Podcast Episode

395 – Understanding How DNS Works


Is there a plugin for that?

With more than 50,000 plugins in the WordPress repository, it’s hard to find the perfect one. Each week, I will highlight an interesting plugin form the repository.

For more great plugins, download my 50 Most Useful Plugins eBook.

Buttonizer is a smart conversion-targeted button that will make your website more efficient. From making a simple call button, to a navigation button to open Facebook messenger. The Buttonizer is a new way to give a boost to your number of interactions, actions and conversions from your website visitor by adding one or multiple Customizable Smart Multifunctional Floating Button in the corner of your website.

Understanding How DNS Works

Defining the terms:

  • Nameservers – use this to point your domain at another provider. It redirects everything: website, email, FTP, etc.
  • A Record – use this to direct your domain at an IP address
  • CNAME – works like A Record, but instead for redirecting to an IP address, it will redirect to a domain name
  • MX Records – specifies the server where you have your email hosted

After you’ve made changes to your DNS Settings, you can check their values here: WhatsMyDNS.

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Full Transcript

Business Transcription is provided by GMR Transcription.

On today’s episode, we’re going to talk all about DNS – how it works and what name servers are, A records, C names – all that good stuff. We’ll talk about that right here on Your Website Engineer Podcast, Episode No. 395.

[music plays]

Hello everybody. Welcome to another episode of Your Website Engineer Podcast. My name is Dustin Hartzler. I’m excited to be here with you today because we’re going to debunk and de-myth and try to figure out what all of this DNS stuff means and how it affects your website. And this is one of the topics that I talked about like way back – I think Episode like – in the first 10 or so. And I’m very confident, back then, I had no idea what I was talking about and I was just reading from a website.

But now, you know, five, six, seven years later, I have a lot better understanding of how DNS works and how you can manage the DNS pieces of your website to get your URLs working right, to get your email working right, and to do it without having to – you know – trial and error – and try to figure out is this going to break my site or not? So, we’ll talk about that in just a few minutes. I’ve got a couple of announcements by way of Automatic and then I’ve got a plugin to share with you.

The first announcement that I want to share with you today is about Simplenote. And I don’t know if you’ve ever checked out Simplenote, but Simplenote is a free app I guess. It is a platform agnostic app. There’s an app for your phone. There’s an app for your computer. But it is a – it’s an app that’s a note-taking app. It’s very similar to Notes on the Mac. It’s very similar to Evernote. It’s very similar to Bear – a lot of those things that are out there – but Simplenote is very simple. That’s where the name came from.

And basically, you have the ability to tag your notes. You can search your notes. One of my favorite things about Simplenote is it has the ability to sync data really, really quickly. So, if I ever needed information onto my iPad or my phone very quickly from my computer and I didn’t want to type it out, maybe it was some sort of big, long password or some keys or something, I could paste it into Simplenote, and by the time I picked up my other device, it was already and there and sunk. It’s amazing technology.

But now, the gist of what I want to share today is there’s been a new update for Simplenote and now you can sign in with a wordpress.com account. And so, it’s one fewer password that you have to remember. And so, I do recommend checking it out. It’s a really cool app and I use it for a lot of things. I don’t use it for long-term storage, but it’s more like a general note-taking thing.

And you know, if I’m going to the store and I need to grab five things, I’m going to put it in Simplenote real quick because I know that as soon as I put it there, it’s synced and I’m not going to lose the data. Or if I’m on my computer, you know, I can type, type, type – and then, as I walk out the door, it’s already on my phone. So, I really like Simplenote and I use it for a lot of things. So, I recommend checking that out and there’s a link in the show notes of how you can download the app.

The other thing that I want to share is by way of Automatic or wordpress.com that there is a new company – a multi-media platforming company called Atvatist and they’ll be joining wordpress.com, the parent company of Automatic. And it’s exciting news on lots of levels, but basically, it is a kind of pairing with Longreads, which is another company that was acquired from a few years ago and it will make – it’s an award-winning magazine – just make it all on wordpress.com.

It will help to bring with it more publishing and this is just looking to the future of story-telling more with Wordpress. So, there are a handful of folks that are coming over to join the Automatic team and there’s a link in the show notes so you can read the whole article.

And then, the last thing I want to share with you this week is I’m going to take my advice from last week’s episode on how to test shiny and new things and I’m going to be doing that for Gutenberg. And Gutenberg will be installed on yourwebsitengineer.com for next week – fingers crossed – as long as nothing gets in the way and everything works out well.

And I will be talking about that and just kind of sharing an update on how the transition process went and if there were any things or gottcha’s you’ll need to look out for so we can start getting prepared for this launch that will be happening. I believe it’s going to be the August-September time period. And so, we’ll be talking about that in the months and months to come. So, that is all of the news that I want to share with you this week.

