When you start looking for a domain registrar, you may discover some surprising differences in what they offer — or neglect to offer. Erik Eckel learned the hard way that it pays to shop around. Here’s his list of the tools, services, and features that will make your job easier.

Having helped create, maintain, and administer Web site and e-mail domains for numerous clients, I’ve come to find that several elements are necessities when working with a domain registrar. Whether complex DNS issues, dreaded SMTP errors, or confusing IP address troubles arise — and no matter how well you prepare, issues inevitably surface — technology professionals need a good, dependable registrar that offers the tools, services, and features required to properly research and resolve these issues.

Toward that end, here are 10 elements to insist upon when selecting a domain registrar.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Validity

Regardless of how much money some domain registrars might save you — and postal mail and Internet pages frequently tout marketing offers from questionable firms set up overseas — Web and e-mail domain registration isn’t a feature where corners should be cut, even in a down economy. Insist upon working only with reputable and legitimate domain registrars.

If a potential partner isn’t an ICANN-accredited registrar, don’t give them your business. Confirming that a potential registrar is ICANN-accredited helps ensure that your organization receives professional, stable, reliable service from a reputable provider.

#2: Knowledgeable technical support

When all else fails — and trouble will arise when transferring domains, delegating administrative permissions, or just renewing existing services — you need to know the registrar’s customer service department is capable and responsive. Almost all operate toll-free telephone numbers. That’s to be expected.

But when it comes to speaking with a mildly technically proficient support representative, that’s not always a given. Review a domain registrar’s support policies. Some offer live technical chat as well as live telephone support. My field experience has taught me that such additional technical accessibility options save time and angst.

#3: Intelligent DNS configuration utilities

The frustration that comes with trying to make sense of unintuitive and/or confusing DNS configuration tools can quickly prove overwhelming, particularly when e-mail service or Web site access is down. Even if you have to test a domain registrar’s DNS tools using a practice domain you create only for testing purposes, getting familiar with a registrar’s DNS configuration tools and their usage before administering a live site or production e-mail can prove invaluable. Avoid selecting a registrar whose DNS tools prove difficult to access or understand or that are error-ridden.

#4: Delegation tools

Often, organizations prefer to implement a separation of powers when managing domains. For example, senior staff might be the only ones able to transfer a domain, whereas network administrators might need permissions to occasionally update DNS records.

In such cases, delegation authority is required, in which specific permissions can be delegated to respective authorized users. If your organization is likely to find itself in such need, be sure to confirm the domain registrar selected supports such division of responsibilities.

#5: SSL Certificates

Take it from a consultant who’s received four separate bills for a single client’s domain needs; dividing domain registration, e-mail hosting, Web hosting, and SSL certificate services among four vendors quickly becomes confusing. And it’s inefficient and often cost ineffective.

Look for a domain registrar that can collect all these services within a single pricing package. Doing so simplifies recordkeeping and administration and lowers costs.

#6: Web hosting

Increasingly, many organizations are choosing not to invite port 80 public Internet traffic inside their corporate servers. File servers dedicated to user authentication and file and print sharing, while usually capable of hosting Web sites, are often configured specifically not to allow public Web traffic. Foregoing Web site hosting on an organization’s own local server helps secure the box and protect it from countless exploits.

However, most organizations require a Web presence. Just as with e-mail hosting, companies should look for a domain registrar that also offers competitive Web hosting services. For reasonable fees, organizations can keep such Web-related traffic off their main production servers by taking advantage of registrar Web-hosting packages instead.

#7: E-mail hosting

Not all small businesses want to maintain and administer their own servers. Many organizations that do go that route and implement small business servers often don’t want the hassles of maintaining their own Exchange or Sendmail boxes. In such cases, it’s much easier to allow the domain registrar to maintain e-mail services. Thus, organizations that don’t want to assume the challenge or expense of e-mail server administration should look for a domain registrar that can wrap those services within a single, integrated package.

#8: Site-building tools

The site-building tools provided by most leading domain registrars may not be able to create complex Web sites that set new and innovative design trends, but that’s not usually the goal of businesses, SMBs in particular, that need these tools.

Many organizations merely want to launch professional, informational Web sites that improve communications with clients and suppliers. In such cases, expensive Web design firms may not be required. Existing marketing materials may well be leveraged using these registrar-provided tools to quickly launch a simple but professional-looking Web site.

#9: Easily navigable Web site

Look for a domain registrar whose Web site is well organized. It’s not worth saving a few dollars a year if you have to invest an inordinate amount of time trying to chase down the menu for updating MX record entries or similar tools or to change account or billing information.

Look for registrars that have carefully designed their Web sites to group relevant tools by topic. Browse a potential registrar’s site to confirm it is easily navigable. Just because a domain registrar has purchased full-page advertisements in an electronics or tech magazine doesn’t mean its services or domain management tools are intuitive or readily accessible.

#10: Competitive pricing

Competition among domain registrars has been brutal. Consumers benefit, as domain names (complete with forwarding services and even an e-mail address) can be had from reputable registrars for less than $15 or $20 a year.

Be sure to review a domain provider’s pricing policies before committing. Pay special attention to potentially hidden fees, such as for domain forwarding or e-mail services. While price shouldn’t be the chief priority, it’s become a buyer’s market, certainly.