Put simply, a domain name is the mechanism that helps identify and locate computers and resources connected to the Internet and while there are free domain names, you usually have to purchase them through domain registrars.
One of the most essential features of a domain name is that it is unique, which is to say that no two computers (or servers) on the Internet can have the same domain name.
If you want a presence on the Internet you need to register a domain name that will then serve as your unique online name. Visitors will interact with you using this domain name either via your website or via email.
Difference between domain name and URL
Usually the two terms, domain name and URL are used interchangeably. Technically speaking however the two aren’t the same.
As mentioned earlier, a domain name is used for identifying computers on the Internet. These computers though use IP addresses, which are a series of numbers, such as 18.104.22.168.
Since humans find it easier to remember a string of characters rather than numbers, the pioneers of the web devised domain names to identify entities on the Internet rather than IP addresses.
This is done through using DNS Servers. (See Below)
On the other hand, a URL or a uniform resource locator is made up of the domain name as well as some other pieces of information, including the protocol and the path. For example, https://techradar.com/pro is a URL in which techradar.com is the domain name, while https is the transfer protocol and /pro is the path to a specific section on the website.
In most modern browsers, you don’t need to enter the complete URL to visit a website. Simply enter the domain name and the browser will add the protocol and other pieces of information required to bring up the website.
How do domain names work?
When you enter a domain name in the browser, it will send a request to a domain name system (DNS) server. This can either be hosted by your ISP or by a reputable third-party that relies on a distributed global network of servers for superior performance.
It is the duty of these servers to look up the name servers associated with the domain name and then forward your request to those name servers. The name servers are computers that are managed by the website’s web hosting company.
The name servers will in turn forward the request to the computer that hosts the website. This computer is called a web server and is powered by a HTTP server software such as Apache, Nginx, and Tomcat, whose duty it is to fetch the website, which is then sent back and rendered on your web browser.
Types of domain names
A domain name is usually broken up into two or more parts, each of which is separated by a dot, such as techradar.com. The section to the right of the last dot in the domain name is the top-level domain (TLD). These are usually one of the generic TLDs (gTLDs) such as .com, .net, and .org.
Then there are ccTLDs, which are country code top level domains such as .uk and .in. They’re meant to be used to identify sites meant for specific regions, such as bbc.co.uk or abc.net.au.
Unlike gTLD, many TLDs are intended for a specific use case. For instance, .edu is meant specifically for educational institutions, while .gov can only be used by Government agencies.
If you’re running a business, most users still tend to trust the good old .com but if you’re selling in a particular region like Britain you may want a local TLD too such as .co.uk.
You can view a list of all valid TLDs here.
Choosing a good domain name
If you go to the main page of a hosting provider like GoDaddy, you’ll be asked to enter your chosen domain name. Usually you can do this with oe without adding a TLD. Your hosting website will then check if that name is available. If it is, then you can proceed to registration.
If it’s not your provider may check if the domain name is available for sale on a third party marketplace or may suggest the same domain with an alternative TLD : for instance while www.sarahjanesrecipes.com might be taken www.sarahjanes.recipes might be available.
Remember that you can’t change your domain name once it’s registered, so you need to consider carefully what to call it. Some top tips include:
Your domain name should be both easy to spell and pronounce. Try to avoid homophones if you can. For instance, you might think www.knightschool.club is a great name for your chess society but when spoken aloud it would sound the same as www.nightschool.club.
Try also to avoid hyphens or numbers in your domain name. If your chosen domain name is too similar to one that’s already taken, come up with an original one.
If you’re running a business or blog, you need to make sure that the domain matches its name. This sounds obvious but nothing’s going to make visitors to your site more suspicious than if they click on one link and seem to be seeing that for another site.
Make sure that your chosen domain name can also be registered on social media like Facebook or Twitter. In our chess club example above for instance, someone has already registered the Twitter username “knightschool”, so you’d need to either change the domain name or invent a clearer handle e.g knightschoolusa.
Subdomains and parked domains
Besides the above mentioned classification, domain names are categorized in another fashion.
One common type of domain you often hear about is a subdomain, which is exactly what it sounds like, a domain within a domain. A subdomain is usually prefixed to the name of the original domain, for instance, blog.puppylinux.com.
Subdomains are useful as they help you effectively host a different website without purchasing an additional domain name. The subdomains are usually employed to host content that is somehow different from the main domain. For instance, Google uses the support.google.com subdomain to provide help and support for all the services offered by the search engine.
Another popular type of domain is a parked domain. This is usually used as an alias for the main domain and redirects requests to the primary domain. Companies usually use parked domains to secure common misspellings of their primary domain name, such as microsft.com or gooogle.com. Many also use parked domains to register the primary domain with other TLDs, for instance yahoo.net.
The origin of the term however refers to domains that you register but don’t point towards any website in particular.
These days the practice of parking domains is often employed for domain squatting, sometimes known as “cybersquatting.”