The plugin that I want to share with you is another one that I think, oh, maybe I should install this on yourwebsiteengineer.com. But it is called Buttonizer and it is a Wordpress smart-floating action and conversion button plugin. That is a mouthful for a plugin name. It is a fairly new plugin. It has only had 3,000 active installs, but it is a smart conversion targeted button that will make your website more effective and efficient from making it a simple call button to a navigation button to opening up Facebook Messenger.

The Buttonizer is a new way to give boost to your numbers of interactions, actions, or conversions from your website by adding one or multiple customizable multi-functional buttons in the corner of your website. And so, this is – there’s a free version there on the wordpress.org repository and they also have a premium version that gives you a lot more functionality and a lot more things. But basically, you get these little buttons – we’re starting to see these a lot on websites – they’re usually in the lower right-hand corner. A lot of times, they’ll pop up and there’ll be a place for chat, but basically, you can create a menu down there.

You can create what kind of icon that you want. You can show it on mobile or desktop. You can do event tracking with Google Analytics. You can have your sharing buttons. If you use the pro version, the pro version includes opening hours. So, you can say when you’re store is open. You can do page and category rules. So, if you wanted to show different buttons on different pages, you can do that with the pro version. And then, it says website behavior – that’s another pro feature and it will let your buttons show on your website’s behavior. So, you show a button when you scroll so far or they’ve been on the page so long.

So, it looks like a really cool plugin. Again, this is maybe one that I’ll try out this week and see if there’s some use and I can actually use this on yourwebsiteengineer.com. So, that is in the show notes as well for Episode No. 395.

All right. Today, we’re going to talk about DNS. And DNS can be a headache. It’s one of those aspects of website management that can either be a breeze or they can take days to sort out or just make you pull your hair out. I know that I had a client that I worked with a long time ago and I wanted to move their website to a different hosting plan because their hosting company was really not – it was really subpar. And so, I wanted to move it, but I wasn’t knowledgeable enough in what I was doing and I ended up taking their email down for a few hours until I could put it back and try to figure it out.

And so, just knowing how all of these things work – all of the like technical pieces is very, very helpful when it comes to managing and keeping and your website up to date and running. So, that’s kind of the over-arching – where the idea came from and what I want to talk about. We’re going to talk about all the things that have to do with and rely on DNS.

DNS stands for Domain Name System and it’s basically like a phone book of the internet. Web browsers – they interact through IP addresses – and DNS translates domain names to IP addresses so browsers can load the internet resources. Every device connected to the internet has a unique IP address and that’s how other machines used to find the device.

And we could talk about why do we need domain names? I mean we could just go to – that could be the domain name for yourwebsiteengineer.com. Well, it’s much easier to remember names and dot com and domain names than it is to imagine and remember IP addresses. And so, that’s why this DNS system was put into place.

Now, before we can really into the DNS system, we have to have a domain. And the domain is a – again, it’s that way that it connects an IP address to a rememberable name so that folks can find your home on the web. And you can do this and you can register your domain at your same hosting company – like the same folks that you are going to host your website – or it can be at a different place as well.

I like to use hover.com as my domain name registrar and then I can keep all of my information there so that I know that all of my domains are right there. And then, if I ever want to change hosting plans or I want to change to a different hosting company or whatever, like I don’t have to figure out how do I move my domain from one place to another. I have all my domains in one spot and all my hosting in another spot. So, that makes things very, very simple.

So, you can manage all your DNS settings with your registrar. So, whether that’s your hosting company or your domain registrar itself – kind of like GoDaddy or there’s a bunch of them out there – but like I said, Hover is the one that I use and that is where you do all of these settings that we’re going to talk about. There’s usually an area – usually called DNS settings or DNS management or something along those lines – and again, if you’re at hover.com, like the whole thing is going to be the DNS management because that’s about all that you can do with domains.

And so, there are a few things that I want to talk about. There are a few different – once you’re in this interface – what you’ll actually see and what different names that you may run into. So, the name servers – this use is to point your domain at another provider. So, it redirects everything – so, website, email, ftp – anything – to another provider. You would use this if you wanted to manage all your DNS settings at your hosting company.

So, for example, I used to use GreenGeeks. GreenGeeks used to be my hosting platform. So, I register a domain. I would go into the domain settings and I would say go to NS1.greengeeks.com and NS2.greengeeks.com. And so, that stands for Name Service 1 and Name Server 2.

And so, basically, if somebody would go to yourwebsiteengineer.com, they would look and see, oh, well, the name servers are pointing over to GreenGeeks. So, then, it would go to GreenGeeks and then it would look up in GreenGeeks, okay, where is yourwebsiteengineer.com – which account is it registered under? And then it would go into the DNS settings inside of GreenGeeks and then it would look through and it would look at all the configurations and go from there.

