Written by Oscar
Domain names: the basics and what to document
This is a handy short piece covering the basics that you need to be aware of if you’re responsible for your company website and what we will ask for when preparing a website to go live.
We recommend that you document where this information is held and keep it up to date. We have created a template to get you started. It’s important from a risk perspective to ensure your business operations are not disrupted. In larger organisations this is usually handled by your IT department who will have controls in place to ensure any changes are properly planned and contingencies put in place if something goes wrong.
However we still recommend you have a basic understanding from the perspective of managing your internal stakeholders and who to contact if there is an urgent need. This is particularly important for marketeers. It’s certainly not a technical ‘how to’. Leave that to your IT department or us!
To start at the beginning, what is the role of DNS? It’s probably easier if we illustrate in the form of a chat. These two chats explain the difference between a usual look up versus that in-between periods when you've moved your website to a new IP address (i.e. a new server).
The basics you need to aware of:
‘Top Level Domain’
For example .com, .co.uk, .net, .digital etc.
Anything added to in front of your domain name.
For example, staging.yourcompany.com or even the more well known www which technically is a sub domain too. We will ask for sub domains to be set up so we can keep all the development site URLs nice and tidy.
The business that manages the registration of domain names.
It is also where you likely bought your domain but also whoever you’re now paying to maintain ownership. It is crucial you control this. Just take sure your credit card is valid or pre-pay for the next decade! We have too many times seen tears shed. If you’re unsure who your registrar is, try https://whois.domaintools.com
Domain Name System.
It’s the address book for all your domain related records e.g. where to send emails or where your website is. It allows computers to look up things you and I can easily remember, such as pepper.digital, and translate it to an IP address, in this case 126.96.36.199. A useful tool that we use is https://mxtoolbox.com which allows you to check what’s in the address book.
This is where the DNS records are kept and where they are edited.
This is often managed by your domain registrar and will be accessible in the same account log in. However for larger companies this is rarely the case.
If you are asked to find out where your DNS is managed, the first step is to find out where your nameserver is. Again, MXtoolbox to the rescue; https://mxtoolbox.com/SuperTool.aspx?action=a%3aPepper.digital&run=toolpage - under the details it says “Reported by liv.ns.cloudflare.com” which for example tells you that we are using Cloudflare. Armed with this you could make further enquiries internally to find out who has the log ins for the respective service. It might be your IT department or for smaller businesses it might be your web agency or whoever you have a hosting agreement with.
Our recommendation is that this is always controlled internally and is a key piece of your digital safeguards. If possible, use a name server that is separate from your registrar.
Time To Live. How often a DNS server should check for any changes.
It’s often 24 to 48 hours but also under 60 minutes in many cases. The golden rule is to check a few days before a launch and make sure they’re set to 60 seconds. You’ll thank us if there was ever a need to reverse the changes which form part of the fallback plans for any website launch.
Different types of DNS records
A records, TXT, CNAME, MX records… yup this is where we lose people too!
For the purposes of this article we’ll simply say that for any given website set up there may be a need to add additional records to your domains DNS. For example, we want to verify a Google service, set up a CDN and use a custom sub domain, verify a service to send emails from the website (SPF, DKIM etc.).
A template to track your set up
Now that you’re all up to speed on the ‘domain speak’, it’s time to get organised if you’re not already. We always liken it to insurance. You’ll be glad you hage all the information and contingency plans in place if it ever goes wrong but you hope to never have to use them.
You can copy our domain set up template here.
Also, whatever your do, do not add usernames and passwords to your spreadsheet. We see this too often and is the equivalent of handing the keys to all your digital services… including your email. We recommend you use an encrypted password manager to securely store your log in details.