Websites – This is how they work

Most people don’t know what is actually  going on when they visit a website. They don’t care to know. But when it comes to running your own site it is important to understand the mechanics of how it works.
It starts by getting over the commonly used word “visit” a website. It is an unfortunate use of words because it masks the reality of what is really happening.

For those of us that own or manage a website, we need to be very aware of the actual process. 

So what actually happens. 

In the same way that we watched a concert on TV, we did not actually go to the concert.
It came to us on our TV screen. Our TV whether cable, satellite or via antenna, picked up a “signal” that contained all the digital data to display the concert. As motion occurs, parts of the screen refresh and change.

We all use web browsers in a similar way to TV channels. Sure its a loose comparison but it works.

We download a batch of digital files. Then our  browser builds a representation of a website on our computer screen. We generally mistake the complexity of what a web browser does and take it for granted.

Our website is not a moviehouse or cinema playing our latest smash hit. It is really just a file server. There is no visual representation of our website until someone loads those files in a web browser on their computer or device.

Now we have two pieces of technology communicating with each other. The files on our hosting server, and someone’s device or computer. The Web Browser negotiates that communication.

This is all about software. Our computer operating system is software. Our web browser is software. Our website is software. 

Our computer has an operating system, for many people that is Windows. It is installed in the base directory of our system and runs all our interactions seamlessly in the background. For the most part we don’t see the tens of thousands of files  that make it run, just the end result of those files running.  

The same it true of a web browser, There is a lot more going on in the background than we see.

As you may have guessed our website is the same. It has software to organise and manage all the content and files that make up the site. In this instance we are talking about WordPress. It is whats known as a CMS (Content Management System). Like Windows, it knows where all the files are. All the pictures, all the documents, all the content that is either displayed on the site or applications like email forms that function on the site. WordPress lives in a folder on your hosting companies server.

What does it look like?

If you are on Windows computer – click the start menu and select File manager. A screen opens with a list of files and folders. Some are content like documents, some are programs, some are archives etc. All of those things make up your experience on your computer. Some of them are the Windows applications that use or manage the content in the other folders.

Below is an image showing the WordPress software package files and folders. These live on your Hosting company Server.

WordPress 5.4.2
WordPress 5.4.2

Just a bunch of folders and files. Yet this is the software that makes your site live. One thing that is not visible here is the “Database”. When WordPress is inslled in your webspace on your Hosting server, it creates a database. This is where all your changed settings and data are stored. WordPress draws on that data as required. It takes care of maintaining that.

When somebody on the web types in your website address or clicks a link to it, their browser takes the digital signature of that web address and locates the hosting server that stores your website. The hosting server directs that request to your where your website folders are located.

WordPress receives the request and delivers the required files and data to their web browser. Their web browser then assembles those files to create a visual representation of your website in their device or computer. As they click buttons, page links or menu items on that representation in their browser, WordPress receives those clicks as requests and supplies the requested page or information.

What are the steps of a web page being displayed?

  1. A request is made when a link is clicked.
  2. The page and its resources (files) are downloaded.
  3. The web browser uses the page resources to build the page.
  4. The page then is rendered (displayed) to the user.

Just so you can start to get your head around it.

The first contact between browser and website negotiates some basic communication protocols.
Next the website sends a roadmap, wireframe for the site.
Each component area has packages of information available to paint out that void.
The browser downloads each package to build the visual representation. (First Paint)

Sorry if this was tedious reading but you need to know these things at least once when you start. Then as questions come up, you will remember what you read here and it will make better sense.

It helps to see this written down, as many tutorials touch on these elements but overlook their readers level of knowledge. They often assume everybody knows these things. Truth is they don’t. Its all “Black Magic” that they trust works because they never had it explained properly.

You don’t need to spend days researching each of these elements before you start a website. But a basic understanding helps direct you to the areas critical areas when something is not working as you expected. As you move along with your website creation and build, you will gather more knowledge. You will also learn the jargon or geekspeak that can often be confusing.

The “Gap” between where we are, and where we want to be, is always Knowledge. Find the right knowledge – we fill the gap – then we are on the road to achieve our goals.



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Hi, I'm Brendan Ryan. Welcome here. I build, maintain and troubleshoot WordPress based websites for myself and my customers. I regularly help out by psting splutions in beginners forums on Facebook and the like. I hope the posts here demystify some of the process that make a website. I am happy to help if you require assistance. Small things I am happy to guide you. For larger things my rates are reasonable and my service is prompt. Contact me in the form below if you need more information or help. Enjoy your visit. Get me on Facebook Messenger:-

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