So, that’s one way that you could do it. That was probably my first attempt and that’s how I used to always do everything. I just manage everything where the hosting plan was. You just move those name servers to wherever and then I could manage everything in the hosting environments place.

Now, in the last few years, I find that it’s really – I guess with the way that I’ve moved hosting companies – I think six or seven times for yourwebsiteengineer.com since 2010 – it makes it very, very cumbersome if you are moving your hosting plan and then you have to move all your DNS settings through every one and then there’s a little bit of an outage when you change and whatnot. So, I found that name servers weren’t quite the best ones.

So, I ended up keeping the name servers pointed at Hover – so NS1.hover.com and NS2.hover.com. And that basically means now all my DNS settings are saved there in Hover and I don’t have to move them every time I move my hosting account to another plan or another provider.

So, how I do that is I use an A record. And editing an A record, you can basically direct your domain at a certain IP address. And so, what this does is basically – so, I’m on Pressable now – Pressable is the company that I use for my website. All of my websites are there. But inside the Pressable dashboard, it gives me an IP address and it says this is your IP address for your account.

And so, I would go into Hover – or I guess, first, I would be inside of Pressable. I would grab that IP address and then I would go over to hover.com and then I would put that as an A record and then I would point it to, you know, whatever that number is. And then it would automatically redirect any time somebody goes to yourwebsiteengineer.com. It would look in – it would go into Hover and say, oh, it’s got an A record. Let’s go ahead in the A record and let’s point it over to this Pressable account.

And, of course, in Pressable, you have to define what your domain name is. So, in there, I put yourwebsiteengineer.com and it matches the two up and then my website is displayed. Obviously, this takes, you know, a nanosecond to do. Otherwise, we would be waiting all day for websites to load if it was a long, laborious process, but it does it very, very quickly. So, that’s what an A record is. It’s basically directing your domain to an IP address.

Now, there’s another thing called a C name. And a C name works in a very similar way to the A record, but instead of typing an IP address, you use a domain name. So, you would direct one domain to another and this would be a great example if I owned yourwebsite.engineer and I wanted to redirect it to yourwebsiteengineer.com – or vice versa the other way – like if I wanted everybody to go to yourwebsite.engineer – and so, if they would type in your websiteengineer.com, then it would redirect them to yourwebsite.engineer.

So, that’s another thing that you could – like that’s what a C name is used for. That’s a lot of – C names are a lot of times used for routing email and whatnot. So, maybe if they go to like email.yourwebsitengineer.com, that would redirect them to their email provider or whatever. So, C names are used in a very similar way to A records, but they’re a little bit different in the fact that you just put domain names in them.

And another thing that you will see in their settings – and there are a lot more – but we’ll just talk about these four – the fourth one is the MX record. And this specifies where you have your email hosted. And so, if you use gmail, there are special MX records that you add to your DNS settings and so that your email will load based on what your domain name is.

So, when folks email Dustin@yourwebsiteengineer.com, it basically is routed – and I don’t understand the whole email process and where all those messages are routed, but basically, it know that, by looking at my DNS settings, that I have Google Apps – or Google Suite I guess it’s now called – I’ve got that set up and in place for yourwebsiteengineer.com email. Then, it basically will route them to the gmail interface and I can answer all emails there. So, that’s how all of that works. That’s how all of the pieces of the puzzle work when it comes to DNS.

Another thing that falls under the buckets of DNS and all these domain names and when you’re running a shared hosting plan and you want to have multiple sites on website – or one hosting account – that’s one of the benefits of having a shared environment is you can, you know, pay $10.00 a month and then you can have a hundred websites or a bunch of Deb sites or a bunch of websites built all on that hosting plan. You don’t have to pay for every single little site that you get set up right away.

And so, what you want to do there – if you do have that scenario and you want to do that – then inside of the hosting account – inside that C Panel – you have to create an add-on domain. And so, an add-on domain is just that additional domain that you use within your hosting account to create an additional website. So, again, if you want to have multiple websites on one hosting account, then you would add add-on domains.

For testing domains or simple websites where you don’t have a lot of complexity – you know – maybe there’s not a lot of email that’s – you’re not setting up email or any type of C names or any type of – you know – real DNS settings – then, add-on domains might be a good place to just point the name servers to. So, you would go into your hosting account. You would add the add-on domain – so maybe like I have conqueryourwebsite.com – that’s another URL that I have that’s an add-on. It’s on a shared hosting plan and it has its – you know – it’s there.

So, I have put conqueryourwebsite.com. I have added it as an add-on domain and then I build the site over there and then, inside of Hover, I would go to conqueryourwebsite.com and, in the DNS settings, I would just say point this to GreenGeeks.com with the name servers. And then, that way, I don’t have to figure out, okay, what’s the IP address and then change or what not and that’s just another way.

