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.
Disclosure – I receive referral fees from many companies mentioned on this website. All my opinions and data are from my own experience as a paying customer or consultant to a paying customer.
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.
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.
But usually, there are a couple other terms that confuse issues.
There are a few terms that you’ll see in the process to clarify.
DNS (aka 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.
Provider Examples (Domains)
Provider Examples (Hosting)
- 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.
- 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).
- NameCheap (review).
- InMotion Hosting (review).
- SiteGround (review).
- Bluehost (review).
- Convenience and simplicity.
- Unified support from one company.
- Bundled specials and discounts.
- No additional configuration.
- Harder to up and leave 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 in a single bundle from a single company.
This path is otherwise known as going with a “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.
- Weebly (review).
- WordPress.com (review).
- GoDaddy Website Builder (review).
- Squarespace (review).
- Shopify (review).
- 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.
If you are considering a website project, then it’s critical to understand the difference between domain registration and web hosting.
They work together but also act like different products.
A domain is critical to any website project – whether you go with a hosting company or bundled services.
You might want to bookmark my website setup guide here.