If you are like most business website owners, you’re interested in setting up a domain-specific email address that’s connected to your website’s domain.
Having your own email address that’s connected to your business domain is a crucial branding asset for any small business. It looks more professional and conveys a seriousness of purpose that free email account addresses such as “firstname.lastname@example.org” simply do not.
That’s why it pays dividends to educate yourself about email hosting and email features now, when you are in the process of researching hosting for your website needs. Believe it or not, hosting plans can vary wildly when it comes to email features crucial for good business systems, even when the plans offer nearly identical site hosting features.
Before we examine email hosting features and tools, we should first examine the basic requirements for email, how email servers work, and the different ways to access email services.
At its simplest, an email service provides five basic individual services:
The core differences between various email service providers boils down to different levels of service, flexibility, extent, and limitations for each of these four basic requirements.
For any email application or service to properly function, it requires several technologies working together efficiently and seamlessly. There’s the technology that allows you to input text; the technology that enables the addition of attached files; and (optionally) the technology that enables rich text formatting instead of plain text in the body of your email.
However, none of those technologies would amount to more than basic word processing without the assistance of another major piece of technology: the email server.
As with any content that’s transmitted over the internet, your email messages are broken into much smaller bits called “packets.”
Hitting the send button packages all those packets together and transmits them to your email provider’s email server — that is, a central computer that’s connected to the web for the purpose of managing a specific aspect of internet assets, such as your domain/website or your email.
So an email server handles only email messages. In actuality, you have two servers: an outgoing server and an incoming server.
When the email server “reads” the sender’s and recipient’s addresses in their email fields, the server makes a connection to the recipient’s email server. It transmits the packets containing the header or metadata (ie, the various fields that convey data about that specific piece of email) as well as the packets containing the actual message.
Each domain is associated with a unique address (ie, the IP address, where “IP” stands for “internet protocol”). It’s a bit like a street address for a house or building. The Domain Name Registry stores the data that links up domain names with their respective IP addresses. In the email transmitting/receiving process, the email server contacts the DNS server for that address information. Then, that outgoing server hands over the email to the recipient’s incoming mail server.
The server performs a quick “identity” check to make sure it should actually be routed to the intended recipient. Then the email is delivered into the recipient’s email inbox.
There are different protocols designed to handle the various parts of the email transaction process. The specific protocol used depends on which side of the transaction is being handled.
As a transmission of data and content between two points via the web, email depends on the internet protocol suite — that is, the set of communications protocols that’s used by computer networks, including the internet.
This suite of tools is called TCP/IP, based on two of the critical protocols that serve as the basis for the suite of protocols: the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP). There are three basic TCP/IP protocols for email:
Simple Mail Transfer Protocol is the standard for sending and receiving email over the internet. It is akin to HTTP, the standard for sending documents over the internet.
Fortunately, any hosting plan you consider will include SMTP access. It has to. Therefore, there is no need to verify that any hosting provider’s plan under consideration offers SMTP. It will be available to you.
Post Office Protocol is one of the two available client-server email protocols. POP3 is the third and most popular version of this protocol. There is also a POP4 that provides a handful of new commands to the existing standards of POP3 for slightly more functionality.
POP configurations essentially assign a “post office”-like role to the email server. In short, it relays messages, but it doesn’t retain copies of those messages. So your email management basically takes place in the email client itself, not the email server. This means a decreased drain on email server resources. The downside is that you lose the ability to sync an email account’s archives across multiple devices.
Internet Message Access Protocol is the other of the two client-server email protocols.
Unlike the POP configuration, the IMP configuration means all the account’s messages stay stored on the email server, together with the metadata associated with each message and data about whether the email has been read or replied to.
This is why IMAP is your only choice, really, if you want your employees (or yourself) to be able to access, work with, and retrieve email messages on numerous devices instead of just one. So, for example, you can check your mail on your laptop, and then re-read messages in that conversation on your smartphone later without losing data or mistaking a read email for an unread one.
