If you are in the market to become a master of your own domain, here is everything that you need to know but that few people will take the time to tell you. I last wrote about this a year ago in WI #225, if you want some historical perspective:
Today's essay is written by my friend A. Lizard. He wishes that he could have had this information when he was shopping around for his domain name long ago.
While this seems obvious, it is especially important in the case of domain registration and hosting. Not reading the fine print can jeopardize your ability to do whatever you had in mind with your site, whether you are planning to do business with it, transfer it, or host controversial content. Or not understanding what you bought could cost you your domain and all the work and money you put into promoting it. Find the legal information in "Terms of Service" (TOS) or "Authorized/Acceptable Use Policy" (AUP).
Also look for restrictions on the use of the hosted site. Non-commercial/personal only? No adult content? Other content restrictions? Fine print saying, "We own any content you post?" (Geocities actually did this once on their free web spaces and changed their mind when users pulled their sites en masse.)
Make certain your intended use is consistent with the TOS before you contract with them. If you are really getting a low monthly price, check the setup fee. I got an ugly surprise that way once. Get legal advice if necessary. If you get any information regarding interpretation of the TOS from the provider, get it in writing and save it.
Finally, make sure you read the information regarding the domain registrar: Look for restrictions on domain transfer and make SURE you own the site you bought.
Finding out what a vendor has to say for itself is just a matter of going to their site or their ads. The bad news, if any, about a provider will be in neither. For user experience with specific host or domain service providers, try www.eopinions.com, slashdot.org and www.google.com -- just search on the proposed provider name.
When I look for a vendor, I check user reviews and comments on providers that look interesting, then check with a few of the authors of these comments to make sure the people and the opinions were real, not astroturf. (Astroturf refers to phony grass-roots public opinions about an organization coming from employees or PR firms.)
Go to www.domainnamebuyersguide.com and look at the "Legal Ranking" page. See if your proposed choice is represented and check out their comments, especially the CONSUMER ALERT icon.
Ok, now it is time to get down to business. Your first major decision will be picking where you are going to register your domain, called a registrar in the business. This is the company that handles all the administrative details about your domain, but doesn't actually host your actual web content. You want a separate company for each task (registrar and hosting), because they require two different sets of skills.
Unless you already have a host provider picked, make sure your domain provider has a "domain parking" option, this means they will provide a spot on the web corresponding to your domain required for the technical portion of the records so that it can be registered. This is NOT a real web site, this simply means that requests for www.yourdomain.com will be pointed to a "domain reserved" page hosted on the registrar site, with none of your content on it. This is usually but not always free, so make sure of the charges if this is an issue. When you fill out the forms, make sure to check "domain parking" ON.
Should you use your existing ISP or web-hosting provider to host your domain? Probably not. Due to the different economics of an ISP vs. a specialized hosting provider, an ISP usually has to charge the user much more per month. No sense in you picking up the tab.
Should you use your existing ISP to register your domain? Emphatically, No. There are two reasons. The main reason has to do with control. Your ISP usually put their own information in one or more of the contact fields and they may keep control over the password to change this information. This gives them control over your site. In the event of a business dispute between you and your provider or your deciding to change providers, this could be a serious problem. If the provider goes broke, you might not even be able to find anybody to contact about changing providers. Having control means you can keep your site running.
This is the situation with respect with NameZero, and I wouldn't recommend them for hosting for this reason. THEY own "your" domain. Anything you register is actually registered to them. Once the free trial ends, you'll have to buy it back for inflated prices. Best to look elsewhere.
Network Solutions, which once upon a time was the only registrar in the world, is overpriced and has many user complaints. I don't recommend them either. For more information, go here.
Register.com charges $35/year. This is overpriced for commodity domains (.com, .net, and .org). Their non-commodity domain service is more interesting for .biz, .info, and over 30 foreign domains. [ed. Note: Strom has used Register.com for several years and likes them a great deal, and doesn't mind the price.]
GoDaddy: I've been using them, and they charge $8.95 a year for .com/.net/.org domains. Their turnaround is fast (two days), and I've had no problems with them. Eopinions doesn't have a listing for them.
Finally, check out domain providers using OpenSRS as a back end. I'll probably be using one in future. OpenSRS providers cost a few more dollars per year, but offer two important features. First, you have complete control over all contact and registration information online either from your domain reseller or from OpenSRS itself. That is nice.
Second, if your registrar goes out of business, or you have problems getting your changes entered due to technical or customer service problems at your registrar, you can go as an end user directly to OpenSRS and change everything there yourself via a web form. And, most of the OpenSRS vendors also have similar TOS agreements, too. To get a list of OpenSRS providers, send an email request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The OpenSRS registrars have a third advantage, and that is they make it easy to transfer registrars easily. With others this can be expensive, and in some cases more expensive than creating the domain initially. For non-OpenSRS domains, this usually requires some actual paperwork to accomplish. You have to print forms and snailmail them to the registrar along with your photo ID. Someone at the registrar has to manually process them. If you're planning to give a domain as a gift, set it up in the name of the person you're planning to give it to begin with and simply change the contact addresses later. Email contact with the provider *should* be pointed at you so you can resolve any problems *before* you give the gift.
