The Relationship Between A Website, An Email Address, And A Domain
Say you enter a web address* into your browser or send an email. What happens next?
*a.k.a. a URL: Uniform Resource Locator
What is the domain?
A domain is something like yourwebsite.com
In https://www.yourwebsite.com/some-section/some-page the domain is still just yourwebsite.com
FYI — the .com part is known as a top-level domain (TLD). There are hundreds of TLDs available, such as .buzz and .clothing
FYI 2 — a subdomain is the part that comes before the domain, like in www.yourwebsite.com or news.yourwebsite.com the www and news parts are subdomains.
A domain is registered at a domain registrar.
Where does the domain point to?
The internet looks at the Domain Name Servers (DNS) of the domain to see where to send the web address request or email. It’s possible to send a web address request to one place and email to another.
Webserver / Webhosting
This is where the files that make up the web page live (which may in turn point to other webservers for more resources like images, videos, etcetera).
This is where email lives and gets routed through. It’s essentially just a webserver that can handle email.
So the process looks kind of like this:
The Confusing Part
Lots of companies will handle all of this for you so people often think they are all one thing that can’t be separated. In fact your domain, website hosting, and email hosting can, and arguably should, be separated. The reasons why or why not to separate them are a whole other topic!
How I (Generally) Recommend Doing It for Your Own Website
Domain: domains are essentially a commodity, so you might as well buy them cheaply (.com domains should be about $11/year). I swear by Namecheap, which offers free email forwarding as a perk.
DNS: keep your DNS “nameservers” at your domain registrar, for flexibility’s sake.
Website hosting: many websites will be fine on “shared” webhosting, but it’s usually worthwhile to pay up for the premium shared hosting (sometimes labeled as “pro”, “turbo”, or the like). If you use a hosted site builder like Squarespace or Weebly, the hosting is part of your subscription.
Email hosting: if you can, host your email with a dedicated provider such as Google’s G Suite. This seems to avoid some of the issues that can come from using the “free” email included with your webhosting package.
I run into questions about this stuff a lot, so I hope this helps clear things up!
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Earlier Post: Padlock your website: why and how to do it
Later Post: The Hourly Billing Renaissance