The Secret Language of the Internet

Between working as a web developer, being married to an IT guy and mentoring hundreds of people through creating their first website, I’ve noticed that one of the biggest barriers to communication is a lack of shared understanding around what I’m going to call (for the purposes of this post) internet architecture.

This is not a problem just between DIY website makers and tech people, but something I see over and over again within and between organisations, when communicating with other service providers, and even when talking to other web designers.

As someone who is a relative newcomer to the industry and deals with lots of people at both ends of the tech-spectrum, I thought I would share what I’ve learned and observed in the hope that it helps someone else!

The Glossary

I thought I would start by listing some of the terms that pop up a lot and aren’t particularly well understood. Some of these concepts are more complex to get your head around than others, so I’ve tried to gradually expand on them below! Some of the explanations have been borrowed from a tutorial I wrote for She Codes that you can find in full here. I find analogies really helpful so you’ll see a lot of them in the next few paragraphs!

Domain Names

We all have a name that people typically use to identify us, but we also have other methods that are just as (or even more) effective, like a tax file or Medicare number. Some of us also have more than one name. In different cultures, names will follow different typical formats – like putting your family name first in many parts of Asia, or using both of your parents’ family names in Brazil.

Websites are similar to people in that they use (usually) memorable and human-readable names for identification, and tend to vary slightly in different parts of the world. Where they differ significantly however is that while two humans can have the same name, website names are governed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Some examples of domain names include:

  • jominney.com
  • gmail.com
  • shecodes.com.au
  • witwa.org.au
  • who.int
  • wikipedia.org
  • health.gov.au

You’ll notice that while they vary in length and format, all of these examples (and in fact every domain name that exists) follow certain rules and consist of a few key components. Like human names, it is also possible to guess some background about the owner of the domain name for some of them!

The TLD

TLD is an acronym for Top Level Domain, and refers to the part of a domain after the last dot. I say last dot because some domain names will have more than one, like those above ending in “.au.” Some domains, like Google or Facebook, use what is known as Generic TLDs – the most common of which is of course the ubiquitous “.com” that we are all familiar with. Most countries have their own country-code TLD, like “.au” for Australia, “.nz” for New Zealand or “.ph” for the Philippines. For the most part, usage of these country-code TLDs is governed by the country itself. Country codes are often combined with generic TLDs like “.com” or “.gov” to give us variations such as “.com.au” – the preferred option for Australian businesses.

The Domain “Trunk”

Trunk is not a technical term, I’ve just used it to make it clear which bit I’m talking about! This is the part that is unique to your website, especially when combined with your TLD(s). if our TLD is like our family name, the domain trunk is like our given name. So for She Codes it would be “shecodes” and for the World Health Organization it would be “who.”

There are a few rules around what you can and can’t use, such as:

  • No spaces
  • Case insensitive
  • contain only letters (a-z), numbers (0-9) and hyphens (-), or a combination of these*

*Internationalised domain names have recently been introduced by ICANN which permit the use of non-Latin characters such as the Cyrillic alphabet. For most of us here in Australia we’re still governed by the AUDA though, and you can read their specific guidelines here.

In general you want your domain name to be memorable, readable and relevant. Don’t be those parents who name their kid Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116. Just don’t.

Before the Trunk

For many people it is still common practise to use “www” before the main part of a domain. Nowadays it is best practise to ensure a site works both with and without the www prefix, and while there are still some good reasons to include it if you’ve set your site up properly you can leave it off when typing in your URL and it will work fine!

Subdomains

While “www” is the most common thing to see before the main trunk of the domain, it is by no means the only option. You can create what is known as a subdomain quite easily, and use it for a completely separate purpose to your primary domain.

This is easier to understand with an example, so why don’t we look at one!

She Codes is an organisation aimed at inspiring more women to pursue tech careers. If you haven’t checked them out you should – and you can find their main website here:

shecodes.com.au

One way She Codes helps pursue their mission is by running regular free introductory level workshops in a range of coding languages and platforms. These workshops use a bunch of tutorials that have been created and maintained by their community of mentors and volunteers. Rather than try and manage this directly on the website, they chose instead to host these tutorials on a subdomain:

tutorials.shecodes.com.au

A big benefit of a subdomain is that there is no need to register this new domain – because it is (as the name implies) a subdomain of your primary domain. It also helps with brand consistency and provides lots of other benefits. To create subdomains you will need to create some extra DNS records which we’ll dive into soon.

