To understand how your website is set up and how to maintain it, it's helpful to understand the difference between your website host, the company that maintains your website, and your domain registrar, the company that makes sure that your website's unique name is known on the Internet. They work hand-in-hand, but they are two separate things.
What does a website host do?
A website host is a company that stores all the files needed to show your website on the Internet. The two website hosts I work with are Squarespace and Weebly and they also happen to provide services for building your own website. With these companies, you build your website first, then you connect it to a domain to make it available on the Internet. That means you don't have to buy a domain before you build a website.
Your website is maintained by a website host
A website is a collection of files stored on computers provided by a website host company. Squarespace and Weebly are examples of website hosts that not only store your website files, but provide a program that lets you build your own website. As part of their services, website hosts also provide files that help your website work in a certain way, with extras like buttons and links that can be clicked and design styles that give you a head start in designing your website.
Website host plans offer a variety of features
Your website host offers you a website plan that gives you certain features. These features vary widely depending on the host, but can include the ability to show videos and other large files, the ability to sell products online (what's known as eCommerce), and the ability to interact with other programs outside of your website, like mailing list providers and appointment scheduling services. The more features you have, the more expensive the plan. Annual plans on Squarespace and Weebly range from $144–$216 a year for basic business websites. You must keep your website plan renewed to be sure your website continues to be available online. There are other website hosts that are less expensive, especially those that support WordPress websites, but those websites are generally harder to work with or have fewer features.
Purchasing a monthly or annual website host plan is like renting a house. The structure of the house, the heat and electricity, and the land around the house are all maintained by the website host. They don't belong to you. The text and images of your website do belong to you however. And just like the furnishings you move into a new house, you can move the files to another website host later on if you like.
What is a domain?
A domain is the unique name by which your website is known on the Internet. No other website in the world has the same domain name. Companies called domain registrars sell and maintain domain names, but an organization called ICANN is the central organizing authority that makes sure every domain name is unique. (ICANN stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.)
If you think of your website as living in a rented house, you can think of the domain as the sign in front of your house, indicating to visitors that they’ve found the right place. It is maintained separately from the files that make up your website.
The role of the domain registrar
Whomever you purchase your domain from is called a domain registrar. You purchase a domain name for a certain time period, usually from one to five years. The cost is about $20/year when you purchase a domain through Squarespace or Weebly, but the cost can be higher or lower depending on the domain registrar you choose and the domain name you want. It's really important to keep your domain renewed. In essence, you are renting the domain name and if you let the domain registration lapse, someone else can snap it up.
The domain registrar is responsible for maintaining your domain name on the Internet and making sure it is active. Even if you purchase a domain from the same company where you build your website, as you can with Squarespace or Weebly, that function is contracted out to another company that specializes in domain registration. That arrangement is hidden from you when you buy or renew your domain. The distinction is important though so you understand that your domain and your website are separate until they are made aware of each other when you finish building your website.
How do your domain and your website become best friends?
So, as I explained earlier, your website is managed and maintained by a website host and your domain is managed and maintained by a domain registrar. They are two separate companies holding some information about your online business, but they must become acquainted with each other to provide the full effect of a working website. In the finishing stages of building your website, you're asked to give the name of the domain for this website. That process then connects the website host and your particular set of files to the domain registrar, whose computers store information about your domain. With that action your website host now knows that it will always show your website when someone types your domain name.
You don't have to stay with these two companies for the life of your business though. You can switch website hosts and build a website using some other company's program or you can transfer the ownership of your domain to another registrar. If you switch the website host, you move your website files and then tell the domain registrar your files are in a new location. If you switch the domain registrar, you connect the transferred domain to your website to make it active.
So, as you can see, domains and websites need each other's company to reach their full potential, just as best friends often do.
I offer stress-free design and writing help to get your website launched or updated on Squarespace and Weebly. If you’re struggling to get your website going for your new business or passion project, see the Services page for the types of help I offer and then take me up on a free 30-minute no-obligation consultation. I’d love to hear from you. - Kerry