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What is a website, really?

A simple explanation of how websites are built, from domain names to hosting to which platform to use. | TheBloggingAboutBloggingBlog.com #bloggingtips #bloggingforbeginners #startablog #blog
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You visit websites all the time, but what really is a website, and how are they created?

The answer to that question requires a basic understanding of the following three elements, which I’ll explain in this blog post:

  • Hosting
  • Domain name
  • Web development platform / web publishing platform

What is website hosting?

Just like other digital files such as photos, videos, and documents, the data that comprise your website have to be stored somewhere.  However, unlike your personal files, which can be stored on your computer’s hard drive, in order for your website to be seen by others, it has to be stored some place public that can be accessed by other computers.  That place is a physical computer (or more accurately, a network of computers) called a server which is owned by a web hosting company, also called a web service provider.  Website owners pay the hosting company for the data storage space and as well as the work of maintaining these servers so that the websites they store will continue to stay up and running.

Website server
The server that hosts your website might look something like this. Source: imgix via Unsplash.com

When you set up a new website with a hosting company, they are designating a certain amount of data storage space for you on their server.  Just as a computer with a bigger hard drive and more memory is more expensive, more data space on a server costs more money as well, so the more complex your website is, and the more website traffic you get, the more you will need to pay for hosting.  I pay around $200/month for hosting because I want to make sure my all of my websites can handle a large amount of traffic and still run blazing fast with no downtime, but a small business or blogger just starting out can reasonably expect to pay between $10-$20/month for reliable website hosting.

Related article: How to Choose a Hosting Company (and Why it Matters)

What is a domain name?

A web domain, also referred to as a “website address” or “URL” (which stands for “universal resource locator”) is really is just like an address for cyberspace: it tells a web browser (such as Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, or Firefox) which server to access in order to display the data for a a particular website.

But instead of being like a physical address, it’s really more like a mail forwarding address.  With a mail forwarding address, it doesn’t matter where in the world you go, all your mail will first arrive at the mail forwarding center and from there will be directed to wherever you happen to be located at the time (full time travelers especially find mail forwarding addresses to be useful).  The same is true of a domain name.  The owner of a domain name gets to decide where to direct the traffic that comes to that URL by “pointing the domain name” to whatever server is storing their website data (and if they decide to switch to a different hosing company, they can do that by “migrating” their website, a service offered by hosting companies, and pointing their domain name to the new server).

You can buy a domain name from a domain registrar such as GoDaddy.com or NameCheap.com.  Most hosting companies (explained in the next section) will let you purchase and register a domain name through them, but if you end up owning several domain names, it’s nice to be able to manage them all in once place without having to remember which hosting company you bought them through.  Domain names are quite cheap – usually about $10/year, and often even cheaper the first year you own them.

Related article: How to Choose & Buy a Domain Name

How is a website built?

Creating a website is like buying a piece of land. Once you have bought some space (hosting), then you can start building. There are many ways to do that, but if you don’t know how to (or don’t want to) code a website from scratch, the best way to do that is to use a web development platform or a web publishing platform.

One of the most commonly used web development platforms is WordPress. WordPress is a free software offered by an organization called WordPress.org that you can install on your website (usually your hosting company will do this for you for free) which allows you, with the click of a mouse on a button that says “install”, to add code other people have already written to create the look and feel of your website (called “installing a theme”). It also lets you edit your website by clicking buttons and typing in English (instead of writing custom code) so you can easily make changes to your website without having to hire a web developer.

Hosted vs. Self-hosted web development platforms

A website you set up yourself using the free WordPress software and have hosted by the company of your choice is called a self-hosted website.

Though WordPress is an excellent tool and is widely recognized to be the best choice for most bloggers and small business owners, there is a learning curve to it. Most people can become comfortable enough managing it with regular use, but some people with little to no experience with technology whose website needs are very basic may not want to have to learn a new technology just to be able to have a simple website, in which case they may instead choose to create a website using a website builder such as Wix.com, Weebly.com, or Squarespace.com​.

If buying hosting and using the free WordPress software to set up a website is like buying land and building a house, building a website using Wix, Weebly, Squarespace, or a similar service is like renting an apartment.  To save you the hassle, these companies already built a variety of website templates, and they will let you customize one of their websites to use as your own, hosted on their server, if you pay them a monthly fee (or let them put ads on it so they can make money that way).  A website built using one of these services is called a hosted website.

Related article: Which Website Publishing Software Should You Choose to Build Your Website?

How to get started

Ready to get a website?  Sign up for my free email series using the contact form below and I’ll walk you through…

  • Deciding which web platform is right for you
  • Choosing and buying a domain name
  • Choosing a hosting company and setting up hosting
  • Picking a theme for your website
  • How to start setting up your website