Domain Name Tips

Here are some common questions and mistakes I regularly come across, in no particular order!

1. Physical snail mail about domain names

Burn it. Chuck it in the bin. Make origami. But don’t worry about it and DEFINITELY don’t give them your money – these are scams, albeit technically legal. You can register your domain with any accredited registrar, as long as it’s available.

2. Domain name “ownership”

OK, technically nobody really owns a domain, but we can gain exclusive use of them through something akin to a lease arrangement. Some domains (like .com.au and .org.au) have specific eligibility criteria and others (like .com) can be registered by anyone. We always recommend that you register your own domain, rather than having someone else do it for you – even if you’ve paid them to do it. It’s important that you are listed as the registrant and that if it is a .com.au it is linked to the appropriate ABN.

3. Choosing a Registrar

Our go-to is Ventra IP because they’re an accredited Australian registrar with competitive pricing and great support. Most people are looking for both domains and hosting, and it is often easier to purchase both together but you definitely don’t have to! Domain name registration typically costs less than $20 AUD per year, and you can often get them much cheaper.

4. Avoiding (most) upsells

Do your research and avoid paying for stuff you don’t need. Services such as hosting and email should not be confused with domain registration.

5. Choosing a TLD

Which domain name TLD you register will depend mainly on two things:

  1. Audience
  2. Eligibility

Would you trust an article more on health.gov.au or health.blog?

If your audience is global, you’re probably best off with a generic TLD like .com or .org. If they’re mostly local, a country-code domain like .com.au is probably a better choice. Keep in mind you will need an ABN to register a .com.au (commercial) or a document such as a certificate of incorporation for .org.au domains.

DNS

DNS stands for Domain Name System – and its purpose is to help users find their way around the internet. Every computer on the Internet has a unique address known as an IP address. It’s a long and rather complicated jumble of numbers that is fairly hard to remember. Imagine if instead of typing “Facebook.com” into a browser we had to remember a string of numbers like 69.63.184.142 – bonkers, right? It would be like referring to our friends by their Medicare number instead of their names.

DNS records are used to tell the Domain Name System “use this nice readable domain name to represent this IP address.” They’re basically a set of instructions to help us successfully interact with a specific domain.

There are a few essential DNS records that allow users to access a website using a domain name, and a number of additional optional records that can be used for other purposes.

One way of thinking about a set of DNS records for a domain is to look at it a bit like a social media or dating profile – your listing includes a bunch of useful information about you such as location, hobbies and preferences.

The most common types of DNS records are:

  • The A record which holds the IP address of a domain
  • CNAME records, which are used to forward one domain or subdomain to another (eg. www.jominney.com to jominney.com)
  • MX records, which tell the rest of the internet where emails to you should go so that you can receive email.

Some common DNS Questions

Let me preface this my saying that I am still mildly terrified by DNS records and I am by no means an expert. I generally defer to the wisdom of the team at IT House for anything remotely complex and a lot of the explanations and tips I am providing are thanks to them! Mistakes are all mine though 😉

1. Where do DNS records get added?

In technical terms, DNS records live on authoritative DNS servers and are replicated across the internet. When you register your domain name you will generally delegate (point) your domain name somewhere by adding a set of nameservers.

If you purchase your domain and website hosting together (eg. Through a company such as GoDaddy or VentraIP) the delegation may be done automatically – in which case you’ll most likely add DNS records in your hosting provider’s interface by logging in to your account. If you haven’t purchased hosting (maybe you’re not ready, or a developer will be taking care of that for you) you have a few options, but our preference and recommendation is to take advantage of Cloudflare’s free DNS hosting. You can find instructions on how to set up a free Cloudflare account and delegate your nameservers to it here.

2. Who is responsible for my DNS management?

This is a loaded question with many opinions. Lots can go wrong if you do something silly when editing a DNS record, like forget a full-stop. Different DNS hosts may also use different syntax (rules for how they should be written) so it’s generally best to leave it to the professionals if you can! So who are the professionals?

In an ideal world, the only person changing DNS records would be your IT support provider – but not everyone has one of these. I’m lucky to have the amazing team at IT House to lean on and they manage all the DNS records for my clients.

We like to help our clients set up a free Cloudflare account for DNS management, then point an A record (the main website one) from there to your website hosting server. It’s easy to share access to your Cloudflare account with other parties if required (like your IT person).

3. Is DNS hosting and Website Hosting the same?

No! Domain name registration, DNS hosting and web hosting can all be with different providers (and often are).

