Email Service Providers

In the old days – the good old days, if you will – we didn’t need fancy email hosting to communicate with the world. We just used whatever functionality was built into our domain host to set up our email domain and called it a day. Mainly, this is because we were dumb.

I recently had to come up with an email solution for a couple of domains, and boy, things have sure changed.

To be fair, were you to register a traditional hosting account today, with a traditional host (i.e., not a specialized WordPress host), you’d still be able to do things this way. You could use cPanel – or whatever management interface your host provided – to set up your own email server, pop over to your registrar to make a few modifications to your domain’s MX records, and away you go. I mean, this would be a terrible idea, but you could do it.

If you’re using a managed WordPress host, though, you probably can’t do this. See, the world looks different when you’re running a website based on WordPress. It looks really different when you’re using a dedicated WordPress host. Most of the time, these specialized WordPress hosts don’t have the same server-level control features as a traditional host. This is good, because it means they can configure their systems for great performance and security, but it also makes email a bit of an issue.

Demonstration of a typical cpanel installation showing email hosting built into the web hosting functionality
Cpanel interface at a traditional web host. Options to configure the email server are highlighted, at the bottom

Luckily, though the world has moved on from the old days, it’s moved on in a good way, and email hosting is now a thing. Email hosting makes your life easier and allows you to do some sophisticated things that only leet haxors pulled off ten years ago.

So let’s check out what the landscape looks like now, how this email hosting thing works, and how you can find yourself a fancy email server to call your very own.

FREE EMAIL SERVERS

Everyone is familiar with the various free email servers available online. These servers provide anyone with a free email account. When you set up one of these free email accounts, you’re allowed to customize the part of the address in front of the @ symbol. So, you could have guysmiley@gmail.com, or guysmiley@yahoo.com.

If you’re moving beyond emailing mom and dad and into the world of running your own blog for fun and profit, you’re going to have two problems with a free email account like this:

  1. Because a billion other people also use these free email servers, the free email account you’re going to get will probably give you a not-very-friendly email address. If you want guysmiley@gmail.com, then so do about seven thousand other people, so you’re going to end up with guysmiley897741@gmail.com.
  2. guysmiley897741@gmail.com looks super dumb to actual professionals. Can you imagine trying to work out a deal for your new business and telling the nice, professional, successful lady you’re trying to set up the deal with that your email address is that long string of nonsense? Really? Booooooo.

If you’re going through all of the trouble of registering a domain and setting up the next big superblog or web service, then you need to lose the free email account and start climbing the mountain to the big leagues of using your own email domain.

CUSTOM DOMAIN EMAIL

On our way up the mountain, let’s start at base camp. If you have a domain, let’s say superhappyfuntime.com, you can use it as an address. So, instead of guysmiley@gmail.com, you could have guysmiley@superhappyfuntime.com. I’d honestly love to see that on a business card.

This is sure a big step up from the unprofessional @gmail or @yahoo options we were using before. Oh, and because you’re the only person who gets to create email addresses on the domain you own, you’re guaranteed to get whatever you want in front of the @ sign.

The domain record panel at a popular domain registrar with the MX record section shown to highlight what changes need to be made when setting up email hosting

So that’s great, but…how? How do you hack the cyber so that when someone fires up their gmail account, composes an email, and sends it off to that address, it actually gets to you?

As per my allusion in the opening salvo of this article, in the old days – and the current days, under some circumstances – you could take care of all of this with just two basic steps:

  1. You’d go to your domain registrar (the place where you bought and registered superhappyfuntime.com) and you’d use their interface to change something called an MX record. An MX record is just an instruction attached to your domain name that tells all the mail-sending computers in the world where to actually direct mail sent to your domain
  2. You’d go to your web host and use whatever administrative interface they provided to actually set up their mail software so that it could send and receive emails

And that’s it. You could then configure your Outlook or Mail or whatever to log on to the new account you just created at your web host. And you’re off to the races.

A big advantage of doing things this way is how easy it is to set up as many email addresses as you want. At some point, you’re going to want more than just guysmiley@superhappyfuntime.com. You might want admin@ or advertising@ etc. Well, when you control the email server, like you do in this example. Setting those up is dead easy. You just pop into the software and add the email address. Things aren’t always that easy in the email hosting world, but we’ll get there in a second.

Beware! There are huge disadvantages to doing things this way, too. The biggest of which is that you are now responsible for managing your own email server. And friend, that is not a responsibility you want.

While non-expertly running your web server may lead to heartache and frustration, non-expertly running your email server can cause real problems. You could end up secretly being a relay for spam, scams, or worse. You could end up getting your domain on one of the various blacklists that different organizations maintain. Or you could even get your domain blocked from indexing on the major search engines. Big problems, and hard ones to fix once they’ve happened.

EMAIL HOSTING FOR WORDPRESS

This is where email hosting gets its chance to shine.

Just like you have a host for your web services, you’re also going to have a host for your email services. Spoiler alert, these hosts aren’t free. The good news is, they’re actually pretty cheap. Somewhere between $5 and $15 a month.

For that small amount of money, you’re going to get a dedicated team of geniuses whose only job is to ensure that your email system is fast, secure, and doesn’t go out of service when you need it.

There are a number of well reviewed email hosts, and if you’d like to read all about them, you can head over to this review article from PC Magazine. They cover ten different providers and go into all kinds of details about each one.

pc magazine review of the top ten email hosting platforms
PC Magazine’s top 10 email hosts, reviewed

There’s a 95% chance that you’re going to end up with one of the email hosts listed in that PC Magazine review, so it’s worth it to spend five minutes giving it a look.

Regardless of which email host you choose, the setup process will be relatively simple. Typically, the email host will tell you to go to your domain registrar and create an MX record according to their specific instructions. Don’t worry, it’s easy, and the email host will walk you through it step-by-step.

They’ll also walk you through setting up an email alias – or multiple email aliases – if you need one, and guide you through configuring the email program on your local computer/tablet/phone to actually do the sending & receiving.

If that sounds complicated, it’s really not. Don’t worry, all of the big email hosts have detailed instructions and are pretty simple to set up.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Google hosts Blog Reactor’s email via their Gsuite product. Gsuite has been great, and is well worth the $10/mo.

When I was actively searching for email hosting, I knew that I wanted a big company (trust & reliability) and that I didn’t need any extra services – like the office integration that comes with Microsoft’s email hosting. I also knew that I didn’t really need anything fancy like Exchange (Don’t know what that sentence means? It’s not important, just pretend it isn’t there).

I quickly narrowed down the field to GSuite, Rackspace, and Amazon’s email hosting AWS. I bumped Amazon’s email hosting AWS off the list pretty quickly, because it’s functionality is surprisingly limited outside of the AWS world, and it requires kind of an unusual amount of manual configuration. That left Rackspace and GSuite.

gsuite admin panel from google
Google’s Admin Console. Easy to Manage Multiple Hosted Services

In the end, I thought either service was a great choice for an email host, but went with GSuite primarily because I already had a number of Google products tied to Blog Reactor, and it was convenient to keep everything together. With GSuite as my email host, I can control all of these related services directly from Google’s admin console. This makes managing the nuts and bolts behind the site a little easier.

As of now, I have no complaints. The system is obviously fast and reliable (it’s Google, after all), but it’s also easy to configure and even has API access.

Whichever email hosting service you choose, you can sleep easy knowing that there’s one less thing you’re responsible for running. That’s great – spend your time building your website, not running it’s hidden technical parts.


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