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Setting Up a Hosted Email Solution With Google Apps

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Anyone who uses the internet on a regular basis will have an email address of some sort, with many of us using free email services such as Google Mail, Yahoo! Mail, Microsoft Outlook or Apple’s iCloud.

Whilst these services may be great, they’re not ideal for business use. Your email address will end with their own domain, such as @gmail.com or @yahoo.com. If you’re using an address like this and even have it displayed on business cards, it can look a bit unprofessional.

Continuing with our series Setting Up Your Business Online Without Coding, I’ll show you how to set up and configure a truly customizable hosted email solution with Google Apps, providing you with all the power of Gmail but with the flexibility of running your own email server.

What Is Hosted Email?

If you use Gmail or Yahoo! Mail then you’re already using this type of service. Hosted email is simply the term for any email provider that manages your emails for you.

Some larger companies prefer to handle and manage email themselves and will usually have their own in-house email servers and forms of redundancy that they can afford, as well as an IT department that can maintain them and troubleshoot any problems that may arise.

For freelancers and small businesses, buying servers and hiring IT staff just for the purposes of email would be extremely costly. Hosted mail services, such as Google Apps and Microsoft’s Office 365 are solutions that go beyond their free offerings of Gmail or Hotmail & Outlook and provide a paid-for alternative that gives businesses a way to effectively outsource their entire email infrastructure and avoid having to deal with it at all. Simply pay a monthly cost based upon the number of users and in return, you’re provided with a reliable and powerful email service.

How Google Apps Works

Google Apps started back in 2006 and has flourished into a complete hosted business solution that provides many of the popular Google services that you can manage for you and your employees. It provides all the features and benefits of a standard Google account, with access to services such as Gmail and Google Calendar but all tied to your domain name.

The biggest feature that most freelancers and businesses use Google Apps for is their custom Gmail service. No longer will you have a @gmail.com address but one that properly reflects your domain name. It will be powered by Gmail so you still get all the added benefits, such as its legendary spam filtering.

Google Apps for Business costs $5 user/month with no minimum user count or contract. If you’re a small business with 5 people working at your company that needed an account, you’d pay just $25 per month. Due to its low cost and popularity, many opt to use Google Apps simply for the email service and won’t necessarily use any of the other Google services at all.

Why Go Hosted?

There’s a number of reasons why paying for your email with services such as Google Apps is beneficial, especially to a freelancer or small business:

1. Branding

It’s all about branding and having another company’s name for what is likely your primary form of communication can give the wrong impression.

With any of the free services I previously mentioned, you simply pick a user name and you’ll be given an email address at the service’s domain name, such as username@gmail.com. For personal use this isn’t a problem, but if you’re a freelancer or small business, having an email address such as freelancewebdesigner@yahoo.com can seem somewhat unprofressional.

It’s all about branding and having another company’s name for what is likely your primary form of communication can give the wrong impression. It might seem extremely trivial but when it comes to marketing yourself and your business, put yourself in your client’s shoes. If you were looking for a web designer in London and their email address was superawesomewebdesigner1@yahoo.com, would you have any any hesitation?

Using hosted email services, you can use your own domain name to give your email addresses a much more professional appearance, especially when dealing with multiple employees, and switch to something like jack@superawesomewebdesigner.co.ukor jill@superawesomewebdesigner.co.uk.

2. Reliability

Hosted email service providers, such as Google, have racks of servers in multiple data centres around the world, providing rock-solid reliability. Should any single server, or even data centre, lose power or suffer some other form of downtime, there is (usually) no loss in service as all the other servers and locations will continue to work and process your email. This is additionally beneficial for the hosted email company as they can perform server upgrades and replacements without any impact to service.

Hosted email service providers, such as Google, have racks of servers in multiple data centres around the world, providing rock-solid reliability.

Compare this to running your own mail server in your office. Whilst you might think that it’s a better solution because you have complete control and it’s a singular cost of the server, it wouldn’t take much to knock your email out and any problems would have to be fixed by you.

You could suffer a power cut, loss of internet connection or worse, the server could suffer a fault. In each of these cases, your emails would stop working immediately.

