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Email Features and Web Hosting
If you are setting up a website for a business, it stands to reason that you will also be using email as part of that business, with the same domain name as your business website. Therefore it's important to look at the email features associated with hosting plans, and not just the website hosting features.
SMTP, IMAP and POP
SMTP — Simple Mail Transfer Protocol — is the standard for sending and receiving email over the internet. Much like the email version of HTTP, the standard for sending documents over the internet. This is not a specific feature to look for in hosting plans because any plan that has email will be using SMTP to do so.
IMAP — Internet Message Access Protocol — is one of two protocols defining the relationship between an email client and an email server.
In an IMAP configuration, all messages are retained on the email server, along with information about whether they have been read or responded to. This allows for multiple email clients to be used for a single account without risk of redundancy (seeing the same message twice as if it were unread) or lost messages.
The obvious use case for IMAP is a person who checks their mail on their desktop and their phone. You want both the phone and desktop experience to stay in sync.
POP — Post Office Protocol — is the other of the two client-server email protocols. POP3 is the third, and current, version of this protocol.
In a POP configuration, the server acts as a post office (hence the name), relaying messages but keeping no record of them. Email management is heavily reliant on the client, rather than the server. POP3 is less resource-intensive on the server, but the ability to sync across several clients is lost.
What is the difference between IMAP and POP? Why would I choose one over the other?
If you only use one computer, POP mail is okay. Whenever a message comes in, it gets downloaded to your local email client and deleted from your server. That means if you ever want to check your mail from somewhere else, say from your host’s webmail service, you will only be able to find new messages that haven’t been downloaded to your computer yet.
POP does offer the ability to not delete messages from your server, but this will result in a lot of messages sticking around on your server that you don’t want, and may cause your email client to download multiple copies of the same message.
IMAP, on the other hand, acts like Dropbox for your email. When you download messages to your local email client, your host syncs your activity with its servers. If you view a message, that message gets marked as viewed on your server. If you delete a message, that message gets deleted from your server. The beauty of this approach is that no matter where you access your email from (your computer, laptop, tablet, phone, webmail, etc.), all of your messages are there, just the way you left them.
The advantage to IMAP is obvious, particularly in a professional setting. Your employees have access to all of their emails at their desks, in a meeting, or while they’re grabbing a coffee before a flight. The disadvantage is that it may take up considerable disk space on your server. However, there are easy solutions for this.
Most mail clients offer an archiving feature of some sort, or allow you to move files to local folders, freeing up server space. As a general rule, pick a host that offers IMAP even if you don’t use it now, because you may want to in the future (when you finally give up that flip phone). The only exception to this is if you plan to use an outside service to host your email, in which case it doesn’t matter what your host offers.
Important Email-Related Hosting Features
Number of Email Accounts
Some hosting companies will limit the number of email addresses you may set up, while others allow for an unlimited number of accounts. Think about how many email addresses you might actually need before committing to a plan with a limit.
Email doesn’t take up a lot of disk space, but email attachments can. Again, some hosting companies have unlimited plans and others put specific limits on this. Be sure to know what you’re buying.
Email Aliases and Email Forwarding
The features are related. With email aliasing, you can have multiple email addresses that all tie to the same account. Email forwarding allows you to automatically forward incoming email from the receiving address to one you specify.
Email Aliasing is especially useful if you want to use title-based email addresses (
[email protected]) in addition to personal name-based addresses. If aliasing is not available, you may end up relying on Email Forwarding.
Auto responders are good for “Away from the Office” messages. If you are planning to use your hosting plan for business-related email, this is an important feature to look for.
Where does email go if it is sent to
[email protected], but there is no such address. On some systems, this email is essentially lost, or stored in a hidden log someplace it won’t be found until someone goes looking for it.
A Catch-all email account will receive all email sent to an non-existent email address at your domain. This is an essential in a business context where you can’t afford to miss any emails, even the misspelled ones.
Spam filters detect and deal with unwanted incoming mail. The most popular Spam Filter is SpamAssassin.
Accessing your email requires an email client of some sort. You may use a local client, such as Outlook on your desktop or the mail app on your phone. Another option is to use a web-based mail client.
Advanced Email Features and Applications
Custom MX Records
You do not have to host your own email service, and you do not have to run your email from the same hosting plan that you use for your website.
However if you are going host your email with host or email service (Google Apps, for example), you will need to direct email messages to the appropriate place.
The MX Records, part of the DNS record, specifies where domain-addressed email is routed — it associates the human-readable
@example.com domain name to the IP address of a specific mail server.
Changing the MX Record is not difficult, but you need to make sure that your domain name registrar (which may or may not be your hosting company) allows you to edit these records. Most do, but not all. (And some allow it, but make it very difficult or annoying.)
SPF — Sender Policy Framework — is an email validation system that can help detect email spoofing (the sending of email as if it came from a domain not owned by the sender).
SPF allows servers receiving messages to validate the origin of the message against a list of hosts which have authority to send mail for a particular domain. The list is controlled by the domain owner, via the registrar, through the SPF system.
Implementing SPF can be helpful in avoiding receiving backscatter (bounced messages based on forged mail appearing to come from your domain) and also spam-related black-listing based on behavior you did not authorize.
Setting up SPF records works differently for different hosts and may not be available for some hosts. If you are going to be heavily reliant on your domain-based email for your business (i.e. you cannot afford to get blacklisted even once), you’ll want to check to make sure this feature is available, and relatively simple to set up. Also, this is important if you are going to be sending mail from a different host than your website.
Other Email Hosting Considerations
How much email space do I need? That will depend on two factors. First, how many email addresses do you expect to have? You’re going to need a lot more space if you have fifty employees using email than if it’s just you. Second, does your company need to send or receive files (images, PDFs, Word documents) regularly? Those will take up considerably more space than just an email. And if your employees need to send audio or video files, you will need substantially more storage space.
When considering storage space, don’t forget to calculate it both ways. If you’re using IMAP, which you likely will so your employees can access their mail from any location, your server will retain copies of both incoming and outgoing mail. If your employees send large files to one another via email, this will put further strain on your resources, so you may want to look into some type of internal file-sharing system, either on your server or through a third party.
Aside from setting up SPF, are there any other steps I can take to ensure my email messages won’t be blacklisted or marked as spam? If it is critical that your emails get delivered, there are a few steps you can take to keep your domain from getting blacklisted. First of all, set up an SPF service if your host offers it (if they don’t, find one that does!). Second, consider a VPS or dedicated plan. It’s not just domains that can get blacklisted. IP addresses can get blacklisted too.
If you’re on a shared hosting plan, you have the same IP address as everyone else on that server. If someone else on that server sends a message that gets tagged as spam (whether it was or not), it could result in the entire server getting put on a blacklist, meaning your messages may get bounced. With a VPS or dedicated server, you have your own IP address, so this can’t happen.
If you don’t want to invest in a VPS or dedicated server, you can also use a third party for your email, such as Google Apps. While these email accounts may still get stuck on a blacklist, this is far less likely to happen than with a shared server, and most dedicated email providers take several steps to minimize and resolve these occurrences.