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When you register a domain you may be offered a plethora of extra-cost options. Which do you domain registration options do you really need, and why?
I own a few domains, and each year when the come up for renewal my registrar lists a bunch of services I don't understand, but I'm afraid not to renew them since I need my domain to keep working. What do I really need?
I'm going to use this as an excuse to define a few terms.
Many registrars bundle several services together to make it easier for the average user to own and operate a domain. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that some services are required and others are not. And knowing what's what can save you a little money.
Let's look at the three required elements to put a web site on the internet.
1. Domain Name Registration
Registration is just that act of taking ownership of an internet domain name.
Really. That's all it is.
So, for example, I went to a domain registrar and registered the domain "ask-leo.com". (I happen to use SimpleURL for all my domain registrations.)
But as I said, all that did is register my ownership of the domain, it did nothing to actually set it up on the web. (Most registrars will actually give it a temporary home, so that if you try to actually go to your newly registered domain it'll display some kind of "coming soon" page instead of "not found".)
2. Web Site or Domain Hosting
Now that you own the rights to your domain, you need to have a place to put the actual web pages. This is done by establishing an account at a hosting service who then gives you space on and access to one of their servers that sit on the internet. You then upload your files to that server where later visitors to your web site can view them.
Most common for beginning or smaller web sites are what's called "shared hosting". That means that your web site sits on the same physical servers as many others. In fact the sites may all share the same IP address, since only a single IP address is required to identify the server itself.
There are many, many shared hosting services out there. How you choose one really depends on your site's requirements and the reputation of the host itself.
While Ask Leo! is not on a shared hosting service - I have a dedicated server - the same concepts apply. All the files that make up the web site are located on that server. In fact, all the files that make up several web sites sit on the same server at the same IP address, which is currently 126.96.36.199.
3. Domain Name Services
So you own your domain, and you have your site sitting on a server somewhere ready for people to visit. How do you tell the world that your domain name is on that server?
That's where Domain Name Services, or DNS, comes in.
DNS, at its simplest, simply said "this domain name means that IP address".
So, using myself as an example once again, I've defined "ask-leo.com" in DNS to be 188.8.131.52. That way, when you type ask-leo.com into your browser, it looks up the IP address in DNS and then connects to the server at that IP address to fetch your content.
Oh, and my DNS services are provided by my server's hosting company.
(And for the terminally curious, this tool will show you the domains that are all configured to point at the same IP address.)
So Who Provides What?
As you can see, I've got my services spread out: I register my domain in one place, I host my web sites somewhere else, and manage my DNS entries myself.
Many registrars (up at step one, when you purchase your domain name), will actually include all three services: registration, hosting, and DNS. And for many folks that's a fine and simple solution if that's all they're paying for (more on that in a second).
So when would you want to separate the services out as I have? Typically it's for two reasons: control and cost. Most of the registrar's combination packages are more expensive than you might be able to find if you researched the alternative. Granted, they're saving you the time and effort of doing that research or managing a little more yourself, but for an annual expense, it's an opportunity to reduce an ongoing cost.
What about these other services?
Here's where things get interesting, as many registrars and even hosting services will include, or attempt to get you to purchase, additional services that in all honesty you probably don't need.
Search Engine "Stuff" - many registrars or hosting companies will offer to submit your site to the search engines, and/or keep doing something that supposedly will get you into the search engine results. I have two opinions on this: why pay annually for something that needs to be done only once? And why pay at all for something that's better done in other ways? (The best way to get noticed in the search engine is simply to have other sites link to you. That's free.)
Analytics - Analytics packages allow you to see how many visitors your site is getting, and various characteristics about those visitors. In the past they were actually valuable services, but in recent years I've become a big fan of Google Analytics as a very powerful and free analytics package. Together with Google's Webmaster Tools, also free, you'll have more analytic data than you'll know what to do with.
Site Search - Some will attempt to sell you site search as an extra cost option. For a monthly fee you'll get a snippet of HTML code you can put on your site that will allow visitors to search the content on your site. In most cases, it's much more cost effective to use Google's Site Search which does the same thing, once again for free. The drawback is that it uses Google's index, which may be somewhat out of date for sites that aren't getting a lot of traffic.
Message Boards, Guest Books, Hit Counters and the like - These extra cost options are almost always available elsewhere for less.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I have a somewhat skewed perspective. I'd never pay for some of those options because, quite frankly, I can do them myself or quickly find them elsewhere for much less. Not everyone can do that, and I do understand that sometimes it's easier to pay for the convenience. But my advice here is simply to know what you need and make conscious decisions rather than just accepting whatever the hosting companies would throw at you.
And, even further, sometimes you do need to purchase extra-cost services. You might need things like shopping carts for ecommerce or certificates for https support and the like. But once again, this is a case where it's very important to shop around and get educated so that you really know exactly what it is you need. Your host and registrar may be convenient and occasionally they're even cost effective. But as always, there are frequently more flexible and less expensive options as well.
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