What are websites and do you need one?

A website (web site, site) is a set of related pages containing content in the form of any or all of the following – text, images, video & audio.

HTML & PHP

The source pages are documents written in a mixture of plain text interspersed with code – formatting instructions using a programming language such as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and PHP programming language (PHP orginally stood for Personal Home Page language but as the language developed, the abbreviation came to stand for PHP Hypertext Preprocessor).

URL

To be accessible to others on the internet, a website is hosted on at least one server (a specialized powerful computer) somewhere in the world and is identified by a unique address, called a URL (Uniform Resource Locator).  All such websites collectively make up the World Wide Web (www).

HTTP & FTP

Information from a webpage on the internet is displayed on a single computer by means of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and that is why http:// appears at the beginning of the address when are online. The https you often see just means a secure server connection. There are other protocols use as well, a very common one being ftp (File Transfer Protocol) which as the name implies, is for transferring files direct from one server to another.

Hyperlinks, Links and Hypertext

A hyperlink (commonly just called a link) is a reference to data that the reader can directly follow when clicked (or double clicked) upon. A hyperlink can point to a different web address, a specific page on another website or it can refer to another page, paragraph or any specific element within the same page or site. Hypertext is just text with hyperlinks.

Browser

A browser, or web browser is the program (software) that has to be loaded on a personal computer, laptop, tablet, smart phone etc to enable a user to access the internet. There are many, many different browsers, some of  the most popular for PC users are Firefox,  Internet  Explorer, Google Chrome, Safari and Opera. 

www or not in front of the domain name

There are different opinions about whether you should use the www prefix when advertising your website. For searching purposes, it doesn't usually matter; search engines operate fairly intelligently about this and both forms will nearly always return the same result (but not always; there are rare exceptions).

However, for web ranking purposes, search engines such as Google, Bing etc see the two forms as being two distinct web addresses with separate statistics so this may mean that the total hits on your website are divided between the two forms and could reduce your ranking; (this was true at time of writing, but may become irrelevant as search software evolves.)

Website Types by Function

The purpose or use for any website needs to be decided upon before constructions starts as that will decide the structure & design that is needed.

Purpose Types

Personal Websites

In the past, families would often have a personal website to display family photos, update relatives and friends about their families activities etc, but with the popularity of Facebook  and its easy to use interface, this has become less common.

However, some people still use a personal website to display their personal information, such as a resume to attract potential employers or contractors.

Many internet service providers (ISP) include some hosting space that would let you create a small personal website for free as part of the service they provide. It can also be used for a very small business site, by pointing a business domain to this free space.

Informational Websites

These are some of the easiest to maintain as much of the information doesn't change very much, just is updated on an as needs basis. An example is the online encyclopedia called wikipedia.com and the science/ "how-to" site www.howstuffworks.com

Businesses often have an Informational Website to advertise themselves known to the public although they are not trying to sell a product online. Such a site can be expanded if and when the need arises. For example, if a business has just started up and it does have a product to sell, but is not yet ready to deal with online orders, they might start with an informational website and then as their business develops, expand the site to be an online shop, i.e. an e-commerce site with a content management system on the back-end.

E-Commerce Websites

An e-commerce site, as the name suggests, is an online shop or auction. There are two parts to a site of this kind, the customer attention-getting area and the product checkout process, often called the shopping cart.

Although it is essential that the checkout process goes smoothly, the most important area is the customer "eye-catcher" area as without any customers, it doesn't matter how good the shopping cart is, does it?  So you front page has to focussed on attracting customers, telling them what problems they have and how your product can solve them – this is called focussing on the benefits. Of course, you need to tell customers all the features of your product(s) as well, but this can be done further down or on another (linked) page.

Blog Websites

Blog is derived from Web Log and a blog is designed to allow people to make posts (write articles) on a topic which is then categorized and entries are shown on the web page in chronological order, latest at the top. There are many free blogging platforms out the there, such as blogger.com and wordpress.com – these are complete web-building solutions as the site is built and hosted by the provider. Similar options available for publishing free websites are Hub Pages and Squidoo Lenses.

