Domain Name Explained

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Domain Names are the addresses of websites used by browsers to locate them on the Internet. Each domain name is made up of two parts, the name and the extension. The combination of name and extension must be unique. An example of a typical domain name is Google.com, where Google is the name and .com is the extension. 

Since the Internet was first open to the public in 1991 there has been a massive explosion in the number of websites online. Spurred by rapidly advancing technology in both hardware and software, over 1.7 billion websites have been created – each with their own domain name.

How Do Domain Names Work?

Although you might think that domain names are mandatory, they’re not. You can access a website by using its Internet Protocol (IP) address as well. These are strings of numbers separated by stops that identify devices over a network. The Internet is a massive network of computers.

Take for example the case of Google.com. If they didn’t own the domain name, people could still open their browsers and type in http://212.39.82.158 to get the same results. The page hosting that famous search engine will still load.

The mechanics of this work can be a little complicated, but we can simplify it into a three-stage process.

  1. You type in a domain name into your browser
  2. The browser checks with a DNS server and gets the actual IP address
  3. Your browser brings you to that address

While the process simplified in this manner might not be 100% accurate, it is a good logical representation of how the domain name system (DNS) works.

How domain name system works
Simplification of how the domain name system works.

Understanding Domain Name Extensions

The name part of a domain name is easy – it’s something you dream up yourself and can literally be anything you want. However, there is also the extension to consider. Because of the speed at which the Internet has grown, new domain name extensions have continually been introduces.

When the Internet first started out it was with only a handful of extensions. These were the “famous seven”  .com, .net, .edu, .org, .gov, .int and .mil top level domains (TLDs). TLDs are also categorized into various types such as gTLDs, ccTLDs, etc.

.com

Currently under the purview of The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) with Verisign as the registrar, .coms were one of the few original domain names that were open for public registration. They can be bought by any company or individual with prices averaging at around $10 to $15. They are the ‘jack of all trades’ among domain names and can be used for almost any purpose.

.net

Derived from the word ‘network’, .net domain extensions are also overseen by ICANN and were intended for the use of companies which were involved in networking technologies. A famous example of this was Novell.net, one of the biggest names in the networking business at the time. However, the extension was run more or less without restrictions and fell into use for general purposes. Prices for .net domain names hover at similar levels to those of .com extensions. 

.edu

Although intended for use in general by institutes of higher learning such as universities and colleges, .edu domain names somehow ended up requiring United States affiliation. As such the extension has not gained popularity and is today used almost exclusively by entities in the U.S. These domain extensions are only available through EduCause and cost $77 per year.

.org

‘Organization’ or .org domain name extensions are also under the purview of ICANN. The domain extension was intended for non-profit organizations but regulations have not been enforced. Today it has become another extension that is for open registrations without restrictions. Prices for .org also vary and are similar to those of .com and .net domain extensions.

.gov

The .gov extension is a US-sponsored TLD and in use with government entities in the country. Once limited to federal bodies, the domain today is open to all levels of US government. However, it should be noted that ‘open for use’ isn’t the same as ‘required’ and some US government bodies have been known to use other TLDs such as .com instead. .gov domain names are only available through dotgov.gov and cost $400 per year.

.mil

Another domain name extension that is sponsored by the United States, .mil is reserved exclusively for use by entities under the Department of Defence. There are some exceptions such as affiliated bodies but usage is largely restricted. All U.S. military-related sites are also required to undergo internal registration for their official registry listing via the Unified Registration System. .mil domain names are also significantly more expensive to register than most TLDs, costing over $1,000.

.int

This extension remains relatively obscure simply for the fact that it is very limited in application. It is open only to intergovernmental bodies such as the African Union and Council of Europe. The basis for registration is an international treaty, no less and only one domain can be registered by each body. There are no registration fees for .int domain extensions.

The domain name is highly extensive system and branching out from TLDs, there are also Country Code top level domains (ccTLDs) and many more categories and sub-categories. As an example, ccTLDs were created so that sites could choose to associate more closely with specific places.

Examples of ccTLDs include .us, .sg and .de representing North America, Singapore and Germany (.de standing for Deutschland). ccTLDs usually come with varying requirements. A .us ccTLD would require that the website owner have a US presence, for example.

Why You Need a Domain Name?

By now you might be wondering why you need to pay for a domain name when you can run a website without needing one. There are various reasons for this. Domain names are usually easier to remember than a strong if numbers. 

Just imagine having to remember and type http://212.39.82.158 into your browser each time instead of simply Google.com. Then multiply that difficulty by a factor of the number IP addresses of websites you’d likely have to memorize.

Aside from making it easier for users to remember how to get to your website, domain names also offer you the unique opportunity at branding. Whether you’re an individual running a blog or a business owner, your domain name is part of your brand.

How Much Does a Domain Name Cost?

The important thing to understand about domain names and cost are that they are treated like commodities. You can find domain names available for a wide range of prices. Just as the price of a certain item might differ depending on where you buy it from, so too do the prices of domain names.

