January 2, 2023
Talking to vendors about your website can be an intimidating experience. What is the difference between a host and a registrar? Are Nameservers and DNS the same thing? Why do I get funny looks from my web designer when I tell them I bought my site from GoDaddy? Knowing a few key terms can help you ask better questions, understand what services are being offered, and allow you to do more accurate comparison shopping.
Below are a few of the key terms that are involved when dealing with your company’s website.
This is the “address” of your website written in a human-readable format. Examples of domain names are:
This is the company you bought your domain name from. They maintain the required records for every domain purchased through them and report that information to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), an international non-profit organization that registers and coordinates all domain names globally. The information includes the name, physical address, email address, and phone number of the domain owners.
Examples of domain registrars are:
Many companies who provide services listed elsewhere in this document can also act as the registrar. WordPress.com is a good example of this. They are a web hosting provider, but will happily also sell you a domain name. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but best practice is to keep your Registrar and your Web Host separate.
The Domain Name System (DNS) is the global “phone book” which translates the human-readable domain names into specific, computer-readable addresses in order to retrieve the files being requested. For a detailed, and fairly entertaining, explanation of this complicated system you can read this comic.
The important thing for you to know about DNS is that your website and email service rely on DNS records to work properly. These records tell the internet where your website can be found and where email sent to your domain should be delivered. DNS records are recorded on a computer that is designated by your registrar. Those computers are called Nameservers.
In most cases, the domain registrar also provides Nameservers for you. However, you are free to use a different company’s Nameservers, and there are several technical reasons why this might be preferable. For instance, your Web Host may want you to use their nameservers so they can configure and manage some DNS records for you. For most cases, the default provided by the Registrar will be fine.
Host/Web Host/Hosting Provider#
Your Web Host or Hosting Provider is the company that provides the physical computer where your website resides. As with services mentioned above, it is somewhat common for a Registrar to also act as your Web Host. For example, you may purchase your domain from GoDaddy.com (Registrar) and also host your website on GoDaddy.com’s computers (Web Host). There is nothing inherently wrong with this, however as mentioned above, it is best practice to keep your Registrar and Host separate.
It is also worth mentioning that many companies in this industry began offering only one of these services and evolved to include others. In general, it’s best to pay a company for what they are best at. WordPress.com began as a Web Host and later added the Registrar service. GoDaddy.com did the opposite. They began as a Registrar and later added hosting.
Technically, a Web Host can be any computer running the correct software. Typically, it is located in a large data center with backup power and extremely fast internet connections.
CMS/Content Management System#
This is the software used to create and manage your website. There are a variety of tools for this, ranging from point and click what-you-see-is-what-you-get tools all the way to complex systems which require professional programmers to maintain.
Fundamentally, however, a CMS is just an organizational system for the information you want to present to the internet. It can be as simple as text files stored on your web host.
Examples of Content Management Systems include:
- Squarespace *a combination of Web Host and CMS
A Brief Note About the Biggest Players#
The two company names that almost everyone has heard of in the arena of website technology are GoDaddy and WordPress. It is worth taking a moment to explicitly point out how each of these brands functions.
GoDaddy was founded in 1997 as a domain registrar. By 2005 they were the largest registrar in the world, a position they still retain. Over time, they have added services beyond domain registration in order to become a one-stop-shop for all of your website needs. They provide web hosting, e-commerce, and email services (via Microsoft 365).
So, GoDaddy offers the services of a Registrar and Web Host. They also provide a choice of CMS within their web hosting products. You can typically choose between WordPress, Joomla!, and (for some customers) Drupal.
You can read more about GoDaddy and their preferences on their blog.
If you noticed above, we referred to WordPress in two different ways. Sometimes we said WordPress.com and other times we referred only to WordPress. This is because of WordPress’ unique history. The WordPress CMS was first released in 2002 as open source software. Today, the software is overseen by the WordPress Foundation. The CMS is so popular that in 2022, it is being used for 4 out of every 10 websites on the entire internet.
Separate from the WordPress Foundation, which is a non-profit, is Automattic a for-profit company that owns and operates several brands and services on the internet. One of these services is as a Web Host using the name WordPress.com (under a license agreement with the WordPress Foundation).
Because of this, it is often worth clarifying if you hear someone say “I have a WordPress site”. They could be referring to the CMS used to construct their site, but the actual Web Host could be any one of thousands of different providers.
Every industry has its buzz-words, catchphrases, and specific jargon that are second nature to the professionals that work in it. But that doesn’t mean that you need to feel confused or intimidated when talking to web designers or IT folks who work on your website. With the terms listed above, you will be able to ask better questions and be sure you fully understand what you are paying for and to whom.
If you are a small business who needs a website built for a reasonable price, be sure to check out Nerd Butler’s Small Business Web Packages.