Domain name squatting is the act of purchasing a domain and TLD to prevent someone else from registering it, and then to profit by reselling it. Technically the practice isn’t illegal, but is usually frowned upon, especially when done with a nefarious intention.
The difficulty is that since the internet is global, the person squatting on your chosen domain may not technically be breaking the law in their own country. This is why ICANN (see below) allow you to file a Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) complaint.
If you have a registered trademark and can show that the cybersquatter has registered a domain name that is identical or confusingly similar to your trademark, you may be able to file a UDRP complaint to have the domain name transferred to you.
Remember though, this is only for registered companies and IP holders. You can’t file a complaint simply because someone registered your chosen domain before you did.
Who is responsible for domains?
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a non-profit organization that creates and implements the policies for domain names. ICANN was established in 1998 to ensure the Internet remains usable by everyone.
ICANN gives permission to sell domain names to companies called Domain Name Registrars. These domain name registrars are allowed to make changes to the domain names registry and pay a small fee to ICANN every time they need to register a domain name.
How do you buy domain names?
You can buy domain names from one of the many domain name registrars, such as Bluehost, GoDaddy, HostGator, and several others. The registrars usually charge for the domain name in 1 year increments, though some allow you to pay upfront for up to 10 years at the time of registration.
You can usually get the best discounts by paying for as many years in one go. Still, you also need to make sure that this hosting provider is a good fit for your domain name. Paying for 12 months at first is a long enough time to do this without risking too much money. Make sure to check the host’s registration and cancellation policy carefully before signing up.
In addition to a domain name you’ll also need a website hosting account as well. In fact, you almost always approach one of the many hosting companies, which in addition to selling you a hosting plan also offer domain registration services. This arrangement allows you to manage both services under one account.
While the exact process of buying a domain name varies, you usually start by searching if your desired domain name is available. Almost every domain name registrar has a dedicated tool for this purpose. Some of the good ones will go one step ahead and give you suggestions for other potential domain names, if the one you were looking for has already been taken.
You’ll then have to pay for the domain name and the price depends on the TLD, with some being more expensive than others. Again, the good domain name registrars will give you the option to buy and park the domain name with different TLDs, and perhaps even offer a discount if you choose to do so. Once the domain name is paid for and registered you’ll be able to use it to host your website.
Earlier we talked about cybersquatters who will register the domain name of a company or trademark in the hope of profiteering. There are also internet scammers who register domain names very similar to that of legitimate companies in the hope of creating a ‘phishing’ website to steal people’s information.
If you’re running a business or any other website which people trust with their personal information, take this opportunity to register similar domain names to yours. This is quite easy to do for different TLDs e.g. you could register both www.sarahjanesrecipes.com and www.sarahjanesrecipes.net.
Make sure also to register common misspellings of your domains. For instance, if you try to visit www.fcaebook.com or www.facebok.com you’ll see that you’re automatically redirected to the correct domain www.facebook.com. This is because Meta has already bought these misspelled domains and programmed them to divert visitors correctly to the main site. You can do the same from the dashboard of your hosting provider’s account. This may cause an SSL error (see below) but at least your visitors will be safer from scammers.
If you’re registering a website which processes sensitive information from users like e-mail addresses or credit card details, you’re also going to need an SSL Certificate.
These certificates verify to visitors that your website is genuine and establishes an encrypted connection between it and their device.
You may have seen this before when visiting websites : if a padlock icon appears on your browser bar, that means the connection is encrypted, so any data you send to the website can’t be read by a third party. You can even click the padlock to see the certificate details.
Technically you can create your own (self-signed) certificate but as it wouldn’t be validated by an independent CA (Certificate Authority), it would throw up errors when people visit your site.
Most domain registrars like GoDaddy also offer an SSL certificate as part of the registration process. If they don’t do this, read our round-up of the best certificate providers on the market today.
By default, when you register your domain, your name, address, e-mail and sometimes your contact number are made available in a public WHOIS database. In short, anyone can see your personal information if they know how to look for it.
This has its benefits as it discourages people from hosting illegal content but if you prefer privacy you can choose to keep this information hidden. Most hosting providers offer a privacy bolt-on such as BlueHost’s “Choice Plus” plan.
This means that when registering the domain your host won’t provide this information to the ‘WHOIS’ databases. Instead they’ll either put their contact information or say the information is unavailable.
The bottom line
As you now know, a domain name is an online resource, which allows you to easily connect to other computers without having to memorize a long string of IP addresses.
While there are free domains, you should really go through an official registrar to create one. You should think hard about choosing a good name, which is easy to remember and type as well as a suitable TLD such as .com.
You should also consider buying up similar domain names and TLD’s, to prevent both cybersquatters and scammers. If visitors are going to be sending information to your domain, you should also install an SSL certificate. Most hosting providers can offer you help with this.
If you want extra security and peace of mind, choose a hosting provider who offers privacy features, so your name and address won’t end up in every WHOIS database.