Web Hosting and Domain Registration are two elements of running a website. But it’s important to understand the difference and use cases.
Web Hosting is an account on a computer (aka server) that can store and serve website files via the Internet.
Domain Registration is leasing a human-readable word (e.g., amazon.com) that directs people to specific website files via a browser.
As an analogy, a domain is an “address” on the Internet. Hosting is the “land” or space where your website files live.
That’s the short version. But there’s more to web hosting vs. domain registration than their definition.
How Hosting & Domains Work
Web hosting and domain registration are frequently paired together. But it’s important to understand exactly what they do.
Internet addresses are technically “IP Addresses.” IP addresses are a long series of numbers that make no sense to humans.
So instead of typing in 192.168.0.1.1 to access a website, the website owner can register a domain that will route to that specific IP address.
When you register a domain name, you are leasing it from the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers(ICANN). ICANN provides domains via approved registrars.
A domain does not do anything on its own. Registration provides you the right to “point” your domain wherever you want.
You can tell it to redirect to another website – But usually, you’ll want it to direct browsers to your website…on your hosting account.
You can read more in Domain Names, Explained post.
Web hosting is an account on a server that “hosts” your website files.
If you do not have a domain “pointed” to your hosting account, you can access it with a string of numbers in an IP address.
While you can technically build your own server at home, most people buy hosting from a hosting company.
A hosting company is a company that owns a bunch of pre-configured servers that they lease out according to different plans.
They will usually include instructions on how to “point” your domain to your hosting account. They’ll also provide instructions for software to build & manage your website.
You can read more in Website Hosting, Explained post.
But there are usually a few other terms that confuse issues.
There are a few terms that you’ll see in the process that need clarification.
DNS (Domain Name System)
DNS is a system that does the actual work for translating your domain name into an IP address. It can be separate from your domain registration and your hosting account. Usually, the domain registrar or your hosting company will provide you with a DNS.
Content Management System
You can technically write and upload plain HTML files to your hosting account. Most website owners want to edit and manage their website directly.
A content management system (CMS) is software that allows you to build, edit, and manage all your website files from a single dashboard. A CMS must be installed on your hosting account.
WordPress is the Internet’s most common content management system. But there is a myriad of options. I wrote a WordPress setup guide here.
Website Builder / eCommerce Software
You can install & run all sorts of software on your hosting account server. There are tools that allow drag and drop functionality, eCommerce functionality, or anything you can dream up.
Remember that all this software runs on a hosting account that you access via a domain name.
How To Get Started
So how do you get started with domain registration and web hosting?
Well – it depends on what you want to do. There are a lot of options that you can mix together to create different setups. It can be confusing, but nearly all options boil down to three usual paths.
Buy Domain & Hosting Separately
With this path, you register your domain at a domain company of your choice and your hosting at a hosting company. You’ll then “point” your domain to your hosting account.
I personally use this path. The domain for this site is at NameCheap and the hosting is through InMotion Hosting.
Provider Examples (Domains)
NameCheap (review) – focused on simplicity & cheap long-term pricing.
GoDaddy (review) – focused on promos & complementary products.
Google (review) – focused on integrating w/ Google products.
Provider Examples (Hosting)
InMotion Hosting (review) – focused on support & overall value for businesses.
SiteGround (review) – focused on technical features for developers.
Bluehost (review) – focused on broad appeal with good usability.
Advantages of Buying Domains + Hosting Separately
Better long-term pricing.
Easier to leave with fewer service commitments.
Companies usually specialize in one or the other.
Cheaper if the hosting project won’t launch soon.
Disadvantages of Buying Domains + Hosting Separately
Lose out on short-term specials & discounts.
Not as convenient as using a single company.
Have to troubleshoot across different companies.
Extra configuration steps.
Once you buy your hosting, you can install website software on your account. I’ve written how to do this with free WordPress software here.
Buy Domain & Hosting Together
With this path, you buy your domain and hosting together from a single company.
This is the most common path to creating a website. It’s convenient and makes a lot of sense. Most domain providers also sell hosting. And most hosting providers also sell domains.
In fact, many hosting providers provide a free domain for the first year.
Provider Examples (Hosting + Domain)
GoDaddy (review) – cheap promotional domains with ok hosting.
NameCheap (review) – cheap domains & hosting with feature caps.
InMotion Hosting (review) – focus on support & value with higher pricing for hosting & domain renewal.
Bluehost (review) – focus on usability & broad appeal w/ free domain for a year and less expensive hosting.
Convenience and simplicity.
Unified support from one company.
Bundled specials and discounts.
No additional configuration.
Harder to leave & transition to a new company or use backup services.
More expensive long-term with pricier domain renewals.
Hard to manage many domains, especially if some are inactive.
Loss of specialization in domain services (or hosting services).
Once you purchase hosting, you can install website software on your account and go from there. I’ve written how to do this with free WordPress software here.
With this option, you always have the option to transfer your domain over to your hosting company.
Buy Everything Bundled Together
With this path, you buy your domain, hosting, and your website software andwebsite services in a single bundle from a single company.
This path is otherwise known as going with a hosted “website builder.”
This path is common among website owners. It’s convenient. It’s simple and it makes a lot of sense for many website owners.
What is important is to recognize that you are still paying for the same elements as the first two options. You are simply paying for a bundle with everything included.
Wix (review) – focused on broad appeal w/ drag & drop editor.
Weebly (review) – focused on small shops & projects w/ usable editor.
WordPress.com (review) – focused on content-heavy sites.
GoDaddy Website Builder (review) – focused on basic, simple sites.
Shopify (review) – focused on growing online stores.
Convenience and simplicity.
Unified support for a single, proprietary product.
Integrated functionality so everything “just works”.
Professional speed, security, and maintenance.
Loss of total control & access to server.
Usually more expensive over long-term.
Inability to customize specific features/edits.
Hard to troubleshoot without customer support.
Hard to leave the company for a different option.
Once you’ve chosen and activated your plan, you’ll have to follow the company’s steps to get started. They have usually laid out a clear path to get your website in place and live.