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All About DNS Records for Web Designers

August 30th

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When I launched my first website, it was pretty simple.

I bought the domain from a web host, and built the site on that host.

I didn’t need email hosting. So, everything was pretty easy.

But, as I got into web design and building websites for clients, that’s when I learned that I needed to step up my knowledge about DNS records.

The first website I ever built for a client ended up with their email going down for almost a day because I didn’t know what an MX record was for.

If you’ve ever built a website for a client that very strongly relies on email, you know that this is a nightmare scenario.

Clients trust their web designers to bring their new sites online without any disruption of their day-to-day.

So, this post is meant to be a guide to everything a web designer needs to know about DNS records.

Some of this material is incredibly simplified, as I don’t want to get into a hugely technical discussion of the basics of what you’ll need to know. But, this post will give an understanding of everything you need to make sure that you aren’t breaking anything when it comes to your clients’ website address or email hosting.

First, What is a DNS Record?

Starting broadly. DNS stand for Domain Name System, which is a database containing information about every website. Where your website lives on the Internet, who is hosting your email, all of that information is contained in DNS records.

DNS records, also called “zone files” are the data that point visitors in the right direction so that when people want to visit, for example “Google.com”, your computer gets routed to the right IP address to be able to see the content on Google.com.

Here is a screenshot of some DNS records.

Nameservers, AKA NS Records – The Home for All Your DNS Records

Your DNS records need a place to live.

When someone visits your website address, they need to know what IP address that corresponds to. When someone emails you, they need to know where to deliver the mail. DNS records tell the visitors and emails where to go, and Nameservers are where the DNS records live.

Nameserver records are also called “name server” and also “NS” records. It’s really a personal preference on how you want to refer to them.

Most often, your nameserver will be the place where you registered your domain. In fact, when you buy your domain, your nameservers will default to the location of your domain registrar.

But, you can make your nameservers any of a number of places.

Nameservers always come in at least two records. There are always a minimum of two nameserver records. One primary, and one backup. If you are setting a new nameserver and you do not see two records, there is a problem.

Here is a screenshot of common nameserver (aka “NS”) records (these are GoDaddy NS records):

You can use any of the many free DNS services out there. Services like Linode or Cloudflare are great hosts for DNS records, and they offer free basic nameserver hosting.

The NS records are the only one of the many types of DNS records that are always set from the location of the domain registrar.

This means that if you do not have access to the place where the domain is registered, you cannot change the nameservers. If you cannot change the nameservers, and you do not have access to the DNS, then you are stuck.

For web designers, it doesn’t really make a big difference where the DNS records are hosted, so long as you can get access to them. That’s the key.

If your client has their nameservers at GoDaddy, you will need access to their account or get delegated access to be able to make changes when needed.

Personally, when I’m building client websites, I prefer to use my nameservers (in a free service like Cloudflare) so I can change records as needed.

If you are hosting client sites, sometimes you may need to change and upgrade servers, meaning you might need a new IP address. If you have the clients’ nameservers and can easily access and change their website records, the process can go a lot smoother.

Elements of a DNS Record

A DNS record (with a few exceptions), has three main elements: Type; Host/Name; Value; TTL.

Type

Type is simply, what type of DNS record are you dealing with. Common types of DNS records are A, CNAME, MX, and TXT. There are a lot more, but those are the ones we are going to focus on for this article.

Host/Name

Host is referring to the location on your domain where this record originates.

Depending on your DNS service, the “Host” section can have a different name. It can also be called “Name” or something similar.

For many DNS records, the host will be “@”, which basically means it’s just the domain, plainly.

For a record related to the website URL (A Records), “@” is usually the host.

You can also have your Host be a subdomain on your site. So, for example, some businesses have host records for things like client portals, remote logins, calendars, etc

Value

Value is, essentially, the destination. For website records (A records), this will be your website’s IP address. For email hosting (MX records), this will be your email servers.

TTL

TTL stands for “time to live” (not “talk to you later”) and is the amount of time, in seconds, before the Internet refreshes looking at these records. It’s a caching thing. Most DNS records have a default of 3600 (60 minutes). And that’s fine for most. Chances are you won’t really need to ever play with this. Shorter TTLs cause higher loads on DNS servers, so you won’t want to make it anything shorter than 3600, typically. Some DNS will have an “Automatic” TTL feature

Different Types of DNS Records

Now, let’s get into all of the common types of DNS records you will encounter, and what they do.

A Records

A records are generally your website hosting. An A record is the IP address for your website, or subdomains. A stands for “Address,” and is the most common type of record you will encounter. Without A records, generally, there is no website to point to for a domain. When someone visits your website URL, the magical internet will point them to the IP address for your A record for your domain.