It’s important to understand the differences between POP and IMAP configurations so that you can make the best choice for email hosting for your company.
POP email configurations work well for anyone who uses only one device to access and manage that specific email address. If that’s the case for you, POP email setup should be adequate for your needs.
However, it’s important to recognize the essential characteristic of the POP configuration: Any email message you receive will be downloaded to the email client of your choice that you have installed on your device of choice, then it will be removed from your server.
That means you won’t be able to check your mail from any other device and see anything other than brand-new messages that have arrived on your server since you last checked your account on your main device of choice.
It’s also important to note that while the POP configuration does provide you as the account holder to opt out of email deletion from your server. However, this might result in an archival system stuffed with messages you do not want to keep. It may also mean that your email client ends up downloading multiple copies of the same email messages over and over.
IMAP is an entirely different set of protocols and processes. In one sense, it’s rather like a Dropbox service for your email. Downloaded messages on your email client are also retained on servers, which syncs regularly with your client.
When you view an email in your IMAP-configured client, your server retains that message, but it marks it as “read.” That means it doesn’t get downloaded multiple times to your client as “unread” which can cause significant confusion and administrative headaches. In the same vein, if you delete a message from your client, it also gets deleted from your server.
The strength of this system is obvious: No matter where you check and work with your email messages, and no matter how many devices you employ, your messages are organized and synced across all those devices. Your messages stay stored and marked as read or unread, according to your last interaction with each email.
IMAP’s advantages are fairly clear, especially if you have a company with more than one employee who isn’t constantly and consistently restricted to a single device. If you want your employees to be able to check and reply to email messages on the go, as well as in the office or at home or while traveling, IMAP is essential.
Of course, the drawback is likewise obvious. Retaining copies of all those messages means you’ll need more available disk space, and that space may fill up rapidly, particularly if there are attachments frequently involved.
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. Chances are, you may want to migrate to IMAP at some point in the future.
To a large degree, how you access and interact with your email is a matter of preference. However, your options also depend in part on the type of email provider you select.
Email clients are applications that are installed on your local computer or mobile device, which download email messages from your email server to your drive.
This approach permits users to compose, send, store, retrieve, and read email messages whether or not there is an active, current internet connection. Of course, any email client will still require an internet connection at some point in order to send and retrieve those email messages to begin with.
Examples of popular email clients include programs such as Apple’s Mail, Microsoft Outlook, and Thunderbird.
Webmail is simply an email system that requires the user to connect to their email via site loaded in a browser that’s connected to the internet.
Typically, many hosting companies will provide access to one or more webmail-based email software apps through the user’s cPanel or other type of user panel. Examples include Horde, Roundcube, and SquirrelMail.
Another form of webmail is the webmail provider, as opposed to the webmail software app. The user simply requires a browser that’s connected to the internet in order to access their email, unlike the stand-alone email clients that allow you to work with email offline.
The most well known examples of web-mail providers are Gmail and Yahoo! Mail.
Consider the following basic email hosting features before you select a final hosting provider.
It can be challenging to estimate the right number of email accounts you’ll need. While some plans will offer an unlimited number, other plans limit you to only a handful — or sometimes only a single account!
While your messages may not take up much space individually, they can add up quickly. Large attachments can eat up even more space. Some hosting companies and plans will limit available space, so check these restrictions, if they exist, before you sign up.
These features are related and help you ensure someone at your business sees all the email messages sent to your domain. Email aliasing allows you to “feed” multiple addresses into one account for simplified handling. Email forwarding literally “forwards” email messages from one address to another email address of your choice.
Autoresponder messages are the scripts that allow your email account holders to create “out of the office” messages, for example. These tools are essential for business email accounts.
On some systems, an email that’s sent to the right domain but is nevertheless misspelled is essentially lost. Alternatively, it may be stored in a hidden log in a place where it won’t be found until someone goes looking for it.
A catch-all email account quite literally “catches all” email messages, even those sent to an address that doesn’t actually exist. That’s an important feature for business accounts.
