What Websites Do

By Brock Atkinson in Digital

Since the first website went online in 1991, the internet has proliferated to such a level where it has been absorbed into nearly every single industry across Earth. At the time of writing this article, there are more than a billion individual web sites being queried several billion times every single day, spanning some trillions of individual pages.

The worldwide web could be considered much more expansive than any individual monumental achievement humans have created before because it is, in many ways, a conglomerate of everything we’ve ever done.

As the new developer for JAZ, I’d like to take the time to explain what exactly it is that I, and many others like me, do for a living–and more importantly, why we do it.

Websites…

are visual tools that achieve a desired result. Usually they are self-contained services that fundamentally revolve around the goals implied in its name.

Some examples

  • facebook.com is the destination for anyone that wants to look at faces in a book
  • dropbox.com is a virtual drive that synchronizes across multiple machines
  • soundcloud.com allows artists to share their music through an online audio player that can also be embedded as a widget in other websites
  • kickstarter.com provides a platform for entrepreneurs to sell products before they’re built

I could continue, but the point is that domain names are probably a website’s most important asset, as they’re the initial—and sometimes only—contact with the outside world. First impressions matter; more so when a name is often literally the only thing that determines relevance and trust amongst its intended audience.

From a technical perspective, a website is simply special software running on a computer (known as a server) which responds to requests depending on a given URL (Uniform Resource Locator). When websites are “visited” by browsers, the client computer downloads a copy of every component – usually a combination of HyperText Markup Language (HTML, containing content and structure), Cascading Style Sheets (CSS, for visual design patterns), JavaScript (JS, real-time reactive logic) and resources (audio, fonts, icons, images, videos etc) – and renders the result locally in an interactive environment.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

The inventor of the world wide web: Sir Tim Berners-Lee | commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sir_Tim_Berners-Lee.jpg

After working with websites for several years, I came to realize that turning ideas into reality requires the combination of two interdependent, but equally important, fields: the ruthless, rigorous logic that defines the rules and protocols that computers utilize to operate consistently, and the softer, humanistic elements of shapes, colours, words, and meaning.

Without one, your website won’t work whatsoever

Without the other, your website will (theoretically) work, but it certainly won’t be very effective.

Live,

Whilst websites don’t draw breath, each can be considered as an organism with its own unique history, conception, desires and weaknesses. Like us all, they need love and care, without which they’ll inevitably whittle away into nothing – guaranteed.

Another aspect crucial to the success or failure of an online venture is attention; until something is noticed by others (whether found organically within search results or via word-of-mouth marketing), its existence is entirely irrelevant – in other words, a building that nobody ever enters is not considered a house.

Visitors are the lifeblood of every website, because they fulfill its primary purpose:

Speak,

The world's first www server

The world’s first web server, a NeXTcube | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:First_Web_Server.jpg

At its core, a website is a person talking to another person.

Even though the web is capable of high-level interactivity, images, audio and video, the most common reason people click links is because of the words contained within. This is because most time spent online is dedicated to either communication or education.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the first web server at CERN Switzerland, the goal was for file-sharing living documents. This became HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), as the very text itself was designed to be dynamic, capable of referencing other pages (a “hyperlink”).

The correct combination of words should be compelling, convincing, and informative. Copy writing is the hidden hero of every effective web page – quite often, it’s the difference between an enthusiastic, engaged audience versus an apathetic, indifferent few.

Perform,

Just like ordering food at a restaurant, particular processes must be performed to provide the desired results – even if you want something seemingly simple like scrambled eggs on toast, there is still a series of steps to get from the raw resources to the delicious cooked breakfast you ordered.

Although a chef could certainly “wing it”, there will end up being minor variations between meals – for restaurants that pride themselves in consistency across countries, this is unacceptable.

Likewise, web servers must prepare its ingredients for consumption – for instance, this very page dedicates processes to accessing common page elements (logo, menu, footer etc), and another couple for figuring out exactly what you want to see (depending on your URL).

It’s not uncommon for pages to undergo over a hundred separate tasks just to render text, although I have seen some pages that required running several hundred (especially dynamic sites such as social networks, which sometimes must gather data from various disparate regions before collating).

This aspect of websites is often referred to as either server-side or back-end programming.

React,

Good actors not only remember their lines, but are able to “think on their feet” and improvise if the situation arises.

Unfortunately, as computers do not (yet) have any inherent creativity, every possible reaction must be forethought and pre-planned. These processes are programmed in JavaScript by a front-end developer, and is executed on the client computer via code hooks commonly called event handlers.

As an example of this in action, in 2004 Google acquired a browser-based mapping software built by two brothers in Sydney. It was later re-branded and launched early 2005 as Google Maps, and was significant for the fact that you could grab and drag the page (which dynamically loaded new content without reloading), rather than the regular method of clicking an arrow which would direct you to another page.

Since then, if you’ve ever used a web application with instant messaging or live notifications (email clients, etc), you’ve used a function called XmlHttpRequest(), or colloquially AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML).

Not only does this method save user’s time, but it also saves the bandwidths of both clients and servers because you need not re-download common elements to see something different on the page. However, it does add somewhat significant time and costs to the development process.

Grow,

Because search engines are concerned with relevance, they usually give priority toward regularly- and recently-updated websites. As a result, the field of content marketing has exploded.

Activity breeds activity; we tend to be more willing to comment on popular posts – where we’ll more likely receive a response – than barely-read articles.

Unless aggressively pruned, websites will inevitably expand beyond their initial state. For most, this is exactly what you want – websites should grow. But this means you may have to upgrade your storage infrastructure, in the same way you had to buy a new everything multiple times while growing up.

Don’t worry, growing pains are normal – what’s worrying is when there’s no, or negative, growth.

Age,

Time touches all.

Decrepit, dilapidated, sluggish, and out of touch – any adjective you can use to describe humans can also apply to outdated websites.

When irregularly updated, references turn stale and elements can become depreciated. The world moves on, but it stays stagnant. Eventually, if they receive very little attention, someone stops paying the bills and the lights go out forever.

It happens to us all – but on the bright side, each generation will inevitably become better than the last.

Evolve,

As poorly-performing entities disappear, what remains tend to be more modern, profitable, and faster. Newer, leaner iterations rise out of the ashes, and the inexorable march of technology stops for no one.

Today, websites can implement offline access, near-native application functionality (notifications, mobile wrappers, local storage), high-performance 3d animations and games using gamepads, virtual reality, distributed data storage, p2p communication, and personalization. Just to name a few.

Evolution improves over time, and we’re only just getting started.

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2 responses to “What Websites Do”

  1. Mike Walter says:

    Thanks Brock, for an excellent explanation and reminder of the importance of our own websites. It has made me think about how often I visit our own website vs others. Answer not often enough.

  2. […] only a couple of core components are required for a fully functional website. When we explained what websites do, it included a brief discussion about how we require the combination of a correct technological […]

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