Aside from where it is purchased, other factors also affect the price of a domain name. These include the TLD or ccTLD, privacy choices and other features. As a general guideline, most .com domains will usually cost anywhere between $9 to $15.

If you’re lucky you might even get a .com domain for as little as $1.

Where to Buy a Domain Name?

GoDaddy domain name marketplaces
Aside from new registrations, you can also bid for existing domain names if you really want them.

Domain names are available at so many places on the Internet. You can buy them from domain name registrars, web hosting providers or even buy existing domain names from marketplaces like GoDaddy has.

It is important to note that you do not need to buy a domain name form the same place that you buy your web hosting from. Although more convenient, you can often find good bargains on domain names at places other than your web hosting provider.

As an example of this, let’s consider two scenarios; Buying both from the same provider and buying them separately;

  1. Buying web hosting and a .com domain name from SiteGround will cost you the price of web hosting + $15.95 per year (with the extra price what you pay for the .com domain name.
  2. Buying web hosting from SiteGround but opting for Namecheap as your choice of domain name provider will cost you the price of web hosting + $8.88 per year.

In the second scenario, you’re saving around $7 per year on your domain name alone. While it may not seem like much, multiply that figure by how long you intend to run the site and the cost can build up quickly.

There are also some places where you can get a free domain name, but these aren’t usually recommended. Firstly, only very limited ccTLDs like .tk offer these free domain names and the reputation of the ccTLD has taken a nosedive due to the high incidences of abuse originating from them.

The second reason is that there are clauses in many of the terms and conditions that allow the registrar to seize your domain name (and hence any traffic you’ve built up) a little too easily. My advice would be to stay mainstream and buy a solid domain name.

Do You Need Domain Privacy?

When a domain name is purchased, information about the owner and administrator need to be sent to the domain name registrar. This might be considered as invasive for some people as it includes not just their name but other information such as address, email and contact number.

For those who don’t want this to happen, you can opt for domain privacy. Think of domain name privacy like a P.O. Box address or a forwarding service. Your details will be replaced by those of the domain privacy provider for all public searches on the domain.

Some places like Namecheap provide free lifetime domain name privacy with every purchase of a domain name. However, the service is usually tagged on as a chargeable extra. 

Configuring Your Domain Name

Configuring nameservers at namecheap
Configuring your nameservers at Namecheap.

To be honest, configuring your domain name is incredibly simple. When you sign up for web hosting, your service provider will let you know what your DNS address is. To point your domain name towards that address is as simple as updating the DNS fields in your domain management panel.

Each provider’s domain management panel will differ. In general, look for an option to ‘Manage’ your domain name and then try and find the option that will allow you to update your nameservers. To update your nameservers, choose ‘Custom DNS’ and enter the nameserver information provided to you by your web hosting service.

Your domain name management panel will also enable you to perform other functions such as locking or unlocking your domain name, enabling or disabling domain privacy or even redirecting your domain name to another URL.

Transferring a Domain name

There may be occasions when you want to transfer your domain name to a different service provider. This could be for various reasons such as better service, lower fees or other features and options that you may need.

To transfer your domain name, you need to first unlock your domain name in the management panel. Once it is unlocked you will be provided with an authentication code. To complete the transfer, this code must be provided to your new domain name management service.

Choosing the Right Domain Name

wrong domain name example
Choosing the wrong domain name can result in a fair bit of hilarity for everyone but you.

Choosing the right domain name can be a bit of a challenge. There are a few guidelines I can share to help you, but the bigger challenge will be availability. Because all domain names must be unique, chances are that the domain name you have in mind is already registered and you might have to think of a new one.

Some guidelines on choosing your domain name;

  • Keep the name short and simple
  • Use keywords associated with your brand
  • If you serve an area or region, keep that in mind as well
  • Make it catchy and memorable

The single most important thing I must mention when choosing a domain name is to make sure you research it before you buy it! I’ve seen my fair share of poorly chosen domain names and these have often resulted in unintended consequences.

One of the funniest I can recall is the case of the website for Pen Island. Not a real Island but instead a company selling pens, Pen Island made a rather unusual buying decision in their domain name.

Although the owner of the site has since managed to come up with a less funny presentation of their site logo/branding, the domain name itself – www.penisland.com – is his (or hers) to stay.

Conclusion

The process of buying and managing a domain name is so forgettable simple that there really isn’t anything you need to be concerned about. The most difficult part of the equation would be in choosing the right name and hoping that it is available.

No matter your choice, there isn’t a realistic way for you to avoid buying a domain name for your website. Do some research and find the best pricing for your domain name. If you’re unhappy with the provider, simply transfer to a different one.


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Article by Timothy Shim

Timothy Shim is a writer, editor, and tech geek. Starting his career in the field of Information Technology, he rapidly found his way into print and has since worked with International, regional and domestic media titles including ComputerWorld, PC.com, Business Today, and The Asian Banker. His expertise lies in the field of technology from both consumer as well as enterprise points of view.
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