Every email account is susceptible to spam. Look for email services that provide effective spam filters to detect and deal with unwanted incoming mail.
In addition, the following more advanced features may be useful.
If you plan to host your email with something like Google Apps, then you will need to be able to route your email messages to the right servers owned and operated by those services. The MX records are part of the DNS record and are how you redirect domain-addressed email to the appropriate places.
While most hosting companies allow you to modify the MX records, some do not. The process itself is not difficult but you’ll need to make sure your domain name registrar permits you access and editing rights over them.
Email spoofing is a serious issue. It’s how phishing email messages succeed, by appearing to be sent from a legitimate sender. If someone is able to spoof your domain’s email accounts, you can find yourself losing customer trust.
Sender Policy Framework works to validate your email messages and thus detect email spoofing if it occurs.
SPF helps email servers that process received messages to verify the message came from a server that has permission to send messages to it. That list of “approved senders” is controlled by the registered owner of the domain in question through the domain registrar, using the SPF system.
SPF implementation helps your company avoid what’s known as “backscatter” — that is, bounced forged email messages that look like they’re coming from your domain but really aren’t — as well as blacklisting for spam that you didn’t actually send.
If you choose a web-based email provider, you won’t need to worry about choosing an email host. However, if you want a domain-based email address for your business, you will have to find a host that meets all your needs.
There are several considerations to keep in mind when choosing a host for your email. They include:
Two factors determine the space you need: the number of email addresses you expect and the amount/size of attachments you expect to send.
If you expect to need 30 email addresses for your employees, you’ll need more space than someone who works solo. Additionally, the kinds of files you plan to send is important.
Files such as images (JPGs, PNGs, etc.), audio files, and PDFs can take up quite a bit of storage space. Keep in mind, if your business regularly sends large files like these you’ll need more storage
If it absolutely critical that your email messages get delivered properly, consider a VPS or dedicated plan. Remember that If you’re on a shared hosting plan, you and every other person with files on that server have the same IP address. If someone on your server is a committed spammer, everyone on the server can wind up being added to a blacklist.
That won’t happen if you use a VPS or dedicated server. You’ll be assigned a unique IP address. Another option is to use a third-party email service such as Google Apps.
If you’re planning to use IMAP, your server will be retaining copies of all email messages sent and received. This will additionally tax your server storage allotment and should be considered when choosing an email host.
If your business relies heavily on email, then you will need to look for an email host that offers easily accessible support and a solid uptime guarantee.
Looking for the best host for your email? While most hosts offer email, these three stand out.
SiteGround is a popular host due to their high uptime and top notch service. You can get email thorugh hosting your website, or purchase stand alone email hosting. They also make it easy to scale up if you need more storage later.
BlueHost is officially recommended by WordPress, making it a top choice for many businesses that use WordPress. On the email front, they offer specialized support, both for general hosting issues and for email, spam protection, and third-party compatibility. They also offer unlimited email accounts, which can be a huge bonus if you have dozens of employees who all need email addresses.
My final suggestion for email hosting is iPage. It is one of the most affordable options, but it also has tons of features to offer. It offers unlimited email and traffic and email marketing tools. The email they offer is web-based, but that doesn’t matter for most business users. VPS hosting is available, though that isn’t their main focus.
Most low-cost, shared hosting plans, do not permit bulk mailing or will limit mailings to a certain number of recipients.
Bulk mailings are resource intensive and can impact the performance of everyone on a shared server.
Some hosts offer a bulk mailing upgrade package, or provide support for a third-party bulk mailing service.
VPS and dedicated plans typically do not have limits set on the number of emails they send and receive, but some guidelines are typically in place to prevent spamming.
Nearly every host sets a limit on the size of individual emails, including limits for the message itself as well as for attachments.
The exact size will depend on the host and plan (expect smaller size limits with cheaper plans), and may be different for incoming and outgoing messages.
Finding those limits are not always easy. You may have to search through the host’s terms of service or support documentation, or use the live chat and ask them directly.