How The Web Works For Aspiring Developers (Part I: URLs)

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Originally published on https://frontendjoy.com/blog/how-the-web-works-for-aspiring-developers-part-one-urls

Aria Tea sighs.

She has been browsing for 4 hours, trying to understand how the Web works. She only found challenging, dull, or outdated content.

Are there only useless articles out there? Or worse, what if she needed a CS degree?

Slowly she loses her optimism 😢. Perhaps, she should renounce her dream to become a Web developer...

Does this feel familiar? Are you also a fresh developer with no clue how the Internet works despite many trials?

If so, keep reading.

In this series of articles, you'll learn :

  • What happens when you visit a Website
  • How the Internet works, and the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWB)
  • What your role is as a Web Developer
  • [Bonus] How to create your website and make it available online 🙂

sad girl learning how the web works

12:00 PM: it is break time, and you need to check Twitter. You go to your favorite browser (ex: Chrome, Safari) and type the text https://twitter.com, also called an URL.

What's an URL?

Imagine you're at a Google career fair.

You want to know how to become a Developer in the Android Team located in Mountain View.

After 1h of hunting, you've found a recruiter from the team. Her name is Sansa and ... she loves your story.

Unfortunately, you didn't bring your resume + cover letter. So, she asks you to send your application by postal mail (I know that's unlikely but bear with me 😅).

The next day, you rush to the post office. Once there, you'll make an order with the following information :

  • The sending method: Are you adding tracking? Do you need the recipient's signature? Etc.
  • The Mountain View office address - 1600 Amphitheatre Pkwy, Mountain View, CA 94043
  • The Engineering building number - N°123 (fictional number)
  • The team name - Android
  • The recruiter name (optional) - Sansa

The postal service can then deliver your mail 📩.

application letter to Google

Like with letters, you need to provide some information to your browser before it can access a Web resource (i.e., any resource available over the Web). You're achieving this through the URL (Uniform Resource Locator), the text present in the browser navigation bar.

When you enter an URL in your browser, you're giving it the location of a resource + how to access it.

examples of urls

What makes up an URL?

Like shipping orders, an URL contains several components :

1. The scheme

examples of schemes

The scheme is to the URL what the sending method is to your shipping order. It defines how the browser will access the resource. Will the connection be secure? Will it be a file transfer? Etc.

Different values are possible :

  • HTTP: for unsecured connections
  • HTTPS: for secure connections (it's like sending an encrypted mail + recipient signature).
  • mailto: for sending emails
  • Etc.

We also say that the scheme specifies the protocol used: HTTP identifies the HyperText Transfer Protocol, HTTPS identifies the HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure, etc.

You can think of a protocol as a language but for computers.

  • People - from different countries (e.g., France, US) - can communicate when using the same language (e.g., English).
  • Computers - on different systems (e.g., Apple & Microsoft) - can communicate using the same protocol (e.g., HTTPs).

We'll learn more about some of the protocols later on.

💡 When using HTTP or HTTPs as a scheme, you don't need to add it to the URL: the browser will resolve the correct one. Ex: google.com and google.com lead to the same page.

Think of it like going to the post and not specifying a sending method: the agent will assume the default one.

2. The domain name

examples domain names

The domain name is to the URL what the Mountain View office address is to the shipping order. It's unique to the website. In the same way, you can't find another company at the Google campus address, you can't find different websites with the same domain name.

Like real-world addresses, a domain name contains many parts, separated by a dot:

  • The top-level domain or TLD examples top level domains

    It is the last part of the domain name. You have to pick among a fixed list of TLDs maintained here. Some are available to everyone while others aren't. A few examples :

    • Com => anyone can use it;
    • Gov => only US government entities can use it;
    • Edu => only available to higher education institutions;

    You can learn more about the restrictions here.

  • The second-level domain or SLD

    examples second-level domains

    It comes before the TLD and usually corresponds to the website name. You're free to pick any name with some exceptions. For example, only France airports can use .aeroport.fr (ex: http://www.toulouse.aeroport.fr/)

  • The subdomain (sometimes referred to as the third-level domain)

    examples subdomains

    It comes before the SLD. www is the most frequent one. Hence, if you don't specify a subdomain, your browser will assume www. For example, freecodecamp.org and freecodecamp.org lead to the same page.

    Subdomains help organize online content. For example, the firm tailwind uses :

    You may wonder, why not use URLs like blogtailwind.com or tailwind.com/blog?

    Two main reasons :

    • You have to pay for a domain, not for a subdomain - For your website to use a domain name, you have to pay for it. You don't have to for a subdomain: you can generally create one for free.
    • Your subdomain is like a website of its own - Think of it as a parcel house. You can manage it separately from your main website.

    💡 There may be more than 3 levels in the domain name: fourth-level, fifth-level, etc.

    For example, in findajob.dwp.gov.uk :

    • TLD = uk
    • SLD = gov
    • Third-level domain = dwp
    • Fourth-level domain (or subdomain) = findajob

3. The port (optional)

examples ports

Imagine all the packages coming to the Google campus. Each one must go to the correct building.

Your computer is like the Google campus. It receives several Internet messages, and each must go to the proper application. For example, if you receive a Skype call, it must go to the Skype app; if you receive a mail, it must go to the mail app, etc.

Your computer needs to manage that traffic, and it does so using ports. Each port has a unique number called a port number. Two different applications can't use the same port. When an Internet message comes with a port number, only the application using that port receives it. We say that the application is "listening" on that port.

There are +60,000 ports on your computer, but only some are open (i.e., free to use) for security reasons. In the same way, you don't open all the doors of your house, you don't open all the ports on your computer 🙂.

💡 By default, computers listens on ports 80 and 443 for Web communication, so there is no need to add it to the URL (the browser can even remove it).

  • 80 is used for HTTP messages
  • 443 is used for HTTPs messages

4. The path

examples paths

Once your parcel is in the correct building, it must go to the proper team.

Once you tell your browser which website to access, you need to tell it which specific resource you want.

In fact, websites generally contain many pages/resources. Each one is identified by a text called the path.

💡 When there is no path in the URL, you'll land on the default website page.

5. Some (optional) parameters

examples parameters

Your parcel finally reached the Android team 🎉. If you specified Sansa (the recruiter's name) on it, it will go to her, else to the whole team. In the last case, you run the risk of having your application rejected/handled by the wrong person.

By analogy, URL parameters carry extra information. Sometimes they're optional, sometimes required. They're located after the interrogation point ?. When there is more than one, they're separated by &. Here are a few examples :

💡 The URL may contain an extra part called the anchor. It links to a section of the page , so the user doesn't have to scroll.

For example, in https://frontendjoy.com/blog/how-the-web-works-for-aspiring-developers-part-one-urls#conclusion, the anchor is conclusion.

Conclusion

If you're like Aria Tea, you still don't understand how the Web works at this point 😅. You may have questions like :

  • What happens after I pasted the URL?
  • Where is the website content located?
  • Etc.

We'll answer those questions in the next articles 🙂.

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