What is a Web site? Strange question, you many feel – surely everyone knows what a Web site is. Why would we want to try and define what a Web site is?

And yet if you consider last year’s announcement that all Government Web sites must comply with WCAG AA guidelines by December 2009, I think it becomes clear that a clear unambiguous and agreed definition is needed. Otherwise how will the Government know which Web sites – the ones which don’t comply with accessibility guidelines – should be closed down (as they have threatened to do).

Here are some thoughts as to may be meant by an organisation’s Web site:

The domain name:  an organisation’s Web sites refers to Web sites for which the domain name is owned by the organisation. So www.bath.ac.uk and foo.bath.ac.uk are the University of Bath’s Web sites.

The Web server:  Or perhaps an organisation’s Web sites should refer to Web sites which are hosted on Web server hardware which are owned by the University.

But perhaps a organisation’s Web site may also need to be defined at a more detailed level.

The HTTP protocol: Perhaps an organisation’s Web site refers to resources which are served by the http: (and https:) protocol schemes.  If a resource is accessed via the ftp: protocol from an organisation’s FTP server, isn’t this on the FTP site rather than the Web site?  And clearly http protocol schemes such as mailto: don’t really related to Web resources. This was an argument made recently by “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” in a comment on this blog who felt that “Regarding the web as being “anything addressable with a URI” is not a reasonable definition. A URI might be used to address a file on an FTP server; do FTP servers now have to provide HTML versions of all their content? The FTP server in question may even have existed before Web!“.

The file formats: Or perhaps policies on a Web site should relate only to native Web formats, such as HTML.  This was another argument made by “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” in a comment on this blog when he argued “sticking content in a powerpoint file isn’t ‘putting it on the web’, it’s deciding not to put it on the web”.

Some further complications arise when we consider the different ways on which Web sites are now being used. Agreements on the meaning of the term ‘Web site’ might make sense if we are thinking about a Web site as an informational resource, but may break in the context of a Web site as an application (Web-based email services, for example). And what if a Web page contains resources which are embedded from third party Web sites (e.g. an embedded YouTube video or embedded RSS content). Should the resources embedded from elsewhere be regarded as part of the organisational Web site or not?

Now I intend to avoid falling into the trap of seeking to create another definition. Rather I’d point out that when standards bodies and institutions develop policies  which apply to Web sites, they need to appreciate that this term can mean different things to different people.

DO you haved a clear understanding of what you mean by a ‘Web site’?