3. Ease Of Use

Not only is setting up a hosted email service easy to do (as you’ll see shortly), but managing it is a piece of cake. There’s no mail server for you to upgrade or maintain which means there’s no unexpected costs, you simply pay for the users you have and the rest is managed by the service provider.

With all Google Apps accounts, you’re provided with a control panel that allows you to manage many aspects of how your email service works, giving you much more control than a free account.

Setting Up Google Apps

Now that we’ve explained how a hosted email service works with a bit more detail, it’s time to set one up.

In order to use a service such as Google Apps, you’ll need to have the following:

  • a domain name
  • access to your domain name settings (known as DNS records)
  • about 20 minutes of free time

A free trial of Google Apps is available, which is what we’ll be setting up today. That way, you can try the service to see if it suits your needs without having to pay a thing.

Step 1. Sign Up to Google Apps

Visit the Google Apps for Business page and click Start Free Trial.

You’ll be asked for some basic information, such as your name, current email address and a little bit about you or your business.

Once you’ve entered some basic information, Google will ask if you’d like to use your own domain name or, temporarily, use a mygbiz.com address. Let’s go ahead and tell Google we’d like to use our own domain name, so select that option and enter your domain name.

Next, we’re asked to create our first account. The first account on Google Apps is always the super administrator, the user who is able to make the most changes. Super administrators can make changes to the Google Apps service as well as reset passwords. Enter your desired username which will also be your email address and a strong password, preferably a mixture of letters, case, numbers and symbols.

Once your account is created, you’ll be able to log in with the credentials you just created.

For future reference, access to your Google Apps control panel can be found at http://google.com/a/yourdomain.com.

Step 2. Verifying Your Domain

Congratulations, you’ve just set up Google Apps! There’s a little bit of work left to do, but we’re making good progress.

The next step is to verify that you actually own the domain name you’ve asked to use. There are a number of ways we can do this but since we’re going to need to make some changes to your domain name anyway, I’ll show you the most popular method.

To allow Google to verify your domain ownership, we can add a small piece of information to your domain name called a TXT record. Google will automatically generate a random string of characters that you can add as this record and, once the changes have been updated, Google will check your domain name to see if what you have added is the same as what it asked you to add. If it is, you’ve verified your domain name!

As we’re now logged in to the Google control panel, click on Start Setup.

You’ll be prompted to verify your domain in order to activate Google Apps. Click Verify Domain and then then select Begin verification.

Google’s recommended method, adding a TXT Record is very straightfoward, especially as Google lists a large number of domain registrars that it provides step-by-step instructions for. Some registrars such as GoDaddy will provide an automatic method of doing this for you, just by entering your login details. Should you wish to do this manually or if your registrar isn’t listed, select Other at the bottom of the list.

Copy the text that’s displayed in the white box and then open up a new tab, logging in to your domain registrar. In this case, I’ll be demonstrating with Godaddy.

Within your domain registrar, select your domain name and then access the part of its site that will let you edit its DNS records.

Once you’ve found that, you’re going to want to add a new record, of the type TXT.

Add a new record and enter “@” for its Name (if required) and then paste in the long bit of text that we copied from the white box as its Value. Everything else can be left untouched, then save the changes. DNS record changes can take a little time but usually you’ll be able to verify the changes in about 20 minutes. Sometimes it can be anywhere up to 24 hours but usually it’s pretty instant.

Head back to Google Apps and, after about 15–20 minutes, click Verify Domain. If it works, you’ll get the following message.

If not, you’ll just need to wait a little longer.

Step 3. Users

If you’re going to need additional users, especially if you’re moving from an existing email service, then we can do so using the Users panel. To access it, select Users from the main group of icons.

Within Users, you’ll see a list of all current users, likely it will just be your own for now. To add another user, simply select the Add users button on the top-right to start the process.

There’s three different ways to add new users, depending on which method you prefer…

  • Invite users by sending an email to their current email address and have them complete the process.
  • Add a user manually and assign them a specific username and password.
  • For adding large numbers of users, you can add a CSV list, formatted with all the usernames and passwords you want to use.

