If you run a small business or want to develop your personal brand, dump Gmail and set up a professional domain
It's time to face facts: the only people who look professional with a Gmail address are those who work at Google. If you don't believe us, think back to the last time you were stuck behind a plumber's van in slow-moving traffic. It was almost certainly plastered with mobile numbers, and probably a webmail address. How much more professional would it look if they had their own domain?
Registering a domain is cheap – around $40 for two years, or less – and setting it up to handle your email is easy. You'll be up and running in under an hour and, if you're that plumber, we're fairly sure it will bring you more business, too.
Registering your domain
Unless you've already registered your perfect domain (in which case jump ahead to Setting up your email), this is the tricky part. If you were counting on bagging, say, plumber.com, don't start repainting the van just yet. That domain was registered in 1995 and won't expire for another two years. Even then, the existing owner has first dibs on renewal – as is the case with all domains – so it's highly unlikely to come your way.
A new UK domain is snapped up every 20 seconds. At the end of last year, VeriSign put the total number of addresses recorded in the previous three months at 271 million – that's 2.9 million domains per day. It's no wonder that the name you're after, unless it's your own and you happen to have an unusual moniker, has probably gone.
If you want a chance of registering something memorable, you'll have to think smart – either by combining relevant words or looking beyond the most familiar top-level domains for your new home on the net.
These sit at the end of each domain. It's the .com, .uk or .net suffix with which we're all familiar. Some top-level domains (TLDs) are more popular than others; with .com streaking ahead, and .uk being the world's third most popular country-specific code. Every common profession in either of these TLDs is already taken, and even if you combine your name with your job, there's no guarantee you'll strike gold (timtheplumber.com was registered a decade ago).
Luckily, new TLDs such as .london and .wales give local businesses a second chance, but they each have rules attached – including a restriction on certain words. We're not only talking about profanities here: plumber.london is a restricted domain as far as the capital's TLD is concerned (bestplumberin.london, on the other hand, is fine – if you really can prove you're top of the tree).
Moving into second
Nominet, which oversees non-academic addresses ending .uk, recently opened up the second-level domain space – the bit immediately before .uk. It's now possible to register a domain without the .co or .me, meaning that both bestplumber.co.uk and bestplumber.uk are valid, and each can point to a different site and set of email inboxes.
But again, there's a catch. To stop domain-squatters and rivals snapping up brand names, such as alphr.uk, Nominet has put a ten-year block on the registration of any .uk for which there's already a matching .co.uk to anyone other than the existing .co.uk domain's owner. Even after the decade's up, they'll still be out of reach if someone else has the .me.uk or .org.uk equivalent, as they'll be in front of you in the virtual queue.
So, if your chosen domain isn't available in the .co.uk, .com or relevant geographic TLD of your choice, you need to widen your search. Consider a generic option, such as .company, .cloud and .dot, and use mainstream registration services, such as 1&1 (1and1.co.uk) and 34SP (34sp.com), to search multiple TLDs simultaneously and draw up comprehensive lists of available options for any keyword.
Alternatively, look for a sensible, relevant combination. Sticking together two or three descriptive terms, such as “leaks”, “be” and “gone” gives you a better chance of success (case in point: leaksbegone.com is available at the time of writing, and so is leeksbegone.com if you want to catch potential customers who can't spell).
It's quirky and descriptive, and it's also highly memorable. Put firstname.lastname@example.org on the back of your van and it will stick in the minds of delayed drivers far more effectively than a long string of letters and digits hosted at Hotmail or Gmail.
Tools such as Bust A Name (bustaname.com) simplify the task of finding working combinations, allowing you to type in a list of keywords that it will mix and match until it finds an available hit. Note, though, that it doesn't cover .co.uk addresses, only the likes of .com, .org and .net.
Setting up your email
A few hours after registering your domain, it will start showing up in domain name system (DNS) databases around the world. These are used to correctly route your email to the server on which the domain is hosted. All you need to do is set up an email-hosting account to process the messages once they arrive.
The process for doing this differs between providers. Some, such as One (one.com), offer a free email account with any domain you register through it; others charge per address.
"A new UK domain is snapped up every 20 seconds. It's no wonder that the name you're after has probably gone"
There's always a limit to what you get bundled with a simple domain name registration. This is hardly surprising, because web hosts want you to take advantage of their services rather than simply sit on domain names. If all you want to do is forward email and reply to it, then that should be possible for free, provided you jump through the hoops outlined (see Email forwarding, p30, for a run-through of how to do this). Using your web host's webmail service, on the other hand, is likely to be an extra cost.
All web hosts require you to log in to your domain control panel and specify the email address you want to use from there. At the very least you'll need to provide a mailbox name – which goes before the @ – and a password to keep it secure. Some will also ask for a real name that can be appended to outgoing emails when using an associated webmail service.
