My own domain? Why should I get one?

A friend was asking me about my email address (lonbil.co.uk) and wanted to know why I hadn’t just stuck with my gmail address or ISP-provided email address.

As we were in a rush, and the question was tangential to the task at hand, I told him I’d have a think about it and get back to him.

Types of address

I would classify email addresses into 4 broad groups:

  1. Work addresses: This will be something along the lines of john.doe@megacorpintersolar.com
    This has a lifetime of your employment with Mega Corp Inter Solar. When you leave, you email address will probably be de-activated.
  2. Free Addresses: These are your gmail,hotmail and yahoo type addresses. These are fine for personal contacts, and as contact addresses for websites and mailing lists.
  3. Vanity Addresses: I use this term to cover addresses for domains you own, but are named like thedoefmaily.org or jonathanliversingstoneseagull.org.
  4. Your Own Domain: This is identical to the both the work and vanity address-type address, but is not looks more like an organisation or business and is not (obviously) tied to an individual (or family).

Pros and cons of each type of address

The Work Address

This is obviously the address you use provided by your employer for employment-related communications. When you are communicating on behalf of your employer, this is the address you should use.

Most employers recognize that a certain amount on non-work communication will come through their servers, but this can be a grey area. Remember that messages are now held on company equipment and will be backed-up and archived as part of their normal business procedures. That flippant conversation, or highly personal family or health matter is now accessible by your employer, maybe for years after you left them. Did you mean to leave all that with them?

I have met people who have also used their work-email as a primary point of contact for retail and social sites. After leaving the employer, they’ve then been unable to update email address or passwords, or in the worst case access the sites because they no longer have access to the email. They’ve also complained about losing touch with people because all their email addresses were stored on their employer’s systems.

If you cease to work for your employer, hopefully your email address won’t be re-assigned immediately, so any email sent to you after you have left will bounce back to the sender. If your account is not disabled or deleted, you run the risk of personal emails being read by you ex-employer without your knowledge as their mail system will continue accept mail to your old address. If the email address is re-assigned to an ex-colleague, then you run the risk of personal messages being delivered to them.

If you are unsure if this is happening, you could send a quick test email to your own account a week after you have left to see if it bounces of gets delivered. If you are really paranoid, you could set up a disposable account with a free service provider and send yourself a message from there.

Because of these reasons it is unwise to use this as a primary contact address for any personal contacts, or as the contact email address for any non-work related websites you subscribe to.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it out to your personal contacts. It is a good emergency contact address, because most of us spend most of our time working, so in many jobs you will have access to the email continually throughout the day, which may not be the case for your personal addresses.

As an aside, the use of your employer’s address for company business also extends to contacts you have in other companies. If you are working with (say) Jane@intergalactic-megacorp and she starts requesting that you communicate with her using an email address that is not owned by her employer, alarm bells should primed, if not rung. Questions should be raised about why these messages need to be kept out of the other parties systems (which may form part of their system of record).

There may be good reasons for sending to an alternative address. For example Jane is traveling and doesn’t have access to her corporate email account, and needs to work on something immediately. In this case I would strongly recommend that you either make any superiors aware of this and note it as an exception to normal practice. It is also recommended to copy in Jane’s corporate address on any communications so that her employer’s systems have a record also. If Jane is not trying to circumvent her employers system, then she will have no objections.

You should also be aware that if you are sending confidential or restricted documents to Jane and it is going to public/free service, the documents are no longer in your control or possession as they be scanned etc by the provider (as part of the normal service), and you can also not be sure in any what that Jane’s account hasn’t been hacked, or she’s sharing her password with other people etc. There may be corporate policies restricting the use of personal accounts for sending or receiving work-related emails. Ignore these at your own risk.

The Free Addresses

These are the ubiquitous Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo and so on addresses. These are useful to have. They are convenient, and can be accessed from almost any internet accessible computer (though many employers will restrict access to these sites as part of their security procedures).

