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How Do Domain Names Work?
Therapists aren’t alone in being confused about domain names. Despite the Internet being commonplace for over twenty years now, the inner workings of Domain Name Service remain a mystery to many. Yet, it is very important that any business owner understand how it works since it plays a significant role in many of your business, technology, and marketing decisions. The questions that most often get asked about domain registration include:
- Do I have to host my domain with my web host?
- How are my domain, web host, and email connected?
The Technical Bits
Let’s start with the technical details, and then I’ll draw an analogy to help pull it all together. When a domain is registered, three important things are established; first, the owner of the domain name (the Registrant), the company responsible for maintaining the domain name records (the Registrar), and the Name Server(s). In many cases, the Registrar and Name Servers are connected/owned by the same company, but that’s not required. At this point, your domain isn’t actually doing anything but sitting there. It’s simply a placeholder and not associated with a web site, email address, or anything else. This is where Domain Name Service comes in.
Devices connected to the Internet, (like web servers, email servers, and even your computer) are assigned a numerical Internet Protocol (IP) Address that looks something like 192.168.1.1 Imagine having to remember the numerical address of all the web sites you’d like to visit! Fortunately, you don’t have to. Domain Name Service (DNS) converts the domain name to those numerical addresses.
To give you a visual, here’s a simplified version of what a DNS record looks like:
Domain name – www.tameyourpractice.com
Name Type Address
www A 18.104.22.1689
@ MX 22.214.171.1249
*For the curious, A = Address and MX = Mail Exchange (because it involves email.. see the “@”)
When you type “www.tameyourpractice.com” into your web browser, DNS responds, directing you to the actual numerical address of the server hosting the Tame Your Practice web site. It knows where to send you because a) of the “www” and b) you’re using a web browser so it knows you want to go to the web site.
Here’s the kicker. Other services for Tame Your Practice, like email, might be hosted on an entirely different server, and thus have an entirely different IP address. Fortunately, because of the magic of domain names, you don’t need to know that. All you have to do is send us an email to www.tameyourpractice.com (our contact form makes this really easy), and DNS points it to the correct server. Importantly, it’s actually recommended that you host your DNS separately from your web hosting, and both separate from your email. Kat Love has written an excellent article on that topic. The confusion often comes in because there are so many companies (like the host I use, recommend, and am an affiliate for – BlueHost) that provide everything in one nice package (domain registration and hosting, web hosting, email, and more). People sometimes assume that’s just how it’s done. Remember that you have important choices and can host each service with a different company.
Okay, but What Does It All Mean?
Let’s bring this all together with an analogy. Consider your name. Even though someone may know your name, they may not know where you live, or how to reach you by phone. This is akin to how domain names work. Consider someone in your contacts list. You may have their street address, their home phone, their cell phone, their email address. When you decide to contact them, which path you follow will depend on how you want to communicate with them. You don’t simply call out their name and hope for the best. You navigate to their name in contacts, and choose the correct item. That contact listing is your own personal DNS for that person. With domain names, you don’t have to keep all the IP addresses in a contact list, DNS does the calling and navigating for you.
Need help choosing a domain name or deciding what services you need for your practice (web hosting? Secure email? EHR?). Concerned about using a patchwork of solutions that don’t work well together? Let us help you identify a set of tools that fit your practice and goals.
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About the Author
Rob has been covering technology and business news for mental health professionals since 2011. His extensive experience in IT, business, and private practice allow him to synthesize information in a friendly, digestible manner. He also enjoys time with his family, ultimate frisbee, and board gaming.