If you choose to use your web host's webmail service as part of a hosting package, this will be set up automatically, and your host should detail within its configuration pages the address at which you can find the webmail interface. If not, put in a support request, and in the interim try adding “mail.”, “webmail.” or “atmail.” to the front of your domain name, without the www.
If you prefer to use a regular client rather than webmail, most email-hosting services offer a choice of POP3 and IMAP connections. POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3) is the most basic offering: incoming messages received by the server are mirrored on your computer, smartphone and tablet – but any you mark as read on one device will still appear as unread on the others. It doesn't archive outgoing messages on the server, either – so if you settle for POP3, you'll need to additionally specify an SMTP (Simple Mail Transport Protocol) server address within your email application to handle outgoing mail.
IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) is a better option, since it updates the read status on the server and any connected devices when it's changed on just one of them, and archives outgoing messages on the server.
Fortunately, almost all email servers identify themselves automatically, so supplying your email address and password is usually all that the email client needs to configure itself. If not, all hosts detail their server addresses in their support pages, and will usually include it in the welcome email you'll receive when setting up your account.
When setting up your client, pay attention to the server ports and authentication options, which may differ from the default options offered up by your software. Setting these incorrectly is a common failure point.
Many registration companies bundle together email accounts with web-hosting deals, which is overkill if all you want is a more memorable address to paint on a van. In this case, specialist email-only options can be a better choice.
"You could have one mailbox for complaints, another for bookings and a third for personal mail, all on the same domain"
Simply Mail Solutions (simplymailsolutions.com), for example, offers email-only hosting on Microsoft Exchange servers from £12 per year. It's a small price to pay if email is key to your business, and it's a neat solution for solo users, too.
If you're setting up an email-only domain for a small business, then take a look at Zoho Mail (zoho.com/mail), which lets you host up to ten users on a single domain for free. Those users don't have to be real people, so you could have one mailbox for complaints, another for bookings and a third for personal mail, all on the same domain.
Redirecting your mail
Registering a domain automatically points all of its services – email, web and FTP – to the servers of the company through which you reserved it. So, if you want to use a third-party service, such as Zoho or Simply Mail Solutions, you'll need to redirect the incoming email to their external servers
To do this, log in to your domain control panel and look for an option to change your DNS settings and, within this section, check any specific mention of mail exchange (MX) records. These specify the address of the primary and backup servers handling incoming email. (If you can't find these details, check through your host's FAQ or contact its support team.)
Make a note of the default entries so you can change them back if required, then replace them with those of your third-party service. If you're using Zoho Mail, for example, you'd enter:
(Note the full stop at the end of each address: this is important and must be included.
It can take a few hours for these changes to propagate round the net, but once they have done, incoming mail will bypass your registration company's servers and arrive in your third-party account.
For some users, even these simple measures will be overkill, in which case email forwarding will suffice. Most registration providers offer this as a free add-on to a registered domain, using it to bounce the email they receive on your behalf to an existing account hosted elsewhere.
Some only offer “catch-all” forwarding, in which every incoming message is passed on, including your spam. Spammers frequently target generic mailboxes such as admin@, user@ and root@ at your domain, so finding a host that allows you to forward specific mailboxes, such as bookings@, jobs@ and tim@, and discard everything else, is an effective first level in spam defence.
Most domain control panels give access to this feature through a link labelled “email forwarding”, but some may rename it “email redirect” or even “domain redirect”. When you've identified it within your provider's dashboard, supply the address to which you'd like to forward your messages and specify which mailboxes you want to receive (email@example.com, for example).
Spoofing your From address
We describe below how to have emails forwarded to your personal account. Any replies you send to those messages will emanate from your existing email account, however, and show your address at that service rather than your bespoke domain. So, if you're forwarding them via a webmail service, you should change the From address in your account settings.
1. If you don't already have a Yahoo Mail account, set one up at mail.yahoo.com, then use the email-forwarding option in your domain control panel to forward all incoming email received at your domain to the new Yahoo address.
2. Log in to your Yahoo inbox, click the cog in the top-right corner and pick Settings from the menu. Click Accounts in the sidebar of the pop-up dialog, followed by the Add button beside Accounts in the main body of the box.
3. Enter the address you're forwarding (such as firstname.lastname@example.org) in both the Email Address and Reply To Address boxes. Click Save, and a confirmation email will be sent to your new domain – from where it will be automatically forwarded to your Yahoo inbox.
4. Click the link in the email to let Yahoo send outgoing messages using your domain address. Then, click the cog again and select Settings. Click Accounts and select your domain address from the menu beside Default Sending Account.
5. Now, whenever you send a new email or reply to a forwarded email through the Yahoo webmail interface, your domain address will be automatically specified in the From field, giving your outgoing emails a more professional appearance.