What Is A Web Site?

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’?


  1. I have no idea what a ‘web site’ is – is it where spiders choose to place their fly traps?

    On the other hand, ‘websites’ are usually bounded by a brand identity, rather than a domain name (as the website may span multiple domains, or a domain may host host multiple websites).

  2. Hi Frankie – my house style is to use Web as an adjective. I’ve tried to avoid having a proliferation of new words – website, ftpsite, gophersite, etc. Note that speaking browsers have difficulties pronouncing such made-up words.

    I take your point, though, that the brand identity can be another way of describing an organisational Web site.

  3. Well, I have to say that I thin your house style is out of step with the language of your audience! ‘Website’ is a bona fide genuine word now – probably even one of the most commonly used in everyday language. There is actually a perceptible difference between people pronouncing ‘web site’ and ‘website’, it’s not just a matter of ‘style’, the stress pattern is different between the two phrasings. Furthermore, I’d argue that we no longer perceive ‘Web site’ as being a type of site (comparable to an ‘ftp site’), but as a conceptual entity in its own right. To use your own example, downloading a file via ftp from a link on a website is still perceived as being downloaded from the ‘website’ – few people will even recognise the change in protocol, let alone the term ‘FTP’ or ‘ftp site’.

    As to screenreaders, well we can’t let our language be determined by what screenreaders can pronounce! Besides, any decent speech synthesizer should be able to pronounce compound adjectives it hasn’t come across before, by simply splitting the word into syllables. Hell, they can even make a decent job of pronouncing complete neologisms like ‘Twitter’, ‘Orkut’ and even ‘:-)’ – all of which you’ve used on your blog!

    Returning to the substantive point, brand identity is probably the thing that contributes most to user perception of where a website beings and ends (along with design). However, the issue can still get confused, as organisations love nothing more than creating complex levels of brands, sub-brands, super-brands and so on. Consider the BBC website – is it one website, dozens, or hundreds? Who the hell can tell…

  4. To me the BBC website is (still) one website. In Germany, people seem to use the word homepage more. It is the domain name that makes the website for me.

  5. Annette – ah, but people refer to ‘the BBC News website’ don’t they? And how about things like the BBC’s Film Network – http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/filmnetwork/ – that’s quite distinctly branded, would you call that a website in and of itself?

    Thankfully, the BBC are reigning in on their instinct to create sub-brands in favour of a more ‘one BBC’ approach…

  6. Typing ‘define:something’ into Google is usually a good starting point… in this case, it leads to


    which says:

    — cut —

    A web site is a collection of Web pages, images, videos or other digital assets that is hosted on one or more web servers, usually accessible via the Internet.

    A Web page is a document, typically written in (X)HTML, that is almost always accessible via HTTP, a protocol that transfers information from the Web server to display in the user’s Web browser.

    All publicly accessible websites are seen collectively as constituting the “World Wide Web”.

    The pages of a website can usually be accessed from a common root URL called the homepage, and usually reside on the same physical server. The URLs of the pages organize them into a hierarchy, although the hyperlinks between them control how the reader perceives the overall structure and how the traffic flows between the different parts of the site.

    Some websites require a subscription to access some or all of their content. Examples of subscription sites include many business sites, parts of many news sites, academic journal sites, gaming sites, message boards, Web-based e-mail, services, social networking websites, and sites providing real-time stock market data. Because they require authentication to view the content they are technically an Intranet site.

    — cut —

    All of which seems reasonable, apart from the last sentence!

    With reference to the discussion in the comments above, I note the mixed use of both ‘web site’ and ‘website’! :-).

  7. Ah yes, but the page title is “Website” and “Web site” redirects there.

    The spelling section notes the two variants, and also says “The Canadian Oxford Dictionary and the Canadian Press Stylebook list “website” and “web page” as the preferred spellings. The Oxford English Dictionary began using “website” as its standardized form in 2004.”

    If you look at the discussion page, there was even a vote over whether the page should be moved to “Web site” or not, and the majority opposed… :)

  8. Returning from the spelling debate to Andy’s useful definition from Wikipedia, it then strikes me that the question I should have asked is “What is an organisation’s Website/Web site?”

    This UK Web Focus blog site (blogsite?) contains “a collection of Web pages, images, videos or other digital assets that is hosted on one or more web servers” including text and images hosted on WordPress.com and videos hosted on YouTube, slides hosted on Slideshare, etc.

    The Wikipedia definition doesn’t make any statements about where the content is served from. In which case if I wish to scope any policies about content on this blog, I’d have to do so explicitly.

  9. I should know when I’m beaten…

    How about: An organisational website is a collection of Web pages, images, videos or other digital assets that is hosted on one or more Web servers, usually accessible via the Internet, and that is managed in terms of both policy and practice in order to present a view of the organisation’s mission, staff, products, services, activities and other material, targeted primarily at people outside the organisation.


