Hosting and domains and websites — oh my! (what’s the difference?)

When you’re building a website or starting a blog for the first time, there’s so much new terminology to learn! Web hosting, servers, domain, domain registration — what does it all mean?

Here are your answers…

Web hosting

All the files and code that makes up your  website are contained in and accessed through a server, or “web host.” Servers are stacks of computers that look like this:

big-computer-servers-600x620

Ideally, they’re located in a secure building with protections in place to provide backup service in case of severe weather, power outages, etc.

If you have a free blog through wordpress.com, then your host is WordPress. (But NOT if you’re using wordpress.org. Learn the difference in my post about wordpress.org vs. wordpress.com.) If you have a free blog through Blogger, then your host is Google. Otherwise, you will need to find and purchase your hosting.

How to choose a host would be a whole ‘nother blog post, but here are some quick basics. Uptime and security are of primary importance. Customer service is a close second. And in that area, you usually get what you pay for. I.e., cheaper is great, until your site goes down and you can’t get any answers. Also, when you’re reading online reviews of hosting providers, make sure you know whether the reviewer gets a referral fee.

We’ve used LiquidWeb for years: in several years and multiple websites, we’ve only experienced one outage. And their customer service really is heroic. Other popular hosts that I consider reputable include RackSpace and BlueHost. (I do not get any fee or reimbursement for saying this. Proven by my not providing you any direct links to those hosts. 🙂 )

Effect of changing from one host to another:  Your DNS record needs to change. (This will be explained later in this post.)

IP address

For the internet to find your website, it has to know where the files are located. From the computer’s point of view, your website’s location is a numeric address that looks something like this: “321.45.789.00,” and it’s determined by your web host. It’s called the “IP address.” (IP stands for Internet Protocol.)

computer-user-hands-only-450x300

Domain/URL (and domain registration)

But those kinds of addresses are hard for humans to remember, so to make things easier on us, “domains” were invented. Domains are sometimes also called URLs (Uniform Resource Locator). You’re familiar with domains; they look like this:

  • amazon.com
  • yahoo.net
  • ku.edu

To make sure that you have the legal right to use a particular domain name, and prevent anyone else from using it, you need “domain registration.”

“Domain registration” is the internet equivalent of copyrighting a company name. The company you pay for this service is your “domain registrar” or “designated registrar.”

There are many places to purchase a domain name and register it. You can purchase it through your host, or a place that specializes in domain registration, such as name.com. Both have the same effect: the name is yours for as long as you’ve reserved it and you keep paying your registration renewal before it expires. (Don’t worry; they’ll remind you!) The company you purchase it from will make sure your info is entered into the official registration database.

Registering your domain is as simple as going to a website that sells domain registration, typing the name you’re hoping to get in the field provided. They’ll immediately tell you whether it’s available or not. If it is, just click on the prompt that will walk you through purchasing it. If not, take your time thinking through your alternate domain.

You can purchase domain registration for a time period anywhere from one year on up. The maximum period of registration for a domain name is 10 years. Wikipedia says, “Some registrars offer longer periods of up to 100 years, but such offers involve the registrar renewing the registration for their customer; the 100-year registration would not be in the official registration database.”

In the past, there was some speculation that reserving your name for longer (a few to several years, vs. one year at a time) might benefit your Google ranking, but that seems to no longer be the case. (I’m relying on the advice of others here.)

Here’s what Nuts and Bolts Media has to say about whether you should register your domain at the same place you buy your hosting:

The Domain Registration Dilemma

When you set up hosting for a website, you can also register your domain through your host (most of the time). For a lot of people, keeping all your website stuff in the same place sounds like a good idea. You only have to keep up with one set of login information, and you know that your host’s technical support staff will make sure everything is configured correctly.

However, you also have the option to register your domain elsewhere and simply point it to your host. This is what I strongly recommend for a number of reasons.

Keep your domain in one place. If you ever get mad at your web host and decide to move your site, you’ll also probably want to transfer your domain if it’s registered with the old host. Domain transfers can be annoying, time-consuming, and confusing. But if you’ve registered the domain elsewhere, you don’t have to do anything except update your DNS settings to point to the new host.

Register all your domains together. You might be thinking, But I only have one website! That may be true, but for many of us, websites are addicting. For example, I own 45 domains right now. If I need to manage them, like when I transferred all my files to my new servers, I can just go to my registrar and mass update the DNS settings.

Added security. A few years ago, my dad’s website got hacked. Not only did the hackers destroy his site, but they also transferred his domain away from his web host and took it over. It took ages for him to prove ownership and get everything back. When your domains are separate, even if someone gets access to your files, your domains are safe (assuming you aren’t using the same login and password).

Effect of changing from one domain registrar to another: None, other than where your billing comes from.

phone-book-550x275

DNS

So, how does the internet know which IP address to go to for your domain? It refers to the “DNS” or Domain Name System. Think of it as the behind-the-scenes phone book for the internet: it translates the human-friendly domain name into the computer-friendly address that networking equipment needs to find your website’s location. The company you pay for this service is your “DNS registrar.”

Effect of changing from one DNS registrar to another: None, other than where your billing comes from. But… When your host changes, your IP address changes. Part of the crucial information in your DNS record is your website’s IP address, so if you change hosts, your DNS record needs to be be updated, too, to contain the new IP address.

Got it?

I hope that helps! Let me know if I didn’t answer something clearly enough.

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Need a web developer/designer? Check out my work.

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