What Happens When You Visit a Website?

What Happens When You Visit a Website?

It's something you probably do dozens of times a day without thinking: type a website name into your web browser's address bar, press Enter, and see the site within seconds. It's so simple that most people never stop to think about it.

Have you ever wondered what exactly happens when you visit a website? Let's go through the process and see what's really happening in the background.

Step 1: You Enter a URL

Of course, navigation to a website begins when a user initiates it. Typically, you'll click on your browser's address bar and enter an address, like microsoft.com. This is what we call a URL, which stands for Uniform Resource Locator. A URL is a human-friendly name for a website address.

Instead of typing a URL, you can also click on a browser bookmark as a shortcut. The effect is the same, however.

Step 2: Your Browser Uses DNS to Find the Website's IP Address

The above line might have a few abbreviations that are foreign to you -- don't worry! We'll explain them in this step.

Once you press Enter on your browser, it has to look up the IP address of the site you want to visit. An IP (Internet Protocol) address is simply a unique, computer-friendly address used to locate a website. Typically, these are four set of digits separated by periods, like 172.16.254.1.

However, there's an in-between step. Remember when you entered microsoft.com earlier? That's not something a computer can work with; it needs to be translated into an IP address. This is accomplished by something called DNS, or Domain Name System.

In simple terms, DNS translates human-friendly URLs (microsoft.com) into computer-friendly IP addresses (123.45.67.89). Depending on whether you've visited that website recently, your browser could find this DNS information from several sources, including your computer or internet service provider.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Without DNS, you'd have to remember lists of IP addresses instead of website names. That would quickly get confusing!

Step 3: Your Browser Requests a Connection to the Website

Once your browser has used DNS to find the IP address of the website you want to connect to, it starts to establish a connection. To do this, it runs through a three-step handshake process:

  1. Your computer asks the website server if it's open to establishing new connections.
  2. If the website can do so, it acknowledges that you are clear to connect.
  3. Your computer then sends an acknowledgment that it received the confirmation.

It's important to remember that the internet is a giant network of networks. Every website is hosted on a server somewhere. During this process, your computer is finding the server you requested and opening a connection with it. If something goes wrong, you'll see an error. An experienced user can review these errors to find out exactly what went wrong.

Step 4: Your Browser Downloads Website Data

Next, your browser sends a request to the website asking to download its data. This contains some additional information about what browser you're using and what the purpose of the connection is.

The server receives this request, and then generates a response in a particular format. It sends this response back to your browser.

Now comes the fun part! Your browser receives the response, and uses it to display the website you requested. You'll see the page in its entirety after just a moment, and can interact with it as needed.

Step 5: The Cycle Continues

Once you've downloaded a webpage, your browser's journey isn't over. If you click a new link, the steps begin all over again. And if you send some information to the page (like a search query on Google), it uses that query to perform some action.

Depending on the page, your browser may also interact with the server in the background before you send it more information. For example, when you sign up for a website and have to type your password twice, many pages will tell you that they don't match before you press Enter.

Now you know the basics of how your browser navigates to a website. With today's modern high-speed connections, this all happens so fast that you barely have to wait. But it's interesting to learn about how the functions we use every day work.


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