I commonly work with clients who are unaware of how the internet and World Wide Web function, despite using it every day. Similarly, most of us turn a key in our cars at least once a day and do not know what goes on there either! Because I’m often repeatedly explaining things about domains and websites and IP addresses and such to my clients, I figured I’d put all of this information into an explanatory blog post. And as I prefer to do — and because they typically make things easier to understand — I’ve put it into a metaphor or analogy.
Coming up with an airtight analogy for explaining websites and their place in the world of the internet is difficult and I’m not sure I know of anyone who’s written on this subject using this comparison. But as far as I can surmise, it’s a pretty perfect analogy (at least, in my brain and at this point in time it is!) so let’s see if I can cover everything and keep things simple and easy for you to understand.
Your Website = Mobile Home
The first step in this analogy is to consider your website to be a mobile home. I don’t mean an RV or trailer. Rather, I’m referring to a house where you might live permanently that is normally transported to one location and left there for a significant time. Most often, it is parked on a lot in “mobile home park” that is exclusive to this purpose. While a mobile home is typically dropped and left in one place forever, it can be picked up and moved. So, if the landlord raises the price of the rent for your space or you tire of your neighbours or the view, you can always move it somewhere else.
Your home is filled with furniture and stuff and we can draw a parallel between that and the content (photos, graphics, videos, words) that are on your website.
Although it’s unusual, you’ll have to give your mobile home a name. It’s important in the analogy to do this. Also know that you’ve had to register that name with a central authority, so nobody else in the world can have a home with the same name.
Your mobile home is going to be in a mobile home park where each lot has a street address. Strangely, in this park it’s possible that groups of mobile homes are on single lots. No, the landlord isn’t greedy, just practical! Because of this, it’s important that your home has a name. Visitors to your home are going to not only need to know your address but also the name of your home. Fortunately, you’ve conveniently put it on a sign that sits on the (tiny) front lawn of your part of the lot. All home names are unique — not only in your park but in the entire world.
Domain Name = Mobile Home Name
Your domain name is analogous to the name you’ve registered and given to your mobile home. That is “bobsdonuts.ca” or “mrfixit.com.” Only one person or entity can rent a domain name and while some might be similar (e.g. mcdonalds.com and mcdonalds.ca), they are all unique.
Note that I indicated that you rent a domain name. That implies that, if you don’t pay your rent you don’t get to use it anymore — and that is totally true. There are dozens of stories over the past decades of large, multinational companies forgetting to renew their domain name registrations and having them get snapped up by someone else!
Domain name registrars handle domain name registrations and there are literally thousands of them, all functioning as virtual businesses on the internet. A typical domain name registration costs $15-20 per year, and it’s possible to purchase up to five years of registration at one time.
The characters that come after the dot in a domain name are called the TLD (top-level domain) and there are currently hundreds of TLDs in use these days, mainly referring to the countries of origin of the domain. Just because you’ve registered joeblow.us doesn’t mean that you’ve automatically got control of joeblow.ca or joeblow.net. Each version needs a separate “rental contract” (registration) from a domain registrar and different people or companies can own similarly named domains.
Website Hosting = Renting Your Lot
The registration of a domain name gives you the legal right to a name for your website, but your website — which is really just a bunch of computer files — doesn’t actually exist until it’s got a place to live on the hard drive of a web server. That’s why you need a website host. For somewhere typically between $5 and $50 per month a website hosting company will allow you to place your website files on one of their computers. A website host is analogous to the company that owns the land in the mobile home park where you’ve parked your house.
As a general rule of thumb, the cost of website hosting is proportional to the amount of space the mobile home park has given to you and your home. As I mentioned before, envision your house being potentially on a single lot with perhaps dozens of others! In this situation, not only are you sharing the physical space, but you’re also sharing all the utilities that are coming onto the lot. So, your electricity, water, and gas are all being shared — sometimes not as fairly as you’d like — between you and all the other cohabitants of your lot! In simple terms, that’s why the cost of website hosting can change so drastically; it all depends on who you’re sharing with and the quantity of those utilities you need to have your home run properly!
