Do I need to pay for email, or should I use the free email that comes with my web host?


There’s a lot of choices when it comes to who handles your email. Basically your options fall under 3 different categories:

  1. Free email from a provider like gmail or yahoo– yourname@gmail.com
  2. ‘Free’ branded email from your web host, bundled into your web hosting fee– yourname@yourdomain.com
  3. Paid branded email service from a provider like Google Workspace– yourname@yourdomain.com

You may notice that options #2 and #3 are suspiciously similar. Except that one you pay nothing extra for beyond your web hosting fee, and one you have to pay monthly for (around $6 per inbox, at time of writing, from Google Workspace).

This might seem like a no-brainer– why pay extra for what looks like the same thing?

Of course, as you might guess, it’s really not the same thing at all. Using the free email that comes with your web host might work for a while, but it comes with some very serious drawbacks that can cost your business money if you ever use it for anything critical.

I’ll lay out the options that you have to handle your business email and the advantages and drawbacks of them all, so that you can make an informed decision.

Option 1: Use a free email like gmail or yahoo

This option has some major advantages. Just about everybody has a free email address like this. You already know how to use it, and you’re used to giving it out. It’s probably already hooked up to your smartphone, so you don’t have to worry about missing important emails.

When you send email, you know that it’s delivered; you generally don’t experience things like your emails being flagged as spam or not delivered to the recipient.

Disadvantages: using yourname@gmail.com, or nameofyourbusiness@gmail.com, doesn’t look as professional. You may appear to be a fly-by-night operation and it won’t position you as a trusted authority in your space.

Option 2: Use the branded email that comes with your web host

Everybody likes a deal. And if the deal you bought came with free email, you’re well within your rights to expect your web host to keep up their end of the bargain. Using this free email, you can usually create as many inboxes as you need, so that you can have emails for yourself, your employees, your payroll department, whatever you need, all at no extra cost beyond the monthly web hosting fee. The only limit is your hard disk space.

As you might expect. something that sounds this good comes with some drawbacks.

If your website goes down for any reason, your email does down with it. That includes your biggest customer emailing you, “Hey, it looks like your website is down?”

Your email will share disk space resources with your website. If you use email frequently for things like sending image, Word, or PDF attachments, like is common for invoicing/billing, sending proposals, etc, you may fill up your allotted disk space pretty quickly* depending on your web hosting plan. And that may cause errors with your website, even causing your website to go offline until disk space is freed up.

*Tiny Little Caveat about this: It’s possible to use a different email setting (called POP, vs the more standard IMAP) to avoid filling up your server with emails. That would mean your emails are actually moved from your server to your device (like your PC or tablet) once you check your email. It’s outside the scope of this question, but you can read more about POP vs. IMAP here (opens in new tab).

Your emails may be flagged as spam automatically by your recipients’ email providers. Chances are, your web hosting plan involves sharing the same server space as many, many other websites. You can look up who’s sharing your space by entering your domain name into this tool, for example. If just one other site on your server is a bad apple, all emails including yours that are routed through that server may be flagged as spam. Sometimes they end up in the spam/junk folder, and sometimes they can “hard bounce”– in other words, disappear silently without even appearing as a spam email.

Even if the first two issues are not a problem for you, the issue of unreliable email delivery is one that is basically inevitable. In my roughly ten years of handling the hosting end of web services, including my own personal experience with using freebie branded email hosting, I have seen this become a huge, hair-on-fire issue when business owners start finding their critical emails go unseen.

Of course these days, I recommend any business critical email is never sent through a freebie web host email service. So my clients are able to avoid these issues, and I hope you avoid them too! If you want branded email, though, what’s your alternative?

Option 3: Use a paid branded email service from a provider like Google Workspace

You can set up an email address to send and receive email from an address like yourname@yourdomain.com for a cost ranging from $3-6 dollars per month per inbox, depending on the provider.

The one I recommend is Google Workspace as it is reliable and easy to set up. If you send and receive sensitive emails, and privacy/ security is a concern, ProtonMail is another option. That’s the one my clients in the healthcare space use.

An advantage of paid branded email is that you get the professional look of a branded email without tying your email to your website. So if your website was to experience an issue, your email would still work just fine since it’s handled by your email host’s servers, not yours.

Your emails will be reliably delivered. Unless you’re sending spam, you don’t have to worry about being flagged as junk and having critical emails be deleted unseen.

An advantage of Google Workspace in particular is that checking your email is exactly the same as with a @gmail.com email address. So if that’s your usual email provider, you won’t have to learn anything new and your transition will be very easy.

A real disadvantage is that if you are used to large numbers of free email inboxes, the cost can add up. For instance, having an email address for every employee may add up to more than you’re able or willing to budget.

One thing to keep in mind that may or may not help you is that with Google Workspace, you do have unlimited email aliases. This is when your primary email is, for example, alice@example.com, and you set up an alias that is invoicing@example.com. That alias is just another name for the real email address, alice@example.com. The emails sent and received would look like they were coming from a different email, invoicing@example.com, but they would all be associated with the same inbox.

But for many small businesses, one or two emails is all they really need, and the cost is offset by the value of knowing that your business critical emails will actually be delivered.

I hope this has helped you decide what’s best for sending and receiving your business critical emails!

Note: A related topic is sending and receiving emails via your website, ie, order notifications for eCommerce stores and emails sent via contact forms. If you’ve ever had a problem with emails sent via your website not being delivered reliably to you (or your customers), you may want to check that post out.

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