Web hosting and domain registration are two parts of running a website. But it’s important to understand the difference and the use cases.
What is hosting and domain?
Web Hosting is an account on a computer (aka server) that can store and serve website files over the Internet.
Domain registration rents a human-readable word (eg, amazon.com) that directs people to specific website files through a browser. By analogy, a domain is an “address” on the Internet. Hosting is the “land” or space where your website files live. This is the short version. But there is more to web hosting versus domain registration than just defining them.
How hosting and domains work
Web hosting and domain registration are often associated. But it’s important to understand exactly what they’re doing.
Internet addresses are technical “IP addresses”. IP addresses are a long string of numbers that don’t make sense to humans. So instead of typing 192.168.0.1.1 to go to a website, the website owner can register a domain that will point to that specific IP address. When you register a custom domain name, you lease it from the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN provides domains through approved registrars.
Your registrar will host your domain, but not your web host, in a sense. A domain does nothing on its own. Registration gives you the right to “point” your domain anywhere you want with name servers. You can tell it to redirect to another website – but generally, you’ll want it to direct browsers to your website… on your hosting account. You can find out more in Domain Names, the title explained.
Web hosting is an account on a web server that “hosts” your website files. If you don’t have a domain “pointed” to your hosting account, you can access it with a string of numbers in an IP address. While you can technically build your own server at home, most people buy a hosting plan from a web hosting service.
A hosting company is a business that has a set of pre-configured servers that it rents out based on different hosting plans. They will usually include instructions on how to “point” your domain to your hosting account. They will also provide instructions for software to build and manage your website. You can find out more in Website Hosting, the title explained. But there are usually a few other terms that confuse the issues.
There are a few terms that you will see in the process that need clarification.
DNS (aka Domain Name System)
DNS is a system that does the real work of translating your domain name into an IP address. The abbreviated term is “name servers”. It will also store records to send other requests like email addresses to the correct server (known as MX record).
It may be separate from your domain registration and hosting account. Usually, the domain registrar or your web host will provide you with DNS.
Content management system
You can technically write and upload simple HTML files to your hosting account. Most website owners want to edit and manage their websites directly. A content management system (CMS) is software that allows you to create, edit, and manage all of your website files from a single dashboard.
A CMS must be installed on your hosting account. WordPress is the most common content management system on the Internet. But there is a myriad of options. I wrote a WordPress setup guide here.
Website Builder / Ecommerce Software
You can install and run all kinds of software on your hosting account server. There are tools that allow drag and drop functionality, eCommerce functionality, or whatever you can imagine. Remember that all of this software works on a hosting account that you access through a domain name.
How to start
So how do you get started with domain registration and web hosting? Well it depends on what you want to do. There are many options that you can mix and match to create different configurations. It can be confusing, but almost all of the options boil down to three usual paths.
Buy a domain and hosting separately
With this path, you register your new domain with a domain company of your choice and your hosting with a web host. You will then “point” your domain to your hosting account. I personally use this path. The domain of this site is NameCheap and my host is InMotion Hosting.
Benefits of buying domains and hosting separately
- Best price in the long run.
- Easier to go with fewer service commitments.
- Easier to manage many additional domain names.
- More access to premium domain and domain extension options.
- Companies usually specialize in one or the other.
- Cheaper if the hosting project does not start soon.
Cons of buying domains and hosting separately
- Lose out on short term promotions and discounts.
- Not as convenient as using a single company.
- Having to troubleshoot between different companies (for example, your SSL certificate is issued by your domain host, but installed with your host).
- Additional configuration steps.
Once you have purchased your hosting, you can install the website software on your account. I wrote here how to do this with free WordPress software.
Buy a domain and hosting together
With this path, you buy your domain and hosting together from one company. This is the most common way to build a website. It’s convenient and makes a lot of sense. Most domain providers also sell hosting. And most web hosts also sell domains. In fact, many hosting providers provide a free domain for the first year and still allow unlimited domains.
Examples of providers (hosting + domain)
- GoDaddy (review) – cheap promotional domains with ok hosting.
- NameCheap (review) – cheap domains and hosting with feature limits.
- InMotion Hosting (Review) – focus on support and value with higher prices for hosting and domain renewal.
- Bluehost (Review) – Focus on usability and broad appeal with a free domain for a year and cheaper hosting.
- Convenience and simplicity.
- Unified support from a single company.
- Special offers and bundled discounts.
- No additional configuration.
- More difficult to leave and transition to a new business or use backup services.
- More expensive in the long run with more expensive domain renewals.
- Difficult to manage many domains, especially if some are inactive.
- Loss of specialization in domain services (or hosting services).
Once you’ve purchased the hosting, you can install the website software on your account and go from there. I wrote here how to do this with free WordPress software. With this option, you always have the option of transferring your domain to your web hosting provider.
Buy everything bundled together
With this path, you buy your domain, hosting, and website software and website services all in one package from one company. This path is also referred to as a hosted “website builder”. This path is common among website owners. It is convenient. It’s simple and it makes a lot of sense to many website owners. What is important is to recognize that you are still paying for the same items as the first two options. You are simply paying for a plan with everything included.
Examples of suppliers
- Convenience and simplicity.
- Unified support for a single proprietary product.
- Built-in functionality to make everything “just work”.
- Professional speed, safety and maintenance.
- Loss of full control and access to the server.
- Usually more expensive in the long run.
- Inability to customize specific features/changes difficult to troubleshoot without customer support.
- Difficult to leave the company for another option.
Once you’ve chosen and activated your plan, you’ll need to follow the business steps to get started. They have generally charted a clear path for getting your website up and running.
If you are considering a website project, it is essential to understand the difference between domain registration and web hosting. They work together but also act like different products. A domain is essential to any website project, whether you choose a hosting company or bundled services.
If you know the domain name you want, go get it now from a domain registrar like NameCheap or GoDaddy.
Once you have secured a domain, choose the best web hosting or the best website builder for yourself.
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