How Does Getting Online Work?

How do domain names, websites, and hosting all relate?

Due to this being a constant area of confusion, I thought I’d lay it out as simple as I could.

Simply put, you need three elements to have a live, viewable online presence.

  1. Domain Name
  2. Website
  3. Hosting

Because these items are all independent yet related is the source of the confusion.  For example, some people use the term ‘template’ implying this is their website (websites use templates, but seldom ARE templates).  Others ask things like “How do I point my website to a new hosting company?” (you don’t point your website, you point your domain name).  Others see no difference in this since the same company is where they host, purchased their domain name and also have a website with.  

So what’s the skinny?

Forget everything you ‘think’ you know if this is a confusing issue for you and focus only on the following:

First, all of these elements (i.e. domain name, website, and hosting service) are ALL SEPARATE COMPONENTS.  Whether they are all with the same company or not is just an interesting side fact.  You could just as easily have your domain name registered one place, have your hosting service somewhere else, and have me build your website ;)  Again, point to understand is regardless of where these elements exist (same company or not) they are separate components.

Second, it is very important to understand what each of these components do and what you can do with them.

Domain Name:

This is the url, the ‘.com’ of your website.  This is what users will type into the browser to get to your website.  This is a top tier level of control.  This is not a website and it is not hosting.  Yes, you may be at a company that also offers hosting in addition to domain name registration, but again, these are totally separate things.

A domain name is purchased at a registrar and there are many to choose from.  This step is simply grabbing your named place on the Internet.  Wherever you buy/register your domain name you’ll have an administrative area where you can control things like where it is pointed (we’ll get to that in a second.)  


Simply put, if another developer buys your domain name they own you!  Often times if you try and leave that developer or company they will hold your domain name ransom and either force you into using their future services or charging you a huge price to transfer ownership to you.  Whoever bought it owns it - period.  Notice how this can be very different from the one who actually uses it.

“But what if I trust my developer?”  Great! ... but what if a bus hits them one day or they fall off the face of the earth?  Now what?  There is NO WAY to get your domain name now unless you are Johnny on the spot when it expires to buy it again.  If someone else snatches it from you, you are back to square one.

Because of this, this is simply an asset you should purchase yourself.  It is best for everyone and too cheap not to.


A website is simply the files that make your online presence function and viewable to users.  It is not hosting, it is not your .com, it is not a template.  A website may make use of a template/theme/layout, but in all cases it is basically a group of code and files and folders.  That is all.  It will be these files that actually do the work of displaying your website when users visit the first item - your domain name.  A website can be a platform like Joomla, Drupal or Wordpress, or it can be custom coded.  Again, the common denominator here is they are package of code.  What may also be a part of this is a database in the case of Content Management Systems and Frameworks, which stores data on your content, users, ect...


A hosting company is a business that has the resources to broadcast the files of your website, through your domain name to the Internet.  Hosting companies use special computers to do this.  These computers are called ‘servers’.  A server has much in common to your desktop PC, in that is it a physical machine with a hard disc for storage.  It is just different in purpose and use.  Through your hosting account you will/should also have email functions available to you.

The only caveat with hosting is it must be associated with a domain name.  And now that completes the circle back to square one of first getting your domain name.

As mentioned above the special computer for a hosting company is called a server.  Believe it or not, each and every server (special computer) in the world actually has a name, much like you and I do.  But unlike human names, server names can not and do not repeat.  They are all different, all unique.  They have impersonal names like, or perhaps more personal names like  Either way, your hosting company will always have a unique name for their servers.

So how do you tell the Internet gods that you want your website files on this hosting company to be served to the Internet when they type in your domain name?  This is the process of “pointing your name servers”.  It sounds cryptic.  Remember in the domain name area above I mentioned that a domain name has an area to make administrative changes?  Now that area comes into play.  You must “point your domain name to your hosting company’s name servers”.  In other words, you need to declare that your domain name’s name servers are:

(you should at least have 2)

Of course the above will be unique to the company you are using, but this change takes place wherever you have your domain name registered.  Again, sometimes this can be at the same company, as hosting companies often offer domain name registration services.

So that in a nutshell is how it works.  All three of these elements must come together in order for you to have an online presence.  If they don’t, then simply put, you will not have an online presence.  Much like a three leaf clover has three separate leaves, independent of the other, you still need all three to call the thing a clover.