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Domain Management and Hosting
When people start thinking about setting up a website, they start looking at hosting, and comparing hosting features. Mostly, people look at features related directly to their website — whether the host supports certain types of software, or how much traffic the site will be able to handle.
Usually, concerns about domains and domain name management are taken for granted. However, domain name management can be very important, and not every host provides the same level of access or the same high-quality experience with domain management.
Some hosting companies make a specialty out of domains, while others seem to go out of their way to make managing your domain names difficult and frustrating.
Domain Name Management Features to Look For
Edit / Change Nameservers
You want to be able to edit or change the domain nameservers associated with your domain, and you want to be able to do that fairly easily.
The nameservers are the servers that store all the specific address information about your domain. Usually, a domain name has two or more official name servers. They often take the form:
This means that the name servers located at that domain have the information about what IP address(es) are associated with your domain name.
When and if you need to change your hosting company, the easiest way to “point” your domain at your new host is to update the domain name servers.
One layer below the Nameserver is the DNS record. This is stored at the domain nameserver, and is a list of IP addresses associated with your domain name or any subdomains.
If you need to set up subdomains or deal with domain name redirects, you really need for your hosting company or registrar to provide easy and efficient access to your DNS record. You will also need this if you are going to connect your domain with a third-party domain-based service, like Google Apps.
Additionally, many hosting companies and registrars provide easy-to-use DNS “templates,” for various common use cases.
Custom MX Records
One specific DNS record you may find yourself dealing with the MX record, or mail exchange. This is one of the editable items in your DNS record. If you plan to host email with a service other than your hosting company, you will need to be able to edit your MX records.
Domain WHOIS Privacy
The Domain WHOIS system is a distributed index of personal contact information associated with each domain. Every registered domain name has to have detailed contact information about the registrant list in the WHOIS directory. This information includes your name, phone number, mailing address, and email.
The WHOIS directory is regularly used by spammer and marketers to target domain name owners for we-related services (both legitimate and otherwise).
If you would like to keep your personal contact information out of the WHOIS directory, you need WHOIS Privacy. This is a service offered by most registrars, in which the WHOIS info is replaced with their own info. This way, all spam and domain-related marketing is directed at their offices and phone numbers, instead of yours.
You don’t have to register and host with the same company
One thing that just doesn’t seem to occur to most people until they’ve been running websites for a few years is: You don’t have to register your domain name with the same company that hosts your website.
In fact, most of the time it is better not to.
Hosting companies that offer very cheap hosting can make up their profit margin by over-charging for domain names. Hosting-centric registrars often have domain name renewal charges 50% to 100% higher than low-cost domain-name-only registrar services, and they often chrage extra for features like WHOIS Privacy, while the domain-name specialists often provide that for free.
Additionally, when you keep your domain names with your hosting company, you often will encounter issues when you need to move your domain name.
Finally, if you host many web projects, it can get very complicated — you may have domain names spread across several different hosting accounts, perhaps even at different companies.
The easiest way to manage domain names — especially if you are going to own more than one or two — is to use a low-cost domain name registrar for all your domain names, and then then edit the Domain Name Server record for each domain name to point it to the correct servers for the hosting company.
This makes it very easy to switch hosts later (you don’t have to transfer registration). Also — if you own many domain names — you can often get a discount on bulk purchases.
If I register a domain through my web host, do I own the domain, or do they? You should, but this is where reading the fine print is critical. Some web hosts, particularly those that offer low-cost or free domain registration, will enter themselves as the registrant, rather than you.
This can be a huge problem if you decide to move your site to another host at a later date. In most cases, the host will turn over ownership of the domain to you, but it’s not guaranteed.
You’re much better off making sure up front that the domain is registered in your name. The easiest way to do this is to get your domain through a registrar instead of a hosting company, but if you prefer to get everything in one place, ask the hosting company up front how they handle the registration.
Keep in mind, this is not the same thing as using domain privacy. With the privacy service, the domain is still registered to you; your information is simply not made available to the public.
If I change hosts, do I need to update DNS Records too, or just my nameservers? Like your nameserver settings, DNS Records are typically managed through your registrar. This means you may be fine with just updating your nameservers if all you need to re-route is your website traffic.
However, if you have any other services that are being handled by your old host that required updating your DNS records, they will need to be updated as well.
The best thing to do is give yourself some overlap between purchasing a new hosting plan and cancelling your old one. This way you have time to update your nameserver and DNS records and run plenty of tests to ensure your website visitors, email, and everything else associated with your domain are winding up where they need to go.
Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
Why do I need to update my DNS records to use third party services like Google Apps?
Your nameserver tells the world where to go to find your domain’s hosting server. Typically, that’s where anyone should be routed when they want to visit your website, view your blog, or send you an email. But sometimes it may be necessary to keep services in different locations. For example, if you want to use Gmail with your own domain, you need a way to tell the outside world that your website is housed on your hosting server, but your email should be sent to Google. This is where DNS records come in. They allow you to redirect certain functions (such as email) to another location.
If I don’t want to mess with that stuff, can’t I just leave it all alone?
If you don’t want to get caught up in managing your domain information, you have two options. The easiest option is to select a host that also provides domain registration. If all you plan to do is host a website and set up an email account or two, you shouldn’t ever have to worry about your domain settings. Of course, this probably means you’ll pay more in the long run for the two services, and if you decide to switch hosts it can get a little tricky. Alternatively, you can choose a host that offers to manage your domain settings for you. Not all hosts will do this, especially for low-cost hosting plans, but there are some out there. This way you still get the benefits of having a separate registrar, but you don’t have to worry about messing anything up.
There is a third option, and this is probably the best one. Update your nameservers once, and never touch them again. Changing the nameservers to your new host is relatively simple. In your hosting control panel, your nameserver information will usually be prominently displayed. Just copy and paste it into your registrar account. If you’re just hosting a website or blog, there shouldn’t be anything else you have to do. Ever. Or at least until you decide to change hosts.
If I set up WHOIS Privacy, does that mean my registrar owns the domain?
No, this is simply a way to keep your name and information off the public record. It helps reduce your risk of being targeted for spam, marketing material, and identity theft. It can also be used if you prefer, for whatever reason, to simply not have your name directly tied to your website. For instance, if you run a popular Yankees fan blog, but also own an online store specializing in Mets memorabilia, WHOIS Privacy might come in handy. This doesn’t mean you don’t own the domain. It’s simply a means of masking your personal information from the rest of the world.
Do I need Whois privacy for my domains?
If you’re not certain whether you want to use the domain privacy features, there are a number of sites online that allow you to look up domain information for websites. Do a quick search for a website and take a look at the information that is being shared. If you’re comfortable sharing that information with the public, and you don’t mind getting the occasional (or not-so-occasional) spam email, you may not need domain privacy. But if your mailbox is full enough, or you don’t want that information publicly available, this can be a very valuable service.