For a business owner, your domain name is your most important online asset. The domain name controls how the world accesses your business, including your website, email accounts, and often subdomains pointing to portals and specific resources.
In spite of its importance, most people have relatively little insight into how the domain name works, the difference between the domain name and hosting, and how best to manage the whole process. In this article, I'm going to equip you with some basic knowledge about the technical aspects of domains, as well as tips on how best to manage your domain, based on over 20 years of web development experience.
At a basic level, the domain name is an address translation tool. Computers don't communicate with each other using names. Instead they use numeric (or more recently, alphanumeric) addresses called IP addresses. Since these addresses are difficult to remember and typically make no sense to us humans, we use domain names instead.
When you're trying to visit a website from your computer, you may begin by typing that address in your browser's address bar. For instance, to visit this website you'd type www.brentwoodvisual.com. Since your computer doesn't know where to find that address, it goes out and checks an online resource called a Domain Name Server (DNS). That server has a cached database of all domain names that are registered around the world, and provides your computer with the correct IP address for the site you're trying to visit. Your computer then establishes a direct connection with that IP address and retrieves the information you've requested.
The same process occurs with email messages, except that the communication is handled between your outgoing email server and the recipient's incoming server. Your outgoing server uses the same DNS servers to do the name-to-IP translation, but it checks specifically to see if email is routed to the same server as web traffic, or a different location.
In order for the above process to work correctly, obviously the most important element is the domain name. This is where the domain name registrar (or just "registrar") comes in.
An organization called the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) controls the "master list" of domains registered around the world. ICANN works with individual domain registrars to allow you to purchase those domain names. The registrar provides a user-friendly system (sometimes not very user-friendly!) to manage the information that ICANN requires, such as owner contact details, technical and billing contacts, and more.
The domain registrar also records the location of the Name Server, which hosts the DNS Zone File. The Zone File is the technical document that provides all the details about your domain, including the correct IP address for website hosting, email routing, subdomains, alternate names that can be used to access your site, approved servers for sending email bearing your domain name, and a lot more. In many cases, the registrar hosts this document directly. In other setups, it works better to host this file elsewhere for easier access by your technical team.
Choosing your registrar wisely can save you a few dollars. ICANN's annual fee for a .com domain name is only $7. At GoDaddy, you may be able to buy that name for only $.99 for the first year, but future years will cost you a lot more. Many registrars are significantly higher, with pricing upwards of $50 /year for some domain names. Google's registrar is currently a much more reasonable $12 per year for .coms. Other registrars like Cloudflare will sell you the domain name at cost, for only $7.
Domain add-ons are a big markup for registrars as well. For instance, GoDaddy will constantly try to sell you a domain privacy add-on, which masks your ownership information from publicly accessible records. This additional "feature" adds millions to their annual bottom line. Google and Cloudflare both provide this for free.
As we learned above, the domain registrar simply manages the information about your domain — providing the computers with the correct route to your online resources. Those resources are stored on a "host" server. Depending on your setup, your business may involve multiple hosts for your website content, software tools, and email.
The host server is typically a high-powered computer housed in a data center, which is a physically and digitally secure location purpose-built for this purpose. Server specifications and performance can vary dramatically based on your needs, which impacts the amount of traffic your website is able to support, how fast content is delivered, and how secure your site is.
At Brentwood Visual, we utilize an advanced Dedicated Server that is proactively monitored around the clock by engineers at the data center. This engineering team is able to respond immediately when they detect any problems with physical hardware in the server, intrusion attempts, or software instability.
So now that you understand the big picture of how this works, what are some best practices you can apply to your business?
Regardless of how much you trust your website developer or IT provider, most business relationships eventually end. It's imperative that your domain name is registered in an account that you control. You should set up your own account at a registrar of your choice, and the domain name should be housed in that account.
Don't work with a website developer or IT provider who asks you to transfer the domain to their account.
Once you have the domain safely in your account, you can provide access to trusted IT providers or website developers through shared account access, giving them the ability to manage technical details on your behalf without actually owning the domain. Almost all registrars offer the ability to share management roles with other accounts. This approach allows you to control who has access, and when it's time to revoke that access. It also simplifies the process for your providers, since they can often view assets from many of their clients under a single login, without those clients being able to see each other.
If you provide direct access to your account, you open up the ability for someone to sabotage or even steal your domain name. While obviously Brentwood Visual operates with our client's best interest in mind (even at the conclusion of a relationship), we've helped dozens of clients over the years who are trying to wrestle control of their domain name back from a previous developer.
Once you've got a name registered, it may seem like it would be convenient to consolidate your communications to your business email address. This can create huge problems though.
Let's say your domain name is mybusiness.com, and your email is . Since that's the address you're using every day, you want communication from the registrar to go to that inbox. So you go into the domain management dashboard and update the owner information to .
That works great until the day your domain name expires. Perhaps your registrar's renewal reminders have been going to your Spam folder, or perhaps you just forgot to renew. Since your email is routed through the zone file, which is controlled by your domain name, which is controlled by your registrar, you can no longer receive email at any of your mybusiness.com accounts. What's worse, you've forgotten the password for the registrar and have to do a password reset. The registrar sends you a link to reset your password, which is sent to the owner address on record: , which no longer works.
This scenario can be avoided by using an external account for your domain registration, such as Gmail or Yahoo. We recommend that every business has a single, non-domain-connected account for important business communications. Keeping your domain name registered under this account provides an extra layer of safety that can make a big difference.
While computer lingo like DNS servers and zone files can be confusing (and go a lot deeper than what I've explained here), having a basic understanding of these concepts will help you make better decisions regarding your business.
The good news is that you don't have to be an expert. At Brentwood Visual Digital Marketing, we handle the technical details of our clients' domain management in a professional, secure way that protects your ownership of the domain name while still allowing us to provide excellent support for your business.
If you have questions about this, or any other aspect of your business' online presence, I'd love to be a help. The team here at Brentwood Visual is always happy to sit down with you to explain the answers to your technical questions, or help you fix a problem with your current domain name setup. Simply schedule a meeting!