A Basic Primer about Web Hosting and Domain Registration

For the record, this isn’t going to be about recommending my favorite web hosting companies, or dissing companies that I think are terrible (though I could do both!). What I’m really concerned about is making sure that people who “own” websites have some basic understanding of what they are paying for each month or year from the website budget. 

Sadly, I see over and over again, individuals and organizations paying for services they aren’t using, or worse, ignoring and missing renewal reminder emails and losing their domain names or websites files. I’ve worked with dozens of people or groups who have no idea where to find their account passwords or what kinds of accounts the passwords go to. This pretty much arises from a lack of understanding about how web hosting works, and what a domain name is. I get it – it’s not always an easy concept to grasp, you don’t really care, it’s not your job, it’s all just so much blah blah blah…I know, because I see clients just glaze over whenever I try to explain the difference between their web host and their domain name. 

I wish there were a simple, concrete analogy to help folks grasp how web hosting works in relation to their own online assets, but there isn’t really anything that nails it. The closest I can get is a real estate analogy: Your web hosting is like the plot of land that your home sits on. Just the land – no house, not even an address. The files that make up your website are like the building; it might be a small cottage or it might be a giant office or apartment building.

Web hosting is a service that you pay for on a monthly or yearly basis. It can run anywhere from around $100/year to much, much more, depending on the needs and size of your website. If you don’t renew your hosting service (if, for example, you fail to update the expiration date on the credit card on file) all of your website files will go away. Some hosting companies don’t delete them all immediately, but many do. Or they make it very expensive for you to get them back. If you haven’t kept a backup somewhere other than on your plot of land, you may have to rebuild from scratch. 

Many people confuse their web hosting service with their domain registration; these are both necessary for your website, but are separate things. Since lots of hosting companies also do domain registration, you might renew them together and not know the difference. You may definitely have your domain name registered in a completely different place than your website files live. 

The domain name is very important to your business or brand; it is sort of like your address – where people know how to find you. But unlike the real world, where an address is attached to a plot of land, a domain name can move around if necessary. The address goes with whomever owns the domain.

Domain name registration is a yearly or 5-yearly renewal, and letting it expire accidentally can be a disaster. Domain reg is big business and security around domain reg can be very tight! It’s not expensive to register a domain under normal circumstances – around $18-20 a year – and you can usually renew for up to 10 years at a time. However, there are annoying, vaguely unethical companies that go around registering expired domains (often days after they expire), then trying to make money selling them back to their previous owners at extortionate prices (depending, of course, on how valuable they deem the domain name to be). 

I once let a domain name expire and later discovered that not only had someone else registered it, but they had somehow stolen all of the content that had been on my website and displayed it with the old domain – of course replacing many of the links with links to their own destinations. I complained to Google but never got them to remove my photos and name. Creepy! 

There are also unethical companies out there who will make use of publicly available info about domain owners to contact and trick you into “renewing” your domain with them, in effect, signing over your rights to it. So know your hosting company and domain registrar! Make sure that the email addresses on those accounts are kept current. Regaining access, even if it’s possible, can be a huge pain in the butt.

LastPass is a great way to keep track of your passwords!

In addition to a set of login/passwords for the hosting and the domain, you will likely have *another* set of credentials to log in to your WordPress dashboard. I’d say 85% of the time I ask a client for their hosting login, they send me their WordPress login instead. There are lots of ways to keep track of these credentials (and keeping them updated as well): a dedicated notebook, index cards (my fave!), and some very good online services like OnePass or Last Pass. So no matter which method you prefer, make sure you do it!

Anyway, this is really just a very basic layout of how the hosting and domain name work together and why it’s super important to keep track of any accounts, passwords and renewals for each. If you need help straightening out what is what for your web assets, contact me and I’ll help figure it out.