I got my gmail address for so many years ago, it is just my initials and surname, without any numbers. During its lifetime, I’ve received family updates and personal information and photos from strangers, been signed up to various retailers, mailing lists and professional bodies, received invoices for goods that I haven’t ordered, and most recently the e-tickets for a flight on New Year’s Day (I hope the traveller has managed to retrieve their booking – I have no details except my own email address and their name). This sounds amusing, but my wife has received quite personal communications between individuals and their priest and job applications and résumés from strangers.

This could be people mistakenly entering their email address into a site (in which case, it really is their fault, they should take more care), but some could have been sent by correspondents who have mis-typed or incorrectly transcribed an address when they are sending a email. As most email programs also remember the last recipients, it only takes one person to do a reply all on a message where you are copied in, for your address to be entered into their recently used items, and used again in the future.

The comments above about your email being scanned by the provider and you being reliant on their security also apply. I admit I have several of these addresses, they are useful and they are free. But as such, I never use them for anything important or personal. They are very reliable, but if you’re not paying for it, any service you get from it is totally up to the provider. Quite a few years ago a plumber I knew was complaining about the lost business he had when hotmail was unavailable (it was many years ago!). I think he was expecting me to sympathize with him and provide him agreement. He wasn’t as happy when I asked him why he should expect them to provide him with any service, since it wasn’t critical enough for him to pay anything for. He didn’t like it being put in those terms. (Also, I don’t think he really missed any business – he was one of nature’s moaners.)

Now domains are so cheap to buy and easy to set up, seeing any company that is larger than a sole trader with a free email address plastered on the side of their van sends out a message which isn’t entirely positive.

Your own domain

This includes both vanity type addresses and more generic style domains. Most of the comments apply to both types, but I would like to highlight the difference I see between the two types of names at the end of this section.

In my opinion this is the best solution to getting your own personalized email address. Domains are now very cheap to buy. I had a quick look at one of the domain registrars and .co.uk addresses are £5.98 for two years and .com addresses can be had for the same period for £16.98. (There are other top level domains like .co, .org, .name and .me at a range of prices also). Picking up a cheap domain for your country is an easy and cost-effective way to get an address that belongs to you. A 10 year .co.uk address costs around £30.

By having your own domain, you own the part of the address on the right hand side of the @ sign in the address. This means that you create as many names on the left hand side of the address (depending on the way your registrar provides the addresses).

So, for example, Jane Janet Doe buys the domain myverynewdomain.co.uk. This gives you the freedom to do things like:

  • Jane.Doe@myverynewdomain.co.uk: A formal address for official communications, résumés etc.
  • Jane@myverynewdomain.co.uk: The address Jane uses for informal emails
  • JJD@myverynewdomain.co.uk: A quick shorthand address for registering with retailers and other websites
  • bigshop@myverynewdomain.co.uk: The email Jane used when she registered with BigSHoP. This email is only used for this site, so the only messages sent to this address should come from BigSHoP.

These may all be delivered to a single email address. This means Jane still checks a single email account to pick up all her email, but she can use a better looking address than JaneJanetDoe271@hogmail.com.

The registrar I use allows multiple addresses to be configured to redirect another email address. (The term Catch-all forwarding is used on the set-up pages.) A big advantage to this is that as long as the sender types the domain correctly, Jane will receive the message. No longer does she have to worry that someone is sending the message to JaneJanetDoe217@hogmail.com when they meant to type JaneJanetDoe271@hogmail.com. Message to jnae@myverynewdomain.co.uk will arrive as well as messages to Jane@myverynewdomain.co.uk.

I said I’d put a note about the difference between I call vanity and ordinary domain addresses. I’ll hold my hands up and freely admit that it is really just down to personal taste (in this case, mine). On the masthead of letters, résumés/CVs I’d rather see Jane@neutralsoundingdomain.com than a cutesy jane@thewonderfuldoefamily.org. Also, if you have a more common name, setting yourself up as jane@the_wonderfuldoefamily.org or jane@thewonderfuldoefamily5.org leads you into the same problems as the public/free accounts where someone could easily transpose a character or miss a crucial hyphen or underscore and again messages intended for you are sent elsewhere.