Blogging started out as a platform for people to voice their opinion about things and, along with forums, as a meeting place for people with common interests. However, because of the ease with which a website could be built on a blogging platform, they were soon being used for all kinds of websites.

WordPress developed independent software with many more configuration options and this is located at wordpress.org. This wordpress software is still free to download, but must be hosted on a user's own hosting, so although this is not a free choice for a website, it is still a very economic one and easy option for those wishing to build their own site.

One of the most popular features of WordPress (WP) is the built-in content management system, making it a good choice for businesses wishing to have interaction with others, whether for sales, discussion, training, memberships or other uses. The design of a wordpress site is changed with themes and the functionality extended by adding plug-ins.

There are thousands of free themes and plug-ins available but making new themes and plugins to enhance the system even more has become an thriving industry. WordPress sites do not have to use the blog format for their pages anymore; they can chose a static page in many different formats.

Social & File sharing Websites

Included in this category are sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn,  Pinterest, Digg, StumbleUpon where people have a profile and gather friends or followers and file-sharing sites like YouTube, Flickr, Picasa & Shutterfly.  These sites are high maintenance as you need to keep interacting and adding new information if you want to attract visitors. Their advantage is that they are high traffic places and of course, people are finding new ways to take advantage of this feature for marketing purposes.

Mobile Device Websites (Smartphones & Tablets)

Modern Smart Phones typically include touchscreens and web browsers with high speed data access via Wi-Fi and mobile broadband.

Because of their smaller screen size, most traditional web pages require scrolling horizontally for mobile users to see all the content, so several approaches have been adopted to address this:

  1. Special mobile websites are made with narrower pages than on regular websites; these are hosted on another domain, usually with a .mobi extension.
  2. These narrower pages can reside on the same domain as the regular site, but a plugin or script is installed that detects whether it is a mobile device accessing the page. When this is the case, the site will automatically present the appropriate page for a mobile device.
  3. New sites are also being built with suitably sized content that automatically scales to the accessing device and is big enough to read on the smaller screens.

A Tablet computer (or just Tablet) is quite a bit larger than a phone, weighs around 1-2 kg and usually has a touchscreen interface rather than a physical keyboard. The latest models include wireless internet browsing functions, potential cell phone functions, GPS navigation, still and video camera functions as well as most PC computer capabilities.

Website Types by Design

There are basically two main types of websites – static and dynamic.

A static website is the simplest form of website; all the site's content is delivered without needing to access another server to deliver the content (server side processing). These sites are mainly utilized for information/brochure type sites. They can include complex graphics and animations, but these are usually Javascript driven directly on the page.

Disadvantages of static sites are that the display of pages can be affected by different browser use and changes to content have to be made on each individual page even when they are global changes.

However, when they suit the owner's requirements, they load more quickly than dynamic sites although this depends on the processing speed of the user's computer.  Other advantages are that static sites are more secure as no information is sent from the browser and they can be easily coded for good search engine optimization.

A dynamic website is used when database functions or advanced user interactivity is needed. The speed of interaction is limited by the processing speed of the host server, but once the program code has been downloaded, response to interaction can be very fast. Another plus is that dynamic sites are not particularly affected by different browser use.

Examples of the type of site where a dynamic website is needed:

  • Database driven sites; when the database information changes, the information on the website changes e.g. online banking
  • Archives, products for sale, catalogs, photo albums and other lists where the user would want to search and/or sort the data
  • When the website owner wants to restrict access to certain areas of the site, such as for paid training or membership sites
  • Search engine such as Google, Bing & Yahoo! that are gateways to other sites
  • Your website data is manage by a number of people
  • You have a lot of web pages and a lot of data
  • You want website users to be able to upload content to your site, e.g for surveys, comments or feedback

Here are some fun dynamic educational sites for kids (of any age!)
Kidsknowit.com
Nasa – students grades K-4 – how do planes fly
Nasa Do-it-Yourself Podcast
Fun Brain
Science Kids

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