Understanding Website Hosting & DNS Basics

Setting up a website isn’t rocket science. Get past the jargon, and it’s actually quite easy to understand.

You have a business, you need a website. That’s a given. For a little while, a brand new business can get by with just a Facebook page, but sooner or later you’ll want to own your internet presence.

So, you find a registrar, choose a domain name, find a web host, set up hosting, add WordPress, build out your site, point your DNS to your web host, and voila! You have a website.

Yeah … huh?

Actually, yeah. That’s exactly how you do it. It sounds complicated because of the web developer jargon, but it’s not. Here’s the process, same as the above, in regular English:

  • Select the company to buy your domain name from (this is your domain name registrar).
    Typically, registrars charge a yearly fee to reserve a domain name and give the owner the right to use it. In addition to registering domain names, the registrar records where on the internet your website files are stored and directs your website traffic to that location.
  • Choose your domain name.
    When you purchase your domain name, unless you already have website hosting set up, select the option to park it. This means you own the domain name, but it isn’t pointing website traffic anywhere, yet.
  • Select a different company to store the files for your website on a computer that is always accessible to the internet (this is your web host).
    Your web host will store your website files on a computer called a domain nameserver.

>> At this point, you MAY want to consider hiring a developer, because they can do the next few steps seamlessly, where it may take you a bit of time to sort through. Either way, you SHOULD learn the basics of what’s involved. This is your business, after all.

Recommended Platform: WordPress

There are a lot of options when it comes to the framework for your website. I highly recommend WordPress because it is versatile, secure and search-engine friendly. The downside of WordPress is its learning curve, but I’ve found the most difficult part is setting up your site. Once that’s done, learning how to add pages and make changes is not hard to learn.

  • Have your web host create a WordPress installation for your website – this is often a ‘one-click’ installation. If that’s not an option, follow the installation instructions on WordPress.org.
  • Choose a WordPress theme for your site, or start with the TwentyNineteen theme that comes with WordPress.
  • Add pages and content to your site. (If you can use Microsoft Word, you can add a page to a WordPress website.)
  • When you’re happy with the way your website looks, it’s time to make it ‘public.’ Until your domain name is pointed to your web hosts’ nameserver, no one can view your website.
  • To point your domain name to your web host’s server, edit the DNS settings at your registrar. At your website host, look up your website’s nameservers; this will typically be something like ns1.supercp.com, ns2.supercp.com, etc. Log into your registrar, find the place to edit your DNS (domain nameserver) settings, and change the settings to your website’s nameservers.
  • Within 15 minutes to 24 hours (yes, it’s a big window, web developers share your frustration), your domain name will point to your web host, and your website will be live.

My domain name is heronco.com. My domain name registrar is DirectNIC, and my website files are hosted at A2Hosting.

Keep ‘Em Separated

Many web hosting companies, such as GoDaddy and A2, offer to serve as both registrar and website host. On the front end, this is simpler and sometimes less expensive. But simpler and cheaper don’t equal better, especially when your complete online presence is at stake.

Why? If your hosting company controls your domain name, your hosting and your email, you’ve got all your eggs in one basket. If something happens to the company, your online presence is kaput. (Think it couldn’t happen to a major hosting company? Keep reading.)

With everything separate, if you ever decide to change your web hosting company, all you have to do is log into your registrar and edit your DNS (domain nameserver) record to point it to a different web host. If your current host controls your domain name, things become exponentially more difficult – in extreme cases, they can lock your domain for up to 60 days. Having complete control over your own domain name is a much better situation to be in.

Ask Me How I Know

It’s a lesson I learned the hard way.

In August 2005, I gave birth to my youngest – a beautiful, perfectly healthy baby boy. Nine days later, I noticed during a middle-of-the-night feeding that he had a slight temperature, and mentioned it to my husband. Crazy thing: right after he was born, our pediatrician was in our hospital room and I sneezed. Our doctor nonchalantly turned to my husband and said, “By the way, healthy babies don’t get temperatures.”

Remembering that conversation, my husband insisted that we call the doctor’s office, even though it was 2 a.m. Less than four hours later, the emergency room physician gently told us that our son had meningitis and that there was a good chance he would not survive the next 24 hours.

We lived in Chattanooga, TN. A few hours later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, where I’m from.

In shock, I spent the next four days with my son in quarantined NICU, numbly staring at the television and the devastation Katrina unleashed. During that time, it never occurred to me that I had 24 websites hosted on servers in downtown New Orleans. Had I thought about it, I probably wouldn’t have worried, because I would have remembered that the company I used for web hosting – one of the top rated companies in the country at the time – had a mirrored backup server in San Francisco.

Except the unthinkable, the impossible, happened. Two days after the floods knocked out the company’s computers in New Orleans, their building in San Francisco caught fire. Temporarily at least, our website hosting was gone, and I was in no position to deal with it.

When the Easy Route Isn’t

Fortunately, my staff was on top of it. We had backups to every website. For 19 of them, they copied the sites to a new web host and changed the DNS settings at the registrar, pointing the domain names to the new host.

But for five of the sites, I had taken the easy route: in a hurry during setup, I bought the domain names through our hosting company and left them as our registrar. (Did I mention they had the highest customer service ratings in the country at the time? I thought we were safe.) No one could have foreseen a natural disaster on one coast and a fire on another temporarily knocking out the company, leaving us no way to edit the domain name settings for five stranded websites.

In the end – after several days – the websites were back up. And my son? He’s now a beautiful, perfectly healthy 13-year-old who’s a proud half-inch taller than his 15-year-old brother. No lasting damage from either crisis, but a lot of temporary heartaches.

Three takeaways: (1) Websites aren’t rocket science. Whether you handle it yourself or hire a developer, if you’re a business owner you can – and should – understand the basics of how they work. (2) Keep your domain name registrar and your website hosting separate. You never know what could happen. (3) Healthy babies don’t get temperatures.