Again, I could take the A record – I could find the domain name or I could find the IP address over at GreenGeeks hosting and I could take that and I could add that to an A record over on Hover. Again, you can do things either way. It works out perfectly either way. It’s just a matter of which way do you want to go in – which is easier, you know? It might be easier if you’re setting up over at the domain name registrar.

You’re there and you’re like, oh, well, I know that it’s over on – I know the name serves are NS1.greengeeks.com and NS2.greengeeks.com – and then I don’t have to go and look up what the IP address is and try to figure all that out. If you want to go from memory, then maybe the name servers is a little easier to do.

Again, if you’re managing email on any of your websites, you know, with that custom email address @yourwebsite.com, then that’s definitely something that you want to make sure that you keep the name servers at your registrar and then add the email address there. So, you never have to worry about, oh, am I going to lose email or am I not?

Another great thing about keeping the two things separate – so, if your DNS or your domain names are over at a registrar and your hosting plan is over here at another place, the great part of having two separate things is if you can’t get into your hosting account – for some reason you can’t log in or the whole thing went down or the entire company shut down or whatever – you still have access to your domain name. And so, you have access there. So, you can point it to a different place or you have a lot of flexibility and freedom when they’re in two separate places.

Lastly, I want to share a tool about how to track your domains or how to figure out what your domain is actually doing. It’s really hard. It’s almost like – I like to think of it kind of like I have a degree in electrical engineering. It’s very hard to see electricity. I mean you can see the results of electricity because, you know, lights turn on or the fan is on or whatever, but you can’t actually see electricity. So, you’ve got to use a tool to figure out if it’s working or not.

And my favorite tool is What’s My DNS. It’s whatsmydns.net. And what you can do is you can go in there and you can put in your domain name and then you can change your A record or you can select whether A record or name servers or a text record or – you know – all of the DNS different settings – you can go and you can check and you can see what they are – because when you change these settings – you change these settings inside your DNS settings – it takes a little while for it to actually to start.

They say up to 72 hours. A lot of times, it’s going to be 24 to 48. A lot of times it’s mainly based on caching in your computer and caching in your web browser, but if you go to whatsmydns.net, you can see, okay, yes, I’ve updated the A record to this IP record, and yes, this is what it’s registering on whatsmydns.net. So, you know that things are working properly.

Or, if you can’t figure out what’s going on, then maybe you’ve changed it. A great example is, if you’ve changed inside Hover – you’ve pointed your name servers to your hosting account – but then you point an A record inside of your registrar – like that A record is not going to work. It’s going to go to your name servers or wherever those are point to and then take all of those A records.

So, just kind of learning the basic principles of DNS – it sounds overwhelming and I know that I was pulling my hair out for years trying to figure out like what – how do I change this or which switch do I flip here? And it’s just really kind of cumbersome. And I find that you don’t have to learn it that well because you only do it once or twice, and you know, for a website – and then you can kind of forget about it.

But if you have an over-arching idea of how things work, I think it makes your life a lot easier and when you go to switch hosting providers. And it’s not if – it’s when. Like eventually, your hosting company is going to make you mad or they’re going to take your site down or, you know, there’s going to be some sort of issue and you’re going to move to a different hosting plan – then this is a great time to kind of use those skills and figure out, okay, this is how – and this is the right process – for moving a website from one place to another.

I think, if you would think about how you would build a new website or how you would move a website from one place to another and then update the DNS records correctly, probably what I would do is I would build the site on the new hosting plan with a temporary domain name – whatever that may be. A lot of hosting companies now give you temporary domains and I would build it there. Make sure that it’s already to go and then update your A record or your name servers and then point it to the new place. And then, that way, you’ve got two websites that are mirrored images. And so, some people may be seeing the old one and then some people may be seeing the new one, and within a few days, everybody should start seeing a new one.

If it’s something – a little trick that I used to always do and I still do – is if I’m wondering if I’m looking at the new site or the old site, I always put a little – I always add something to the footer of my theme. And so, I might say On Pressible or On WP Engine or On Flywheel – so that I know, when I’m looking at it in a web browser, oh, okay, I’m seeing the right version. I’m seeing the one that’s on Pressible. That’s where my new hosting plan is. That’s what I want to see and that’s the right place.

And so, those are some of my tips and tricks and ideas of how to kind of manage and learn about this crazy world of DNS. And we rely on it every day because, you know, we go to websites all the time and we just – it’s nice to know how the back end of all of these things work. So, that’s what I want to share with you this week – all about DNS – how to use it and how not to get a headache and overwhelmed with the simple configurations. And yeah, that’s what I want to share. Take care and we’ll talk to you next week. Bye-bye.

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