Becoming The Master of Your Domain

Domain Name

I’ve run into businesses that have actually lost their domain name (yourcompany.com) when changing web hosting providers. This is usually because their old provider was an individual that quit the business, or the company was switching to a cheap/free host and didn’t know how do the changeover.

This is bad, because you probably chose a good domain name up front, and over time people become used to that being your address, not to mention the links and other SEO signals the domain possesses. To help companies avoid such a fate, this article is going to look at managing domain names, DNS, and the like. It might sound a bit technical, but the basics aren’t that hard.

What is a Domain Name?

A domain name, as mentioned above, is something like mycompany.com. Although this will probably be used to direct people to your website, it is independent from the site. For instance, your website could be deleted, but your email at that domain could continue to work. To connect your domain with your web hosting, the domain is pointed at an IP address, something like 69.167.182.175. The IP address is what a visitor’s computer actually uses to find your site.

Since domain names are often purchased by web designers/hosts, some companies don’t even realize they can be purchased independently. It’s possible to buy .com domains for $10-15, from sites such as Namecheap.com or iWantMyName.com.

Guide to DNS

A basic understanding of DNS makes it easy for you to change webhosts when you get a new website, or setup a service such as Google Apps (includes Gmail for business).

One note – I would always make a note of write down the existing DNS records before making changes, so that you can go back to your previous setup if anything goes wrong.

Nameservers

DNS records are hosted on a nameserver somewhere on the internet. This is likely at your webhost, although the above-listed domain providers also provide free nameservers for your use.

The company with which you registered a domain will provide a place to input your nameservers. They part you need to enter will be along the lines of: ns.genericnameserver.com. You will usually have 2-5 records like this.

The namserver itself will have a DNS control panel (this may only be accessible to your webhost admins, in which case you need to email them to make edits). This is an example:

Cloudflare DNS Zone Settings

This image is actually from Cloudflare – which is a great alternative if your domain provider does not provide free DNS services, as it hosts your DNS and provides a variety speed & security bonuses as well.

In your DNS control panel you have the opportunity to create several types of records, which indicate what should happen when your domain name is entered into a web browser or used in an email.

A Records & CNAME

An A record is used to point a domain at an IP address (one of those long strings of periods and numbers). If you get a new web hosting provider, you can simply change your domain’s A record to the new IP, there’s no need to transfer the domain name to the webhost. You can see several A records in the screenshot above.

CNAME records are similar, but are used to point at another domain. For instance, if your website is hosted on Small Business Shift’s website system, you will be given an address such as yourcompany.smallbusinessshift.com – creating a CNAME record will make it look to viewers like the website is actually hosted at yourcompany.com.

Whatever control panel you use, A and CNAME records will need the IP or domain being pointed at, a time to live (TTL),which determines how frequently the records update – you can probably leave this at the default, and a subdomain, which I’ll cover next.

WWW & Subdomains

When you buy a domain, there is only one period – between the name and the com, net, org, or whatever you chose. You can create subdomains, which look like subdomain.yourcompany.com, by just creating additional domain records.

Normally you will have a blank record for the main domain, and another for the www. subdomain which points at the same location (yes, it is possible to have yourcompany.com and www.yourcompany.com go to different locations).

You may want to use subdomains for accessing different services – for instance, if you sign up for Google Apps, you can create subdomains such as mail.yourcompany.com, calendar.yourcompany.com, etc, for each of the services.

MX Records (Email)

Email services are also controlled through DNS records. The record type used is an MX record.

When signing up for an email service, you will be provided with the proper MX records, which are something like: ASPMX.L.GOOGLE.COM – that is an MX record for Google Apps. You will usually be provided with a few MX records, with ascending “priority” – a number which is entered alongside the record. Once these are entered, it will tell the world where to deliver your email messages.

Other

There are other types of DNS records, most of which you should not have to deal with.

TXT records are one exception, as they can be used for verifying your ownership of the domain in places such as Google Apps, or for email security. If you are asked to create one, it is similar to other types of records, and you just enter whatever text is provided by the company you are working with.

Update Times

One irritating part about changing DNS settings is that they do not update immediately, taking up to 24 hours or so depending on your TTL. You can lower the TTL first (to 100 or so) to speed the process, but it’s impossible to make immediate. It’s also possible to have delays due to caching from your internet provider or computer. Be sure to clear your web browser cache. You can also follow these instructions to clear your computer’s DNS cache. None of this should be necessary if you don’t need immediate access to the site.

Transferring a Domain

One of the common problems that small businesses run into is that their web designer registered their domain name himself. If he leaves the business, it can be hard to get access to the domain. The solution is to have your domain transferred to a big domain company, before your designer disappears. You might also transfer your domain because the self-management can be convenient, or to save some money – many webhosting firms charge 2-3 times what dedicated domain companies do.

Locks & EPP

To prepare for a transfer, you’ll need to make sure your domain is “unlocked” (designed to prevent unauthorized transfer) at the existing provider. Once it’s unlocked, you need to request an auth code, or “EPP code” which will is basically a secret password authorizing the transfer of your domain.

You should also make sure the admin email for your domain is set to an email you use, as you will need to confirm the transfer.

The Process

  • You’ll need to go to the new company you want to manage your domain, and purchase the domain transfer.
  • They will then ask for the EPP code.
  • You will then receive an email to the admin address for the domain, asking to verify the transfer.
  • Finally, after a delay which should be less than 2 days, the domain transfer will go through.
It’s likely you’ll have some downtime during this process, although you can minimize it by getting your nameservers setup at the new company in advance, if they allow it. You can also check out this article if any downtime is too much.

Conclusion

There are good reasons to separate your domain provider from your webhost, which may include cost, ease of management, and guaranteeing your control. On the other hand, there is some complexity involved. A basic understanding of DNS and managing a domain will at least make it easier to signup for services such as Google Apps, which can otherwise be a struggle. Have any questions? Ask in the comments.

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About Chris Piepho

Chris is the founder of Small Business Shift. You can learn more about him here. If you would like to work with Chris, please get in touch.

3 Responses to “Becoming The Master of Your Domain”

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