain Name?

When you first set up a website, you’ll go through a process called domain registration. This is where you claim a particular address as your own.

You get exclusive use of your chosen domain. But the same applies to others who have registered certain domains before you. If you happen to choose a name that someone’s already registered, you’ll need to pick a different one instead.

Most web hosting providers let you register a domain name when you sign up for their services. A domain name usually comes free with your hosting plan, at least for the first year.

You might also want to check out domain registrars like Namecheap or GoDaddy. These services work best if:

  • You want to register additional domains
  • You want to use a separate service from your hosting provider

There’s no difference between domains registered through a web host or through registrars, so you’ll be fine either way.

What’s An IP Address?

While domain names make web navigation much easier for human brains, computers prefer to crunch their information in a different form. That’s where IP addresses come in.

Illustration of different web entities as buildings in a neighborhood

Think of IP addresses as the computer equivalent of domain names. IP stands for “Internet Protocol,” and it’s an identifier for hardware devices on a network. Each device gets a unique tag, and that sequence allows other devices to find and communicate with it.

What’s the Difference Between IPv4 and IPv6?

IP addresses come in one of two standards: IPv4 or IPv6.

IPv4 addresses came earlier, and they’re still universally supported. They use four sets of numbers, each ranging from 0 to 255. Here are a couple of examples:

  • 168.1.1
  • 0.255.255

Despite offering more than 4 billion unique addresses, IPv4 still proved insufficient for the ever-growing internet.

Enter IPv6.

The IPv6 standard expands the range of possible addresses up to a staggering 2^128, or 34 followed by 13 zeroes. To accommodate the drastic increase in range, IPv6 uses hexadecimal digits instead.

IPv6 addresses look like this:

  • 3ffe:1900:4545:3:200:f8ff:fe21:67cf
  • 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334

All IP addresses are either IPv4 or IPv6. In addition, they’re either static or dynamic.

What’s the Difference Between Static and Dynamic IPs?

As the name implies, static addresses don’t change.

Some systems, however, choose to randomly assign new IP addresses to a device whenever it connects to the network or after a certain period of time has lapsed. Those are called dynamic IP addresses.

On the internet, devices use IP addresses that are assigned by their Internet Service Provider (ISP). The IP addresses for users’ personal computers are typically dynamic addresses. Some bigger enterprises, like the servers used by web hosting providers, are more likely to have static addresses instead.

Why Do We Need IP Addresses?

When you host your website with your chosen provider, your site’s files reside in a specialized computer known as a server.

When visitors try to find your website, their browsers try to display your site by pulling files from that server. Those browsers take the domain name entered by the user and translate it into an IP address. This allows the computers involved to find each other and start communicating.

IP addresses are a crucial link in the chain of basic processes behind any website. If you or your visitors encounter connection issues later on, some knowledge of IP addresses could help you fix the issue quickly.

Understanding DNS: The Domain Name System

Illustration of DNS as servers linked to a common directory

But how do browsers know what domain name corresponds to which IP address, anyway? They consult a clever bit of technology known as the Domain Name System (DNS).

Think of DNS as your phone’s Contacts app.

When you call your mother, it’s as simple as clicking on the contact labelled “Mom.” However, your phone can’t just beam the word “Mom” into the airwaves and hope it lands.

Instead, your Contacts app takes your click as a prompt to find your mom’s phone number and start a call.

DNS works like that, too. As many people like to say, DNS is the directory of the Internet.

How Does DNS Work?

Remember the steps for registering a domain name? When you choose a domain name, the domain and its corresponding IP address enter the vast DNS system.

There’s no one entity managing DNS records, though. Instead, you’ve got numerous databases that house domain name and IP address pairs.

The whole process happens in fractions of a second. There’s an added perk: the system automatically keeps track of relevant IP addresses changes or new connections.

When it comes to facilitating connections, the DNS system does the heavy lifting for you (and your website).

How Does Web Hosting Work?

So your visitors have reached your website. What now?

Remember how your hosting provider stores your website on a server?

Whenever someone visits your website, that server, well, serves up the files that make up your site’s content. Since those files are already on the server, you don’t have to manually trigger or approve the retrieval process whenever someone visits.

Illustration of web devices and servers on a flat grid

That’s the beauty of web hosting, and of websites in general.

Sure, you could just email your blog post to your friends directly, or you could cold-send a product catalog to a list of strangers. But these options have downsides:

  1. You need to do all the work yourself.
  2. There’s no way for potential visitors to find you if they don’t already know about you.
  3. You’ll have to keep working over and over: sending out emails every week, sharing product catalogs every day.

Without web hosting, if you’re asleep, so is your blog or your online business.

That all changes with a website. Compared to manual delivery, a hosted site can:

  1. Cater to anyone who visits, whether or not you’re online
  2. Be found by complete strangers who might be interested in your content

Conclusion

There’s a lot more to websites than the concepts we’ve covered above. Still, this primer should be enough to give you an idea of what websites are and how they work. With these fundamentals under your belt, you’re well on your way to making the most of the booming Internet.