I prefer adding users manually so you can enforce a specific naming convention, such as first.last@yourdomain.com. If you select this option, you’ll be able to add their full name, username and either a temporary password or a specific one that you enter.

Should you not want or need to add any other users, you don’t have to and you can add new users at any time.

Step 4. Configuring Mail Routing

Once your domain is verified, we can then start to configure using Google Apps as your mail provider. We’re going to need access to your DNS records again so make sure you’re logged in to your domain registrar in another tab.

This next stage is going to change how email is routed over the internet. Every domain name has something called an MX Record. These records are basically a domain name or IP address of a particular mail server. So when an email is sent to yourname@yourdomain.com, the mail server sending the email looks at the domain name yourdomain.com to see what the mail server details are. Once it has them, the message is then passed to it, where it’s then placed in the user’s inbox. Without these records, email just doesn’t function.

Head back to the main Google Apps control panel by clicking the Back to Dashboard button.

Click on Next Step and on the next page, select Set up Gmail. You’ll see a message confirming that you should add all the users who will be using your email service. Once your happy with the users you previously added (or if it’s just yourself) then click on Yes, let’s do it!.

You’ll be prompted to select whether you’d like to use Google’s servers or another server. Keep the default selection of Google’s server and then select Next.

Google will perform a quick check to see what your current MX records are, if any. As you can see, my domain name doesn’t have any so at the moment, I have no email functionality.

Just like with verifying our domain name, we can select from a long list of domain registrars with step-by-step instructions. Additionally, registrars such as GoDaddy also have automatic configuration of this if you follow the instructions. Again, just like before, let’s do this manually and select Other.

You’ll see 5 different MX records, each with a number referred to as Priority. This is how the email will be routed and when the domain name is checked to see where the email should go, the highest priority ones are attempted first. If for some reason that server doesn’t work, it will try the next in the list, and so on. We need to add all of these in order to complete our setup.

If you haven’t used your domain name for any email then you can simply delete any default MX records and then add the Google ones in their place, remembering to keep the priority numbers correct. If you’re prompted for a host, like GoDaddy does, you can simply enter “@” just like we did when we verified the domain with Google.

If you have been using your domain name for email previously then you need to be aware that as soon as the changes are made and updated, emails will start to go through Google’s servers. At that point, you’ll need to update your email settings to use the new Google servers.

And that’s it, you’ve now successfully configured Gmail for your domain.

Step 5: Setting Up Your New Account

So now we’ve set up Google Apps and Gmail services for our domain, it’s time to set up your preferred email app to take advantage of it. One of the advantages of Google Apps is that it uses the exact same settings as Gmail, the only difference being simply the username and password.

When adding a new account in OS X Mountain Lion, for example, we simply select the account type Gmail and then enter our full email address and password.

If you ever want to log in to the web interface, there’s nothing special you need to do there, either. Simply visit Gmail and log in with your full email address and password.

You Have New Mail!

Congratulations, you’ve completely set up Google Apps as your mail provider! All incoming and outgoing mail is now completely managed by Google but there isn’t a single @gmail.com address in sight. Try sending yourself a test email to an alternative email address and then responding when you receive it, just to be sure everything is working correctly.

With this setup done, you’ll never need to do it again unless you change mail provider. Any new users you add that get an email address can simply sign in to the mail app of their choice and enter the standard Gmail settings, or select Gmail where appropriate.

Beyond Email

Google Apps provides functionality far beyond the scope of this tutorial but a full list of features that Google Apps provides, check out the Google Apps Benefits page.

You’ll likely find some of the additional features, such as Google Calendar, Google Contacts and Google Drive extremely useful if you have a number of co-workers and I strongly encourage you to take a look at many of the other services that you get for your money.

Wrapping Up

Google Apps provides a complete hosted mail solution that combines all the advantages and rock-solid performance, reliability of Gmail with the professionalism of using your own domain name, and the power to manage your domain with more options than would otherwise be available.

Now that you’ve got your free trial going and your domain name is working for Gmail, why not take a look through the remainder of the control panel and see what else Google Apps might offer?

Further Reading

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