If you’re setting up an online store, you’ll soon become acquainted with establishing and managing your DNS record—otherwise, your website wouldn’t have a custom domain name and URL. While most ecommerce platforms make this process easy, simply following directions doesn’t quite teach you what a DNS record actually is. What, exactly, are you setting up in the first place? This post will shed some light on the “What” and “Why” behind DNS, helping you approach this critical early-stage task with full context.
What is DNS?
DNS is an acronym for Domain Name System. Its primary purpose is to map and redirect domain names to specific locations on the internet, like your store. Every device that’s connected to the internet has a unique IP address—you can find your own IP address here. IP addresses are an essential way for web browsers to find, load, and interact with your website.
Because the long lists of numbers found in IP addresses aren’t friendly for the human memory, we use domain names (www.yourecommercesite.com) to locate and call up our favorite websites easily. DNS is the system that translates domain names back to their IP address so that web browsers can map and serve the website.
At its most basic level, DNS can be compared to the “Contacts” list in your phone. Rather than needing to remember each contact’s numerical phone number, you can simply select a name from Contacts, and your phone will automatically dial the associated number. In this instance, too, there’s a translation happening between what’s friendly for the human memory (a name) and the necessary unique identifier (a phone number).
In addition to assigning a domain name, DNS can also be used for a variety of mapping functions, like pointing traffic to a subdomain or routing email through a specific server.
5 Types of DNS Records
While there are ten types of common DNS records, there are only five that you’d use with an online store or other website.
A nameserver stores and organizes individual DNS records, and it’s critical for connecting a website’s URL to its underlying IP address. Accordingly, it’s one of the most common ways to connect your domain name to your online store.
With most ecommerce platforms, including Volusion, you aren’t required to transfer your domain name to the platform you’re using. Instead, you can contact your current domain registrar and get their help in pointing your domain name to your platform’s nameserver.
Once you’ve made the request, it can take about 24-72 hours for the DNS changes to fully propagate across the internet; different parts of the world may even register the change at different times. An easy way to test whether the changes have propagated is to type your domain name into your browser’s address bar (use an Incognito window if you’re logged into your store). If the URL you’ve entered takes you to your store, the changes have propagated.
A CNAME record is commonly used to set up a subdomain of your main website. For example, if your main website is www.yourwebsite.com, you can create a subdomain called store.yourwebsite.com by adding a “store” CNAME record.
Subdomains do have SEO implications in that search engines may crawl them independently from the main URL, but that’s not always a bad thing—many companies successfully use subdomains to host knowledge bases, employee resources, and other content they want to separate from the site’s core organizational structure. Parent companies with several separate brands might also use subdomains for each brand.
While CNAME records can point to a hostname or URL, an A record can only point to a static numerical IP address. Since platforms like Volusion don’t use static IP addresses, the IP address that’s associated with your store can change periodically. For this reason, we strongly recommend against using A records to create subdomains or point to your domain. If your store’s IP address changes, the A record will still point to the old one, making your store temporarily inaccessible without warning.
MX records, short for “mail exchanger” records, are responsible for specifying which email server accepts mail for your specific domain. When you point your name servers to an ecommerce platform like Volusion, the MX records point to the platforms’s mail servers by default. (If you use Volusion and you’d rather use a third party like Gmail to host your domain-specific email—email addresses ending in @yourstore.com—follow the instructions in this article from our Help Center).
Your store sends various automatic messages to you and your customers, including password reset and order confirmation emails. If you notice a disruption in sending or receiving these emails, you may be able to remedy the situation by adding an SPF record. SPF records, short for “Sender Policy Framework,” are used to authorize third-party clients as trusted sources for sending email from your email address. You can add an SPF record to let your email provider know who is and is not allowed to send emails from your email address.
With that, you’ve mastered the basic elements of DNS. While basic concepts may feel unnecessary when your store can make the process so simple, arming yourself with full context can help you make the right choices at the right time. Approach your ecommerce store with a willingness to build your understanding from the ground up, and the results will pay off in a well-functioning website, happy customers, and higher revenue.