Your website development project is nearly complete. Architecture, design, content and programming phases have followed one after the other to lead to an exciting new website. So its time to flip the switch and launch the new site!
Not so fast.
Similar to other stages of a website development project, there is a process involved with a site launch. Driving this process is the distinction between a website itself and a domain name.
A website is a combination of programming code, media files and content sitting on a hardware/software platform called a server. These elements come together to render web pages in a web browser when you visit a certain web address.
That web address is usually a domain name, and it is understandable to think of that domain as synonymous with a website. For example, you are now visiting thejakegroup.com website, right?
Yes and no — surely this is The Jake Group website, but ‘thejakegroup.com’ is more a memorable set of characters that help you find this website rather than being essential to the site itself. Just as a street address helps people arrive at a particular destination, a domain’s main function is to direct traffic.
Every domain name has an associated set of instructions for how to direct its traffic. This is called a DNS Zone, and the master version of these instructions are stored on a particular computer on the Internet (usually not the same one as your website). A domain’s DNS Zone can tell a browser where to go to find The Jake Group website for example, as well as a number of other things such as routing email traffic and managing subdomains.
When it comes time to launch your website, we publish those instructions in the domain’s DNS Zone to indicate where to find the new site. But just as publishing a book doesn’t immediately put that book in the hands of all its potential readers, a DNS change is not instantaneous either.
Most people connect to the Internet through an Internet Service Provider, or ISP (e.g., Verizon or Comcast). ISPs tend to store records about where domains resolve in order to more efficiently handle the massive amounts of traffic on their networks. They only check back to the master DNS Zone periodically to see if there have been any changes.Thus, the billions of computers and other things connected to the Internet around the world are not all going to learn of a change at once.
This results in a transition period during which some users will find the new site, while others see the old location. This period is called DNS Propagation.
How long does this delay last? Technically, it can last up to a few days or longer depending on how often a given ISP updates their records. However, in practice we find that the most common ISPs check for new records much more frequently and we’ll see a new site resolving for most visitors within hours if not faster.
There are strategies to mitigate this delay in some cases, and we apply them when possible. But it is wise to plan your website launch with a DNS Propagation period in mind. While you may want to email your boss, your customers, or your mom right away, better wait until they can find their way to that great new site!