Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask about the basics of your presence on the web.
What is a domain name? Put simply, it’s the text your users put into the web browser’s address bar to go to your website. It’s the street address to your website (and a bunch of other services).
A more detailed explanation: The Internet is a giant network of computers connected to each other through a global network of cables. Each computer on this network can communicate with other computers. To identify them, each computer is assigned an IP address; a series of numbers (and sometimes letters) that identify a particular computer on the internet. Two examples of IP addresses: 126.96.36.199 and 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:0000:8a2e:0370:7334
An IP address like this is quite difficult to remember. Imagine if you had to use those to visit websites you frequent all the time… domain names were invented to solve this problem. Now if you want to visit a website, then you don’t need to enter a long string of numbers. Instead, you can visit it by typing an easy to remember domain name in your browser’s address bar.
So how does the internet change a domain name into an IP address?
- When you press enter after typing in a domain name in your browser:
- A request gets sent to your local or configured DNS (Domain Name System) server.
- That server then either sends your computer the IP address of that domain name, or requests it from other DNS servers, which it will cache for later use.
What’s in a domain?
Your domain name is how people find you.
It’s the secret sauce of search engine optimization (SEO) – the more words in your domain name match your content, the better it ranks on search engines.
Top Level Domains, or TLDs, make up the majority of sought-after domain names, .com being the most popular but in the original set, there’s also .net & .org. Of course you have many of the newer ones like .website, .biz, .info etc. Google is on the record saying that new TLD suffixes DO NOT affect your ranking, but there seems to be a prevailing line of thought among SEO experts that it DOES affect your ranking, because people don’t take anything but .com seriously, and therefore are less likely to visit, and less likely to link to your site.
Country code top level domains, or ccTLDs, include suffixes such as .ca for Canada, .uk for the United Kingdom, .jp for Japan, etc. Many companies that only do business in Canada will use .ca domains, and Google’s answer to that is that it won’t affect your ranking, but it may aid in ranking your site higher in the country of origin.
Sponsored domains, or sector specific domains, are .edu for education, .gov for Government and .mil for Military (which as far as I know, the last 2 are US only).
Email is how people contact you. I won’t go into technical specifics here, just what kinds of email services are available.
Control Panel Email, provided by most web hosts that use the leading web host control panel, CPanel. It’s basic, but it gets the job done. You can run into issues that your email gets flagged for spam if the web host doesn’t set it up properly, however.
Hosted Email. You can get a separate service for email (some web hosts may offer it as well), many call it hosted email, but it’s like basic plus – there will be some similar features to the basics, but implemented differently and generally better: Better user management. Better spam filters. Some even have Calendar and Contact management included.
Professional Email. Then there’s the big boys like Google’s G Suite or Microsoft 365. These are premium services that usually cost north of $5 per user, but include all the extra features like Calendar, Contacts, online file storage, online meetings, mobile device management, security and a host of other features.
There are a few different categories of hosting packages. Many companies will offer one or more of these:
Web Hosting: this is for basic sites. Some will include some form of their own page builder for sites where all you need is an online presence. For our purposes, that being WordPress, this may work; but it probably won’t work well. Some hosts will have different tiers of basic hosting that will include other features (which we’ll get into later).
WordPress Hosting: the tier you’ll want to enter at. WordPress hosting is going to most likely have WordPress already installed for you. Some may have optimizations for WordPress to run faster, preinstalled plugins that help you use web host features outside of WordPress, and other WordPress related features.
WordPress Managed Hosting: This is the next tier in WordPress Hosting, with varying benefits. Features in this tier can include automated backups, automated core updates, extra environments where you can build of your site without having to change things on your live site, and premium support. There are several companies that are dedicated to this sort of hosting.
Cloud Computing & Dedicated Servers: with the ubiquity of cloud computing from the likes of Amazon, Google and many others, giving customers a virtual server with allocated resources is becoming less expensive. Dedicated servers are becoming less common for many reasons, especially with the ease and reliability of virtual servers. A dedicated server essentially means you have a computer all to yourself in a server farm. These usually cost north of $500 per month, though I’ve seen them as low as $300. I don’t recommend this route for most users. Unless someone is from a Fortune 500 company here.
Most hosting companies will promote the features you get for the price. Here are some of the basics:
Disk Space: How much space your site can use. Kind of like how much hard drive space your computer has.
Transfer or Bandwidth: How much information your site can send to users who view your site. Unless you’re going to go viral you most likely won’t need to worry about this. Sometimes you’ll see this listed as how many visitors you can have per month. That’s basically a number that the provider comes up with by way of transfer amount divided by average web page size.
CPUs & RAM: This is for virtual and dedicated servers, similar to the specifications of your computer: how much processing power your website has & how much working memory your website can use. The more visitors you have at the same time, the more of you’ll need.
Location: Some web hosts allow you to choose where your site is hosted from a collection of locations the company has servers in. Most likely your primary users will be close to you geographically (unless you’re a successful multinational, and if so, let’s talk), so you will choose something closest to where your users are located. For Canadians reading this, there are several hosts that have servers in either Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver.
Aside from the actual hosting features, most web hosts will have additional features that will help you get online.
Email: See above.
Automated Backups: this seems to becoming more the norm, even on some smaller packages. Ease of use can be mixed, unless the hosting company you choose specifically lays out how those are handled. Look for backup features like daily or incremental backup and a user accessible restore feature.
SSL Certificates: These are a necessity given that Google lowers your search score if you don’t have one, even if you don’t collect any user data. There is a service called “Let’s Encrypt” that offers free SSL certificates, so there is no reason you should ever settle on a web host that doesn’t offer free SSL certificates with a few exceptions. There are premium SSL certificates that show varying levels of identity to your customer; these premium certificates will either show the CA or Certificate Authority (the well-known, trusted company that gave you the SSL certificate) or your own company name. These are valuable if you provide high-price tag services that you want to make sure you’re not on a site phishing for information. If either of these situations appeal to you or your customers, then paying for an SSL certificate is warranted.
Domain Names: See above.
Other Features: There are many more features out there. If you can think of something to do with websites and features, I’m sure someone has thought of it and bundled it in their web hosting package. Page Builder? You got it. Marketing tools? Sure! SEO services? Most definitely someone has it.
You’ve all heard of Amazon Web Services or AWS, Google Cloud Platform or Microsoft Azure; you’ve possible heard of DigitalOcean, RackSpace and Linode. These provide dedicated resources (like Space, CPUs, RAM), to create a virtual computer on the web that can be used for any number of things, like hosting your website.
Many of these platforms offer “images,” or a copy of an operating system that includes all the setup done for you, for instance to run a website with WordPress.
With these services, you are left to your own devices for setup beyond launching it for the first time, security updates, issues with the server, etc. Be wary of sites offering low price virtual servers, it usually means you’re on your own for configuration once your server is “spun up.”
It’s as flexible as you want it to be. You can have it all on one server: your website & your email, but I highly recommend you don’t host your website with a cloud provider, unless you have some server management experience. Unless you opt to use them with a cloud control panel.
Cloud Control Panel Providers
This is a different type of web host in that they don’t provide the servers for you – you still go to a cloud service provider for your servers, but these control panel providers give you an easy way of managing servers without having to know any more than what we’ve discussed today.
These providers offer varying levels of server management to handle installing multiple WordPress sites on a single server, handling server updates, server-side full page caching, site cloning and site backups. Essentially giving you a all-in-one solution while giving you more control over your server. It’s the middle ground in terms of complexity: it gives you more control, but the major stuff is handled by them. You can get your hands dirty on the command line if you want, but you don’t have to.
Questions? Kudos? Criticisms? Let us know!