One final advantage of having your own domain is that you are no longer tied to your ISP. When I got my first internet account, the email addresses where all based on the ISP’s name. This is still common, so you’ll often see addresses which have an ISP’s name on the right hand side of the @ sign. If you’ve had the account for any length of time, then you’ll have used this as your contact point for family and friends, the sign-on/contact address for online services, retailers and so one. You are practically in the same position as using your employer’s address for this type of contact, only now you are tied to your ISP, because if you leave you run the risk of people not being able to contact you, and not being able to access or reset details on various websites. Owning your own domain means you can pick the most cost efficient ISP and change as needed. Even changing country becomes a lot easier.

Types of email re-direction

This is a huge topic so I just want to give a quick overview of the way you could manage your own domains.

In this example, Jane already has a free email address provided by freemailprovider.com which is jane_doe@freemailprovider.com. She has chosen a new domain new-muse-example.co.uk and checked it is available by logging into registrar and searching to see if it is available. (It was available when I wrote this)

Option 1: Simple Re-direction

In this case her provider holds the fact that she owns the name and as part of the service will redirect any mail that arrives for new-muse-example.co.uk to another address. Jane instructs the registrar to forward all mail to jane_doe@freemailprovider.com.

Now Jane can invent as many addresses she wants, as long as they belong to the domain new-muse-example.co.uk. (This means that @new-muse-example.co.uk never changes, but the names on the left of the @ sign can be anything.)

Any mail that Jane sends from her account will come from jane_doe@freemailprovider.com, so she may need to explicitly set the reply-to setting in her email client to her new domain email.

A word of warning; not all registrars offer this service, so if you want to go down this route, check that the registrar you choose offers this.

Option 2: Use Google’s gmail to send/receive email for your domain

This is an option if you have a gmail account. You can configure gmail to send and receive email for your domain. This means mail will also look like it comes from you. You will need to do some manual configuration of your gmail account. Instructions on how to do this can be found by searching Using Gmail with your own domain. The caveats about free services continues to apply.

Option 3: Registrar hosted email

Some registrars offer the service of hosting mailboxes on their servers. Some registrars may offer this for free, others may change. Advantages of this are really the same as using google, except if you use the service provided by the registrar the amount of setting up required should be minimal to none.

If the registrar is providing this service for free, then your expectations for service delivery should be on par with any other free service (with just the ease of set-up being the bonus). If you pay for the service, then you should look through the terms & conditions to see what limits (mailbox size/message size/message lifetime) are allowed, the service availability levels and any recovery/backup procedures and recovery times are given. You are now a paying customer, so you should expect more than someone who’s using the service for free!

Option 4: Do it yourself

The other three options are aimed more at a non-technical user. If you fall into this fourth category, then you’ll probably be looking around the internet for other how-to documents, or maybe even reading documentation.

Options here range from using the registrar’s mail service as a store & forward system, to running your own complete mail system with mail delivered directly to your own servers. Discussion on this is well beyond the scope of this article.

So, now what?

The cost of owning your own domain is now very cheap, so creating an domain and standing out from the swathes of hotmail accounts is easy. For a low-cost you can have your own domain for your business, organisation or family. The ability to forward mail on to other accounts means you can test the waters to see if this works for you without committing to a large cost or making a long-term commitment.

The flexibility means you can start small and grow at the pace you want. The flexibility of having your own domain cuts the ties that an existing email provider may have over you as you transfer contacts and web contacts to your new domain. By cutting the link between your ISP’s provided address and your email domains, you have the freedom to move from your existing ISP to another whilst keeping all your addresses.

For the ultimate in flexibility, picking a non-geographic domain means that moving country means you can also change registrars if you move country, giving you the maximum control and flexibility over your domain.

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