Nameservers

When you register a domain you don’t automatically have a website, email, or any of the other cool stuff. You’ll need to organise (and usually pay for) these services separately once you have secured the domain name you want to use.

To make these things happen you’ll need to add DNS records as mentioned above. To enable you to do this, you’ll need to first delegate (a fancy word for “point to”) your domain to your selected DNS server. This might be the same place you plan to host your website, but doesn’t have to be. You will need to add at least two nameservers and they will look something like this:

  • dns1.nameservernetwork.com
  • dns2.nameservernetwork.com

Or this:

  • ns1.syd6.hostingplatform.net.au
  • ns2.syd6.hostingplatform.net.au

Or this:

  • curt.ns.cloudflare.com
  • ivy.ns.cloudflare.com

Basically your nameservers tell users on the internet “This is where you can find the instructions on how to domain.”

Hosting

Registering a domain name is kind of like purchasing a block of land. Technically you have a street address, but without a post box or building you won’t be able to receive letters or packages.

The two main things you will want to do at your domain are likely:

  1. Display a website
  2. Send and receive email.

Simply pointing your nameservers somewhere won’t automatically give you either of these things, because they require you to purchase and set up the necessary services in order to work.

Specifically, if you want a website you will need to invest in some form of website hosting. Basically you will be ‘renting’ the use of space on a server – which is a fancy name for a big computer that stores your website’s component files and any required software to make it work, such as WordPress.

Here’s what you need to know about hosting in a nutshell…

1. Hosting by itself is pretty affordable but not all hosts are created equal!

If you are Australian based, our recommendation is usually Ventra IP. Nope, I’m not an affiliate and yes, I do recommend them a lot. Here’s why:

  • They are big enough that they’re not going to quietly disappear anytime soon
  • They’re not owned by one of the conglomerates that own the majority of major hosting companies
  • They offer 24/7 Australian-based support
  • Their *main* servers are based in Australia (so sites will load faster for Aussie audiences)
  • They’re competitive
  • They don’t *unnecessarily* upsell – because stuff that you need is already included (like SSL certificates)
  • They use industry standard server software (cPanel) which is easy to Google ‘how to do’ stuff on and familiar to the majority of developers
  • They have cool dinosaur mascots
  • They sponsor lots of non-profits I’m passionate about, including She Codes, WiTWA and all of the charities that participated in our Do_Action() Hackathon a few years back
  • They support the Aussie WordPress community, by participating in and sponsoring meetups and WordCamps.

They’re certainly not the only hosts in this category and if you want to shop around, Conetix also ticks a lot of those boxes. At minimum, make sure that your hosting includes free SSL (security) certificates, and that you choose a company with great support (ideally over the phone from someone that speaks your lingo).

2. Hosting vs. Managed Hosting

Ventra’s basic hosting starts at around $5/month for your first year. That’s REALLY cheap but keep in mind that you will have other expenses, whether they are monetary or the value of your time. Some premium hosting companies, like WPEngine, offer a “managed hosting” service that includes lots of goodies like 1-click staging environments, a free CDN, additional security features and disaster recovery support. If you want to self-manage and are time-poor but have a little more budget to play with (especially if you have something like a global eCommerce business) this is a great option and well worth the investment. If you’re going to explore this route, WPEngine are pretty much the gold standard!

3. Fully managed websites

Most of our clients hire us because they’re not interested at all in DIY and would prefer someone to take care of everything for them. Lots of developers offer some form of care plan, but it’s important to make sure that they’re not just selling you really expensive hosting! You can see what our plans include here.

I think of this more like an insurance plan for your website because we essentially take on the risks and costs associated with using WordPress. We provide licenses for premium themes/plugins (as long as they meet our standards) and include a bunch of other stuff like backups, monitoring, and optimisation tools. We also take on the responsibility of making sure you don’t get hacked, and fixing it if you do.

What we offer isn’t cheap (starting at $99/month) but it is really good value for what is included!

What now?

That’s it from me but please hit me up on LinkedIn or Twitter if you have questions or suggestions! As a parting gift here is a diagram I made using one of my favourite tools – Miro – to help explain how some of these bits and pieces fit together. I hope you find it useful and please attribute this post if you would like to share elsewhere.

View the original on Miro:
https://miro.com/app/board/o9J_l2O0aOg=/?moveToViewport=-606,-590,1225,618

If you are crazy enough to want to hear more, you can subscribe to my blog here!