IP Address = Street Address
The “Internet Protocol” address is expressed as NNN.NNN.NNN.NNN where ‘N’ is simply a single number. Every computer on the internet needs a unique IP address and, commonly, several computers need to share an IP address on a web server.
This analogy holds because it’s a similar to the address that the mobile home park has given to the lot where your house — and potentially dozens of others — is situated.
Website Maintenance = House Maintenance
If the contents of your mobile home are analogous to the content of your website, then you’ll be constantly acquiring and disposing of those contents. Clothes, food, appliances, and other things in your mobile home regularly need replacing. And some of those things — like the appliances — occasionally need cleaning and upgrading.
Similarly, your website has an operating system consisting of several interrelated software programs that, likewise, need the occasional update or upgrade. Website maintenance happens for two reasons: It keeps your website running smoothly and quickly; and it prevents security breaches.
The Steps to Having a Live and Functioning Website
Based on my analogy, here are the steps required to getting a website up and running on the internet:
- You register one or more domain names (mobile home names) with a domain registrar company. This is the key first step, and I’d recommend keeping your domain name as succinct as possible, yet somewhat descriptive — just like a good brand name. If your brand is “Ace Computing” and you’re in Canada and you’ve chosen acecomputing.ca as your domain name (assuming it’s available), you might also consider registering the .com, .net, and perhaps other related TLDs in order to protect your brand. While I can do this domain registration task for you, it’s infinitely preferable for you to do this task because then you — and only you — possess and control this very dear and cherished asset.
- I design and build your website. Commonly I do this at a place on the internet where nobody but you and I can find and see your in-process website being constructed.
- Prior to the completion and go-live date of your website, you determine who your website’s host is going to be. (Remember that’s like finding a good mobile home park and contracting to rent a lot on it.) I lease space on internet servers for this purpose and can provide excellent service for a fair price. You are welcome to get hosting anywhere, but it must be capable of hosting the type of website I’m making for you.
- You provide me with the credentials (username and password) of your hosting account, if you’ve gone elsewhere for that. I need to get into that account to copy your new website from where I’ve developed it to where the world is going to view it. Your website host will provide you with an IP address. That’s the unique internet address where your website (and probably some others) will live.
- You provide me with the credentials for your domain registration account. I go in and fiddle with them and I point them to your host’s IP address (mobile home park address). This is called “configuring your DNS” where that acronym stands for Domain Network Service. Once done, it can take up to a day for the entire world to know your DNS configuration has changed. Once this information has propagated, someone typing “reallybigreptiles.ca” into their browser will be automatically sent to IP address 123.456.789.012 which is where your website currently resides.
- If you want, I configure DNS to automatically send someone on the internet going to reallybigreptiles.com to be automatically forwarded to reallybigreptiles.ca — assuming you currently own both domain names.
Transferring a Domain
It is possible to transfer a domain from one registrar to another. This is most commonly done because the current registrar has lousy service or is overcharging. In my analogy, it’s like changing the authority that handled granting you exclusive use of your mobile home’s unique name.
On at least two occasions I have watched my client go through hell because they allowed someone else (typically the person who previously built their website) to register their domain name. Now that you’re “moving on” and using someone else for your new website, it’s not uncommon for the current domain owner to hold the justified owner hostage at this stage because one cannot transfer a domain without being able to access the domain registrar’s account!
Once the domain account is accessed, there is typically a method for indicating the desired transfer of a domain. Sometimes this requires a phone call. Once achieved, they provide a very long alphanumeric code. When this code is given to the new registrar along with the domain name, the transfer may proceed.
I can handle all of this for you, but obviously I need to know your credentials from both the current and intended domain registrars’ accounts.
Note: This process can take anywhere from a week to three weeks to accomplish. Registrars can drag their heels and don’t want normally want to give up on a nice and easy recurring income stream.
Recall that this is analogous to having your mobile home picked up and transported to a new lot in another mobile home park. Your home’s name is going to stay the same, but the address where it’s parked is going to change and the internet world needs to know where that is.
Transferring the hosting of a website is easier than transferring registration because all I need to know are the credentials to get into your domain registration. Once in, I change the DNS to no longer point to your lot on the old mobile home park, but now your lovely, well-groomed lot at the nicer park!