Gmail hosting for custom parked domains, without a web host

 
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(NOTE:  A lot of the information here has been updated for 2013 in this more recent post)

Gmail-hosted mail in general

It’s fairly well-known that Google will host email for your domain… storing it on their servers, and making it accessible through both their Gmail web interface as well as normal IMAP.

Gmail screenshotTo start, you create a Google Apps account. Most search results will take you (unsurprisingly) to the Google Apps for Business signup page, which is a paid service. If you are setting up infrastructure for a business, or need more than 10 email addresses on your domain, then it’s actually a pretty good deal. However, on a smaller scale for a personal domain, you probably want to signup for free Gmail hosting through this less-advertised link.

 

Normally, the process involves changing your MX (mail exchanger) settings to point at Google’s mail servers. This is not part of the nameserver information that you setup with your domain name registrar… but is instead a second level of settings, made through the web hosting account to which your domain points. Once the MX changes are complete, you inform Google through the “Domain settings” tab of your Apps management console. To verify that you really do control this domain, Google will ask you to upload a small file to your webserver. Once Google sees the file, you are good to go.

On parked domains

This also works for parked domains… that is, domains which are registered yet don’t have their own independent hosting. Web host providers will typically let you attach parked domains to your hosting account, where they serve as aliases for the domain that actually is hosted. Your primary domain might be “mydomain.com”, and you have the parked domains “mydomain.net” and “mydomain.org” pointing to the primary “.com” stuff.

Google-hosted mail works pretty much the same for these parked domains as well. Google charges by the user (i.e. email) account, with a limit of 10 on free accounts… but they don’t care how many parked domain aliases point to those users. Under the “Domain settings” tab of the Google Apps console, you click the “Add a domain alias” link and enter the information for your parked domain(s). You may also need to change the MX records for your parked domain(s) through your web host provider, if they are not automatically kept in sync with your primary domain.

I believe that when I first did this, Google asked me to upload a verification file to my webserver for the parked domains also. However, that wasn’t a problem since my parked domains point to the primary domain’s web server anyway. As long as the verification file was reachable through a parked domain URL, Google didn’t care. Once the process was complete, emails sent to “user@mydomain.net” were seamlessly delivered to the primary “user@mydomain.com” address.

Without a web host?

What if you are ONLY interested in having a personal domain name for email, and don’t much care about having a website? Or what if you have a web host provider that wants to charge you for parked domains? Why should you pay $60-$120 for a shared hosting, or hundreds of dollars per year for a VPS… when you’re only going to redirect it to Google’s free servers anyway?

I recently ran into this issue when changing web host providers. I’m happy with the new host overall, but not happy with the fact that they charge extra for parked domains. After some research, I found a way to keep my parked domains rolling with ZoneEdit. This company is primarily in the business of DNS hosting. They don’t host your website, or your email, or any other files… they ONLY host the MX records and other DNS settings needed to route your domain somewhere else. DNS hosting is free for the first two parked domains, and $1/month from there (with some pre-payment discounts available).

Have your domain registrar point your domain at ZoneEdit’s nameservers, and have ZoneEdit point your MX records at Google. Voila! Solid email hosting on your own professional-looking domain name address, with zero cost other than the domain name registration. If you have a website running on some other primary domain (or on a free service such as Google Sites), then ZoneEdit can also take browser requests for your parked domain and forward them to your website.

In my case, I was dealing with parked domain aliases which point to another fully-hosted domain. However, all of this should still be applicable even if you have no web host accounts for any of the domains. Google has a section in their documentation talking about ZoneEdit specifically, so Google is probably accustomed to this setup. However, even if Google does ask you to upload a verification file to a publicly-accessible web server… there are numerous free hosting providers out there. They are almost all terrible, but you could temporarily use one just long enough to complete the Google verification.

I’ve had a good outcome with ZoneEdit, but I’m sure there are other similar free DNS hosting services out there. I’d love to hear other people’s (non-spam!) experiences in the comments.

 

Steve Perkins

I am an Atlanta-based software developer, and the author of the book 'Hibernate Search by Example' from Packt Publishing. I currently work as an architect at BetterCloud, developing security and analytics SaaS products for companies using Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365.

 
  • Will Rogers

    Thanks for this info. I’m trying to get rid of my web hosting plan and was worried about Google being able to re-verify my ownership of the domain. They’ve already verified it with my current host, but I seem to recall something about having to maintain the verification file so they can periodically re-verify it. Does Google attempt to periodically re-verify your domain ownership?

    If this isn’t the case, it looks like I’m free to go host-less with my domain while using Google Apps for my domain email. I’ll take a look at ZoneEdit.

    • Steve_Perkins

      I don’t believe that Google ever re-checks that uploaded file. I took
      it down after the initial check. However, I did have to put it back
      later… when I added another domain as an alias for my primary domain,
      and setup Google Mail for that alias domain.

  • Steve

    I don’t believe that Google ever re-checks that uploaded file. I took it down after the initial check. However, I did have to put it back later… when I added another domain as an alias for my primary domain, and setup Google Mail for that alias domain.

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  • Stacey White

    I have not thought about this idea before , I should try this google email hosting option along with custom parked domains. by far I reckon this guide as most “practical”.

    -Stacey
    ehdf.com

  • I just tried from the domain control tools on name.com as I’m not wishing to host any website, I set up the mx records and TXT and removed the web hosting nameserver and waiting for the results. I will get back to confirm.

  • eduard

    Dropping my webhosting but keeping my email addresses?

    Y have 3 websites with my own domain name and the email addresses for these pointing to google-mail (via MX record) for several years.

    Now I want to drop the hosting service (Hostmonster) as I don’t need my websites anymore, but I need my email addresses with my domain name to keep working.

    Will my email account still work (via Gmail) when I delete my home sites and finish my contract with Hostmonster or I must contract a new webhosting service?

    If yes, do I have to just remove the MX record from Hostmonster?

    I’ll appreciate any help regarding this.

    Thanks in Advance.