Starter Guide to Domains and Hosting

Summary

The Internet is a beautifully complicated system with millions of servers and millions of domains. Most people only care about whether or not it works, not how. But if you need a website, you'll want to be an informed buyer.

A past client neglected the website I built for them. By chance, I checked on the website about 18 months later, and it was gone. I looked at their hosting plan first, which was fine. Then I found that their domain registration had expired and the domain had fallen into a well. First, I called the registrar to find out what the options were (this was a new experience for me). Then, I called the client and had a long, sad talk with them. They lost 3 domains. It cost hundreds of dollars to get one back, and then they had to wait 70+ days to get the other two.

It's getting easier and easier to not know what you're actually buying when you're buying a website. Ever since that conversation, I've been working harder to inform clients about what they're getting. Most don't care, which is fine. Everything I know about cars came from trips to the mechanic, not the dealer.

The client's account is now set to automatically renew, and I set up some monitoring that will let me know if anything happens to their site. But there are some key terms in that story that I think are worth discussing if you're planning to invest in a website.

Definitions

Browser

Before we get into anything, let's talk about the browser. It's Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Microsoft Edge, Internet Explorer, or any other application that you use to display websites. It's a magical bit of technology that takes a bunch of code from the other side of the world and turns it into something you can enjoy, read, and interact with.

browser logos for chrome, firefox, safari, and edge

Domain

Next, we have the domain, URL, link, and web address. These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, sometimes incorrectly. For simplicity, I'm going to stick with "domain" the whole way through. When I say "domain", I mean the address that takes me to a website—like "google.com".

browser web address bar

The address

"Google.com" is Google's domain. When you type "google.com" into the address bar in your browser, it connects you with Google's website. They bought it. It's the address for their website.

Except they didn't buy it. They registered it, which is a lot more like renting. And Google's registration will expire on September 13, 2028 unless they renew it.

Domains are registered with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organization that does some very important things for us, such as make sure no two websites have the same address. If someone has already registered the domain you want, you'll need to find a different one or make them an offer to "sell" it to you.

Before you go to ICANN's website to register your domain, though, you should know that they don't handle the registrations directly. This is handled by ICANN-accredited registrars—the companies who take your money. This could be GoDaddy, Domain.com, or any of the others. Google currently uses a registrar called MarkMonitor. I've been happy with Namecheap.

You register your domain through the registrar, and ICANN allows them to modify or delete information in the central registry. Now you have an address, but your website still needs a home.

The house

You can think of a server like a very fancy external hard drive. All of the code and image files for your website live on a server. When you tell your browser to find a website, it finds the server with the website on it, assembles the website, and displays it for you.

Some people use a server in their basement. Some companies own enormous server farms to handle all of the information. Most of us rent servers from hosting companies who host our websites on their servers. We do this because it's typically easier, more reliable, and more secure than using a server in our basement.

When the user wants to visit google.com, the browser looks up the domain (google.com) on the the registry, which lists the exact location of the server (172.217.17.110). From there, the browser connects to the server, which hosts the website.

The process for connecting address to house is fairly simple, but whoever is building your website should take care of it. The important part is that the domain and hosting are separate pieces. You need them both.

Now what?

You will want to register a domain with a respectable domain registrar with decent customer service. This is an annual expense, typically around $10/year. Hosting is much more complex and depends on what sort of website you want. Maybe $5/month, maybe $55/month. If you use a service like Wix, you're still paying to host on their servers. They just include it in their cost.

Some companies operate as a domain registrar AND hosting company, but you don't have to use one company for both. In some cases, it's better or cheaper if you don't. For registrars, look for longevity, reliability, and solid ratings for customer service. There are many more factors in finding a solid hosting provider, but I can help with that.

Please, please, please keep track of when your domain registrations and hosting plans renew. Or get someone else to keep track of them. Or set up autopay. If you lapse on payment for your hosting or domain, your website will stop working. My professional opinion is to avoid that.

Like I said, the Internet is beautifully complicated. You can dive as deep as you like into the technologies and languages that make it possible. But the best option for most is to learn enough to take the edge off and hire someone they trust.