Want your very own web site address, but don't want to mess with pay-for hosting packages or server configuration? Today you can buy a domain name for around 10 bucks a year (or less) and map it to a variety of free web-based apps for no-mess and no-cost hosting. Typical commercial web hosting starts at around $100 a year and comes with clunky webmail and apps you have to set up yourself. Instead, you can have a full-featured web site with multiple spacious email accounts, blog or static web page hosting, and other services for free. You don't have to lease server space or run your own server to have your own URL. Let's take a look at how you can set up a complete domain name backend for free.
Why a Custom Domain?
Lots of web publishing and email services out there hand out web addresses for free. You can have
you.wordpress.com for your blog, a
freewebs.com/you address for your regular web page, and a
[email protected] email address without getting any domain names involved. Plus, the domain name itself is not free; typically you'll pay $10 to $20 a year to register your URL.
So why get a domain name at all? Well, there are a few advantages to going the extra step and buying your own URL instead of using these addresses:
- It looks more professional. If you're an individual who's serious about your web presence, a freelancer, or a small business owner, a custom domain name is a must. It's memorable, permanent, and at first glance it appears a lot more legitimate than a
freewebs.com/usernameaddress that advertises the fact that you're using free services.
- It's a permanent pointer to your stuff online. Your domain name is a permanent pointer to your home online, that visitors (and the Googlebot) will refer to regardless of what tools you use on the backend. With your own domain, you can start out with a nameplate site, move onto a free blog, transfer to a pay-for hosted blog package, then opt for full-on commercial hosting without ever changing your URL. To have a say in what Google says about you, you want a custom domain that the Googlebot can find and rank as the best source of information about you over time.
- YOU own it. While you may be using free services behind your domain, YOU own your domain name and you can point it wherever you please. So if any service you're using doesn't cut the mustard or goes bankrupt some day? You simply move to another service using your registrar's tools (which you do pay for in your registration fee), but your visitors don't have to change their bookmarks.
Host Your Web Page or Blog
Whether you want to set up a static nameplate (or "brochure") web site or a constantly-updated blog at your domain, there are a few services that let you do so. The following list is not exhaustive, but can definitely get you started:
- Blogspot (weblog host)Set up your own blog at Google's hosted Blogspot service but ditch the
yourusername.blogspot.comaddress. Here's how to map your custom domain name to your Blogspot blog.
- Tumblr (weblog host)Busier folks who want a quick-to-update, simple blog should check out the excellent Tumblr service, which also supports custom domains for free. If you're not familiar with Tumblr and tumblelogs in general, check out my previous feature on setting up an instant, no-overhead blog with Tumblr. (The blog at my personal domain,
scribbling.net, is graciously hosted by Tumblr for free.)
- Google Page Creator (static web pages)If you use Google Apps For Your Domain (and you'll want to, more on that below), you can use Google Page Creator to put together your nameplate or brochure site that comes up when visitors type your domain into their web browsers. Offering 100MB of free storage space, Page Creator comes with an in-browser WYSIWYG editor for designing and managing your pages, and a in-browser upload tool for images and other files (no FTP access).
Get Gmail at Your Domain
While you can send messages from any address using regular old Gmail, in some clients your recipient will see "on behalf of [email protected]" in the message header. However, using Google Apps For Your Domain (GAppsFYD) Standard (read:free), you can have Gmail mapped directly to your domain name, meaning the messages you send from it offer no indication they're hosted at Google. That means you get Gmail's storage, spam filtering, labels, and the rest on the backend, and as far as your recipients know, you're using a commercial (or your own) email host. Gmail blows the typical web-based email that comes with most pay-for hosting packages out of the water (sorry SquirrelMail.) With IMAP and POP access, you can use it with your desktop email client of choice, from Thunderbird to Outlook. And you get all this with GAppFYD Standard Edition, not the pay-for Premier service.
But before you go moving from vanilla Gmail to GAppsFYD Gmail, there's one thing you need to know: Google rolls out Gmail feature additions and updates to @gmail accounts faster than GAppsFYD accounts. As of writing, while a free @gmail account is now rockin' coloured labels, a fabulous Java-based mobile app, an improved Contacts manager, and faster performance, GAppsFYD Gmail does not.
More Google Apps For Your Domain
While Gmail is the most well-known tool in Google Apps for Your Domain, there are a bunch more services you can enable for your GAppsFYD account as well, including Google Calendar, Google Docs, a personalised homepage (ala iGoogle) and Google Talk. Remember, you can create up to 50 [email protected] for the services you enable on your account, too, so folks at your organisation can share calendars and chat with their usernames at your domain name. Click to enlarge this screengrab of the GAppsFYD administrator control panel.
Here's more on what you can do with Google Apps for Your Domain (great comments and testimonials from Lifehacker readers on that post, too.)
In fact, if Google Apps For Your Domain seems to be all you want and need, and you don't already own a domain name, the Name.com domain registrar has a cheap deal for first-timers using Google Apps. For $7 a year, register your domain at Name.com and get it automatically configured to work with Google Apps, no setup on your part required. Note: we haven't tried Name.com's service ourselves.
Frequently Asked Questions
Wait, how does this work exactly? How does the free service provider know about my URL?
In order to point your domain at the service of your choice, you'll have to change its settings at your domain registrar AND set up the free service itself to know you're using it with your domain. For example, here's Google Apps For Your Domain's extensive Help section on getting your domain name set up. Consult the help pages at the service of your choice (or use the links above) for more details.
I already paid for web hosting, but now I realise I paid for more than I want. How do I move over to a free service?
All you have to do is configure your domain and the free service to work together. Once the domain is migrated over to the free backend tools, you can cancel your web hosting account.
I already paid for web and email hosting. I want to keep my web pages as they are, but I just want Gmail for email instead. Can I do that? How do I move over?
You can do that. Google Apps For Your Domain is a buffet situation: You can use as many or as few of the offerings as you'd like. To just get Gmail for your domain, just configure the Gmail-specific settings at your registrar and in GAppsFYD. Then you may want to POP the messages from your original provider into Gmail once you've moved over to keep your past messages. When you move your email to Gmail, it's hosted completely on Google's servers—ending the need for email space and accounts on your original provider.
I don't have my own domain, but you've convinced me to invest in one. What should I know before I do that?
Most domain registrars have search tools that check to see if that perfect domain name you want is available. However, a few other non-registrar domain check tools are pretty good, too. Check out Bust a Name and Domain Hacks. See also Lifehacker reader recommendations for good domain registrars, too.
Don't You Get What You Pay For? (The Drawbacks to Free Apps)
The biggest difference between hosting your web site and email with free apps and pay-for apps is support. With a commercial hosting package, if your site goes down or you're not getting email, you call an 800 number and get a human on the line who will help you get through it. This isn't so with free webapps. While GApps is especially stable, I've had troubles in the past with free hosting services, and it's frustrating when your web site is down and you've got no recourse. My advice would be to avoid hosting critical domains on free services, for that very reason. But readers looking to set up a personal weblog or nameplate site? Go for it.
Do you have any tales of success or failure with free domain hosting? Got any domain registrar recommendations or free web hosting services you love? How do you host your domain for free or cheap? Tell us about it in the comments.