12 terms every new business owner should know when getting online
When someone accesses your company's web address, it kicks off a complex set of transactions that ends with your carefully crafted content displayed in their browser. But even before that can happen, yet another sequence of events has to occur for your site to be available in the first place. How does it all work? Here are some concepts you should familiarize yourself with before taking your business online.
What we know as "the web" has only officially existed since 1991, when the first web page was produced. The Internet that the web runs on was originally built in the late 1960's, and wasn't designed to understand web addresses—at least not the ones you're used to typing in.
Just as human beings live at postal addresses, computers on the Internet reach each other using IP addresses like 184.108.40.206, which live on web servers. Often, companies or individuals with websites don't want to manage this dialogue themselves, and will use a third party host to manage them instead (think of a hosting company as a block of apartments for web servers).
While programs on the Internet might understand IP addresses, they're hard for people to remember. Instead, the web has a human-friendly overlay atop the Internet to make everything more readable.
A domain for everyone
The web uses domain names like google.com that point to a computer at a certain IP address. A domain name is itself made up of two separate parts: a top-level domain (TLD) and a second-level domain. The top-level domain is the farthest to the right (.COM), and defines a broad neighborhood for that domain.
TLDs often represent countries (i.e., .US, and .CA), but they can also represent types of organization (.EDU for educational institutions and .ORG for nonprofits). For commercial organizations, .COM was initially used, but it's become increasingly generic. There are now hundreds of more descriptive TLDs like .PRO, .LGBT and even .SKI for the ski and snow sport industry.
To the immediate left of the "dot" is the second-level domain (e.g., "google") which is unique to each domain and typically provides even more information about the corresponding website. People and organizations have to register their domain, effectively staking their claim on the Internet's wild frontier. A domain name registrar provides this service; each registrar must be accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which oversees the whole thing.
When people register domains, they also provide their own information, so that the registrar knows who owns it. Many websites offer a free WHOIS lookup service that can reveal names, addresses and contact information for domain owners, although some owners now choose to pay the registrar an extra fee to keep this information private.
Getting from here to there
If your browser understands domain names and the Internet understands IP addresses, how do the two talk to each other? That's where the domain naming system (DNS) comes in. This is effectively a phone book that keeps a record of IP addresses and their associated domain names .
The DNS is a distributed network of computers, each of which holds records linking domain names to IP addresses. These computers are known as name servers, and will typically be operated by the same registrars that registered a domain name for a customer. The domain name record is known as an A record or host record. Name servers also hold records that help emails reach the right addresses. These are known as Mail eXchange (MX) records.
Putting it together
Your domain name forms the rightmost part of the address that you type into your browser. In full, this address is known as a uniform resource locator (URL), but what's all that extra stuff at the front—the "http://" or "https://" you see in front?
HTTP refers to the hypertext transfer protocol, which is the language that one computer uses when sending web pages to another. HTTP gives instructions to a web server. In addition to "show this web page," websites can also use it to redirect visitors from one URL to another. Think of it as the equivalent of a mail forwarding service for website owners. If you decide to change your company domain name, this can be a useful tool to ensure that visitors get to the right place.
You now know the moving parts that must work in concert to ensure that your material reaches a potential customer's browser. All you have to do is get started building your own web presence. First, you must choose a domain name, which involves creating a shortlist of likely candidates and then searching to ensure that your chosen ones are free. Next, register the site with a domain registrar, and then find a suitable hosting company. In many cases, the domain registrar will also be able to host the site for you.
Finally, you'll have to build the site, which is an entire project in itself. But that's for another time. For now, happy domain hunting!