The most common A record you’ll see will be @ for the host, an IP address for the value, and “Automatic” for TTL.

With A records, you can have records for subdomains, and this is not uncommon. If a client has a separate site for a particular subdomain, like “Calendar.[domain]” or “Remote.[domain]”, then you will have different hosts and values listed for those separate subdomains.

CNAME Records

CNAME is what you’ll use for aliases and subdomains. Many webmasters use the CNAME record for “www” to point to the main domain “@”. This ensures that when people visit the www or non-www version of a particular website, they go to the same place. Otherwise, you can end up having two versions of a website show up, and you don’t want that. CNAME stands for “canonical name”.

MX Records

MX records are email hosting-related records.

The host will usually be “@” and the values will be the location of the email servers.

MX records also have values called “Priority” which prioritize different mail servers.

Every email hosting service has its own MX records, and they are consistent. This means that if you know you are hosting email with G-Suite, for example, you can easily find the records you’ll need to create. Same goes for Office365. Same goes for anything else.

Below is a screenshot of the MX records for Google.

MX stands for “mail exchange”

TXT Records

TXT records serve a variety of functions, but commonly are used as “proof” to a third-party service to validate that you own and control a domain. TXT records are used by services like Google Search Console to confirm you own a domain and can therefore get access to the data Google has on your website’s index status.

Other DNS Records

Now, there are a lot more types of DNS records. There are SRVs, SOAs, AAAAs, PTRs. There are a lot. But, chances are, 99% of the time you will only need to consider the NS, A, MX, TXT, and CNAME records.  

DNS Tools for Web Designers

Here are a few great DNS-related tools for web designers.

MxToolbox

MxToolbox is my go-to tool when it comes to DNS records.

MxToolbox lets you look up DNS and WHOIS records related to any website.

This is hugely important. Why might you need this? A few reasons:

  • To confirm that your DNS records were set up correctly and are being recognized by the Internet
  • To help a client that can’t find their domain login to figure out what website they are hosting or are registered with
  • To find out existing records for a website if you have no other way to find them
  • To research a potential client to see who is hosting their site

I use MxToolbox every week. You’ll want to bookmark that site.

Cloudflare

Cloudlfare is an amazing DNS service-provider. They have a free tier, and it all works amazingly well.

I’ve used other providers in the past, but Cloudflare is my personal recommendation.

Best Practices for Managing Clients’ DNS Records

So, you want to avoid screwing up your client’s domain when bringing their website live? Here are a few tips.

First, get access to your client’s DNS for the domain you’re looking to edit.

This is not always possible, but if you can, it will save you a lot of headache from having to communicate with the client and have them possibly make DNS changes.

Sometimes, they will not know where their DNS is, so you’ll have to use MxToolbox, use the DNS lookup tool, and find out.

If your client’s DNS is on their registrar, and they are not comfortable sharing with you their login and password (which, sometimes they’re not because they use the same username and password for everything; or, because they have multiple domains and are afraid of you touching other domains of theirs) they can usually provide “delegated access.” GoDaddy has this option. It lets a user provide specific access to one domain. You will then need your own GoDaddy account to access their particular domain, but it’s easy and free to set up. And, ultimately, if this is how a client is comfortable sharing access with you, it’s better than having to walk the client through the record changes over the phone or email.

Next, if you are getting ready to launch a client’s website, find out all of their current DNS records, and write them down.

Before you make any changes at all, make sure you have the existing records written down.

This seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes in haste to get a client’s site live (because you are so overjoyed that they approved the site to go live), we can overlook things like this. That can be a tragic mistake if you are unlucky with how the site launch goes.

So, if you use a service like Cloudflare, you can type in a domain and Cloudflare will get all of the existing records of a domain for you. Really handy.

MxToolbox can be helpful, but it will not give you a straight-up list of all of a website’s DNS records like Cloudflare will.

Otherwise, it would be great if you had access to the client’s domain registrar or existing DNS, so you can see the records directly and make edits to them.

Keep notes of the existing records because should anything go terribly wrong, hopefully you can revert the records back to what they used to be.

My ideal scenario is one where I host the DNS with all of a client’s domain records, and then point their NS record to my DNS so that I can make edits to their DNS whenever needed.

The alternative option to all of this is to either: a) have access to the client’s existing DNS and make changes as needed; or b) ask the client to make the changes themselves. As you can imagine, option B is especially not ideal because it takes time from the client when they need to be able to work with you if there’s anything DNS-related that needs attention.

So, that’s it for my DNS tips for web designers. I hope this was all helpful. Please feel free to comment or let us know if there are any DNS-related questions we can help out with!

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