  10. Ignoring the “what is a web site” question (I’m sure “Roland” can respond to that!), and focusing on the “who does this cover” question:

    Is there a difference between an organisational webs*site and a departmental webs*site? (between http://www.soton.ac.uk/ and http://www.ecs.soton.ac.uk/).

    What about an organisational webs*site and a blog? (between http://www.jisc.ac.uk/ and http://jiscdigitisation.typepad.com/)

    and does moving onto a hosted platform stop it being part of an organisation http://ukwebfocus.wordpress.com

    footnote: for the uninitiated “s” is a Regular Expression code for white space, and the “*” means Zero-or-more… well, it was easier than web ?site or web {0,1}site :chuckle:

  11. Trying to define a web site is very brave (as Sir Humphrey would have said).

    Brian’s definition is useful but easy to refute. What I mean by that, is you know exactly what he means when he refers to domain names and web servers, and though it’s probably true for most web sites, you can find exceptions without too much effort.

    Frankie’s definition is hard to refute, but not really very useful. I say that because you don’t really know what it means. To what extent could (for example) BBC News web pages and BBC TV/Radio web pages diverge in “look and feel” before we called them separate web sites?

    If you can’t offer a proper definition of “brand identity”, then it’s not very helpful to try to define anything else in terms of brand identity.

    The fact that exceptions to Brian’s definition can be clearly identified, at least proves we know what he’s talking about. Possibly it’s flawed, but it’s more useful than something that we can’t be refuted merely because we don’t really know what it is.

    I suspect it’s probably best to leave terms like “web site” to woolly-headed creative types. If you want people to actually know what you mean, talk about domain names, servers, protocols etc.

    Lastly, we wouldn’t expect a Government declaration to be made using terms that can be clearly defined, would we? Imagine what Sir Humphrey would say!

  12. Hi Roland,

    Well, it all depends on what the purpose of the ‘definition’ is.

    My definition aimed to simply describe what people mean when they think of and use the term ‘website’. ie it’s a definition in the dictionary sense – dictionaries don’t define words (even if people sometimes use them in such a word), they describe them (descriptive not prescriptive).

    This means that, because our actual understanding of what is and what isn’t the same website is muddy, so too is the definition of website muddy. Websites are constantly merging, splitting, changing their brand identity, their domain name, their servers, and so on. There is no hard and fast rule about where the boundaries of a website lie – it’s all down to perception. Generally, our perceptions match up (that’s how language works), but sometimes they diverge. Life is ambiguous!

    If you really need some complete unambiguous, concrete definition, then by all means go ahead and make one up – just don’t expect it to always tally up with what our natural understanding is.

    As to the original prompt behind this blog post – an announcement about minimum accessibility standards for new government websites – well the whole announcement is so riddled with ambiguities and room for interpretation anyway (what is ‘public sector’, what’s a ‘new’ website, when is the ‘point of publication), not to mention the ambiguities within the double-A standard itself, that I see no reason for providing a definition for ‘website’.

  13. Well, for the purpose of this discussion, I’m thinking of what Brian said we were discussing; as the original author, it’s his prerogative. i.e. a “clear unambiguous and agreed definition”.

    So far we have Brian’s definition that is clear and unambiguous, but which we don’t all agree with; or yours, which is agreeable, but unclear and ambiguous.

    I think you make a valid point when you say that the concept is very muddy, and cannot be clearly defined. That’s why “web site” is a term that should be avoided in situations where precision is required?

    Naturally, it’s fine to refer to “web sites” where precision isn’t important.

    And of course it’s desirable to refer to “web sites” in cases where ambiguity is required. Such as Government targets;-)

  14. As I think we can all agree, trying to provide a “clear unambiguous and agreed definition” of websites is a practically impossible task.

    The whole point of Brian’s post was not to provide a definition, which we’ve pretty much succeeded in.

    The closest we’ve come is “A collection of Web pages … hosted on one or more Web servers, usually accessible via the Internet” which isn’t really a definition.

    And yes – ambiguity in Government targets is no bad thing… :)

  15. As Frankie as said, the aim of my post was to point out the difficulties of defining an organisational Web suite.

    The context of the post was the need to understand how to respond to Government policy statements such as:

    The minimum standard of accessibility for all public sector websites is Level Double-A of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. All new websites must conform to these guidelines from the point of publication.

    This currently affects central government sites who need to conform with this requirement by December. Web sites owned by central government executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies must conform by March 2011. I assume that the March 2011 deadline will apply to bodies such as JISC, research councils, and, perhaps, local authorities, libraries, museums, etc (universities tend to be treated differently in a legal sense, although in practice I think there will be an expectation that Universities will also conform to such guidelines.

    However if we feel that we can’t agree on a “clear unambiguous and agreed definition” perhaps we’ll need to agree on what it means in our particular sector or institution of in particular examples of usage.


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