For small businesses starting out on the internet with their first website and business email addresses, the difference between your Internet Service Provider (ISP), website provider and email provider can all be very confusing. We regularly get people mixing these three things up and, for instance, ringing us if their internet connection goes down instead of their ISP, or ringing their ISP if their website goes down when they should be ringing us.
Your internet connection is provided to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Typically this is sent down your phone line or in some cases, a cable connection. Without an ISP, you won't be able to get online at all, whether it be to send emails, visit your favourite websites or indeed visit your own website, if you have one. There are a huge range of ISPs; common ones are companies such as BT, Virgin Media or TalkTalk.
Email addresses can be obtained from various service providers. Often your ISP will provide an email address (i.e. firstname.lastname@example.org - email@example.com is a good example). It's generally a bad idea to use their addresses though, as it ties you into their internet service; it's much better to use another provider so that if you ever want to switch to a cheaper/better ISP, you don't lose your email address. There are lots of free providers of email addresses such as Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo.
If you really want to look professional though, the best thing to do is to get an email address that matches your domain name. For instance, firstname.lastname@example.org. It's common to be provided with an @yourdomainname.com email address when you have a website built, hosted on the same server as your website. This is OK, to a point, but when we build websites for our clients, we tend to host their emails on a separate server, typically the free Google Apps service, which allows you to use professional @yourdomainname.com emails but routed via Google's servers rather than the same one that hosts your website; making this separation is a much more flexible and professional way of doing things. The main point here being that just because your email address might share a name with your website (i.e. @yourdomainname.com and www.yourdomainname.com), they're not necessarily connected in any way.
This is another point which can often confuse. Basically email is sent and received through a "box" (i.e. computer) up on the internet somewhere. You have a box which collects your email and a box that sends email for you. When you send or receive email, you're connecting to one of those boxes. Incoming boxes work via either "POP" or "IMAP" while outgoing uses "SMTP". Typically, you'll use the same box to send and receive email, but you don't necessarily have to do it like this.
Outgoing mail (SMTP) is essentially just a service and there are lots of different providers you can use. You'll more than likely be given an SMTP service with any @yourdomainname.com email account, but your ISP (i.e. Virgin, BT, etc.) may also provide an SMTP service (although you tend to find ISPs restrict the use of their SMTP service to only @yourispname.com email addresses to stop spam abuse). So for example, if your ISP didn't have restrictions, it would theoretically be possible to send @yourdomainname.com emails through your ISP's SMTP service (think of it like Royal Mail - it's just a delivery service). You can use a different SMTP outgoing mail service for each email address on your computer; typically your @yourdomainname.com emails will be using an SMTP service specifically for them, while your @yourispname.com emails (if you have any) will be using your ISP's SMTP.
Incoming mail, however, ONLY operates through the box on which your email is stored. So while it might be possible to SEND @yourdomainname.com emails via your ISP's SMTP, you wouldn't be able to RECEIVE emails through an ISP POP/IMAP service. This is because when you're retrieving email, you're essentially just getting your computer to open the right "mailbox" where your mail is stored. Your ISP doesn't have your @yourdomainname.com emails: either we do, or Google do, if that's who we're using.
Then of course there is the actual physical connection to the internet that we mentioned before, through which any data is sent and received (the "1's and 0's"). This could be any email, internet web pages, video etc. This is provided to you by your ISP; Virgin, BT or whoever.
The distinction here is between your internet connection provided by your ISP, and the email services that run through it; the confusing aspect being that your ISP also often provide an email service too.
Your website, by comparison, is simple! Once designed and built, your website will be stored ("hosted") on a web server somewhere in cyberspace. This space is leased yearly or monthly, and allows your site to be seen all over the world; anywhere with an internet connection.
To summarise, we have:
With this arrangement:
Obviously none of those three scenarios is desirable, or indeed common, but making the distinction like this is a good way of visualising the separation between websites, internet connections and email.
Hope this helps!
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