One example of an OpenSRS provider is EasyDNS. While I regard their $25/year cost as a bit high, and their optional service DNSplus plan is even more expensive, it and other extra-cost optional services offered provides complete user control over all technical issues connected with the domain down to the MX/SOA record level. While this is of no special interest to anybody who is not an expert, this would be of great value to that expert. If you're shopping on price, compare among the domain registry sites you will get on request from OpenSRS.
When you register your domain, you have to put in your contact information. This seems obvious, but has a few issues. I don't recommend putting your home address or phone number here because people can find out this information quite readily with a tool called Whois. Because this information is quite public, I definitely don't recommend putting an unlisted phone number into your domain registration. To get an idea of what kind of information is available, go to www.easywhois.com and enter any random domain name.
If you don't want your own name in the Whois database (because you have heard that spammers love to send email to these people), or you are registering a business organization domain, do as I did. Put in a non-personal email address. If you don't yet have an address, get a free one first and change it to a permanent address like email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org right after getting the hosting set up.
I would recommend that you get a post office box address for the domain registration address. If your domain registry can't contact you via email or phone, they may snailmail your reminder that you need to renew. If you or your company has moved, you may discover a problem by having your domain has been unplugged. Some very large companies and many individuals have gotten caught that way. If you're an individual, this is even more important. There are many people on the Net who aren't especially sane, some of which may be looking for you. Don't help them find you by making your home address available.
Making sure your contact names and email addresses are non-personal is even more important in a business. It is quite possible that any individual contact name for the network administrator or whoever is supposed to handle technical issues with the domain or billing for registration renewal won't be working there by the time renewal time comes around. Create an address to handle domain-related business and make sure that several responsible and knowledgeable people monitor it. Making sure the email@example.com is always pointed at whoever is responsible for the domain is good practice in any case.
More importantly, if a problem affecting other sites appears to have come from your domain (e.g. spam from firstname.lastname@example.org), and the individual email contact addresses don't work because their owners no longer work for the company, the next complaint about your domain will go to your Internet Service Provider. The first notice you may get that there is a problem may be when your company email or website is unplugged from the Net.
Once you have a registrar, you next want to find a place to actually host your site.
What's important to you depends on exactly what you're trying to do. Figure this out before you go host-shopping. The technical details do make a difference. This is most important if you have any intention of doing any sort of e-commerce on your site.
There are many host provider search engines that provide information on hosting providers. I like Hostsearch. c|Net and Internet.com have search tool as well. Hostsearch has a wide range of useful search options, including cost, server OS, web server software, and data transfer per month. Here is what I look for when I am searching for a hosting site:
· Total file space on site. While this may be important, most web sites don't take up that much physical storage -- 50 MB is usually plenty, unless you have plenty of graphics.
· Bandwidth allocation per month and cost per megabyte if your users download over that limit? Remember that every time a user browses a page through your site, that user is downloading that page and that counts against your bandwidth allowance! If you aren't running multimedia or graphics-intensive content, unless you have reason to expect a lot of traffic, this won't be that big a problem.
· Streaming audio and video support? If you plan to put out multimedia content, take another look at the above criteria, every time your user downloads a big audio or video, your bandwidth allowance just took a hit.
· Server type: Just save yourself trouble and look only in the Unix server category. And while you are at it, don't worry about server-side FrontPage support. This is a tool you are better off without. Some of you might argue with these, but I'll leave that for another essay.
I would stay away from the free hosting providers because they usually don't deliver what you need. For example, you don't really get your own domain, but something like yourdomain.freehost.com.
One other thing to look for. Common Gateway Interface or CGI allows the browser to run programs (scripts) on the server. These programs are commonly used for processing form-based mail, guestbooks and page counters. While this is not of great importance to the novice, not having access to CGI may be a problem for you later as your sophistication increases and you want to do more things with your site.
If your web account doesn't support CGI script-based form mail and you just want to handle mail forms, go to LI-Scripts. Some of the non-remotely hosted scripts look useful. The advantage of form mail is that not all browsers handle the "mailto:" tag properly and if you're doing this for an organization, you might not want to give the public a direct contact address for the company.
Good luck with becoming master of your own domain. As you can see, navigating the waters of these vendors isn't simple, but if you make the right choices for registrar and hosting provider you should have years of great service from both vendors. Of course, you still have to get your site up and maintain the content, but that's another story entirely.