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Your online journey begins today! Here at DreamHost, we want you to have all the information you need to make critical decisions for your business and web projects. That’s why we’ve compiled this series of helpful tutorials to help you get your big idea off the ground.

What Is a Domain Name (And How Does It Work)?

Picking a name is one of the foundational building blocks for a successful website. When you choose poorly, you can leave your site burdened with a forgettable or even confusing name that fails to inspire inbound traffic.

That’s why it’s necessary to understand what a domain name is, and how domains work. By arming yourself with the right information upfront, you’ll move one step closer to a name that can attract visitors and strengthen your site’s identity.

In this article, we’ll cover all the basics when it comes to domain names. Plus, we’ll talk about what you can do to make sure you choose a successful one. Let’s get started!

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An Introduction to Domain Names

Two common questions for new website builders include “What is a domain name?” and “What are the different types of domain names?” Even if you don’t know much about domain names, you’ve seen them many times before.

The DreamHost website.

Why? Well, that’s because a domain name is a website’s primary URL, what you see when you visit that site and what you’ll type into a browser in order to visit it. Essentially, a domain name is the site’s address, without which no one would be able to find it.

Domains can also be broken down into various parts and types, including:

  • Top-Level Domain (TLD). This is at the end of a site’s URL: .com, .org, .net, and so on. Top-level domains are also called extensions, and there are many options available.
  • Second-Level Domain (SLD). This is the other primary element of the URL that comes right before the extension, such as “wikipedia” or “bbc.” The SLD can be a crucial part of your website’s identity and brand.
  • Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs). This adds a country-specific TLD to the URL, such as .co.uk for the United Kingdom or .ca for Canada.
  • Sponsored Top-Level Domains (sTLDs). These belong to specific organizations, such as the government (.gov) or the military (.mil).

What’s most important to remember is that in a URL like www.dreamhost.com, “dreamhost” is the SLD, and “.com” is the TLD. With those basics out of the way, let’s take a closer look at how domains actually work.

How Domain Names Work Under the Hood

A domain name is akin to an address, since it’s where your site “lives” on the web. For that reason, all domains also belong to something called a Domain Name System (DNS), a vast network administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

Simply put, the DNS is a network of servers located around the world that works something like an enormous address book. Without the DNS, you would have to memorize Internet Protocol (IP) addresses for each website.

In other words, if you wanted to visit Facebook, you might have to enter something like “69.63.191.255” instead of “facebook.com.” It’s safe to say that remembering a word or phrase as a URL is much easier than using a meaningless string of numbers.

How does the DNS turn numbers into easy-to-remember domain names? Well, when you enter a URL into your web browser, you’re dialing up the IP address of the site’s server. The DNS uses those numbers to map out and find the desired site. Then, it merely translates them into a format we as humans are better able to understand: i.e., the domain name.

The Difference Between a Domain Name and Web Hosting

If you’ve looked online for any advice about building your first website, you’ve probably discovered that there are two key things you’ll need. To get your site online, you require a domain name and a web host. However, you might not be sure what the difference is between those two elements.

A website is made up of many pages and a lot of content. Even the smallest site contains plenty of data, files, media, and so on. All of this information needs a home, and that’s where a hosting company comes into play.

Web hosting providers store your website’s data on specialized computers called servers. This is what enables other people to access the content you create. The server houses your website and makes it available online so that anyone who wants to can visit it. Meanwhile, your domain name is your website’s address, making it possible for those visitors to find the site.

Each element is needed for your website to fully work. Your host provides a home, and your domain name provides a location. Both can also have a significant impact on your site’s success over time.

After all, a quality host will ensure that your website is up and running the way it should be. Web hosts can do a lot more than just store your site’s data. They can provide you with maintenance, support, security, and a lot more. So along with choosing your domain name carefully (as we’ll discuss below), it’s crucial to pick the right hosting provider and plan.

How to Choose and Purchase a Domain Name for Your Website (In 3 Steps)

Since your site’s domain name is such a critical element, it’s vital to take time with the process and make your choice carefully. If you’re not sure how to do that, don’t worry. Below, we’ll walk you through the three primary steps for setting up your new website with a domain name.

1. Choose a Domain Registrar

Once you know you want to build a website, one of your first steps will be to secure a domain name. That means either signing up with a domain registrar or looking into your free options.

If you want to get a free domain, your services (and choices) will be pretty limited. Most free website builders won’t provide you with your own unique domain, but a “sub-domain” that includes their own branding. For example, if you opt for a free website building platform like WordPress.com, your URL would look like this: “mysite.wordpress.com.”

This isn’t the best choice for anything beyond a personal website since you won’t be able to fully brand your site. Plus, website builders are often limited in how much they’ll let you customize your site. If you want something more professional, you’ll likely want to opt for an actual domain registrar.

There are two main places you can purchase domain names. There are some standalone domain name registrars — companies that simply sell domains. However, you can also buy a domain through any web hosting provider. This is often the best option since it means your hosting and domain will “live” in the same place (and therefore be easier to manage).

Finding a web host that fits your needs means looking for a few telltale features. Usually, a solid hosting package will give you some bonuses beyond just storing your site’s data, as we mentioned earlier.

Here at DreamHost, for example, we support unlimited traffic to your website, provide a secure SSL/TLS certificate, include fast Solid-State Drive (SSD) storage, and offer a WordPress website builder to make creating your site a breeze. Plus, our annual shared and DreamPress plans come with a free domain name, so you can set it up right away.

2. Research Your Domain

Next, you’ve got to research your prospective domain name. At the very least, you’ll want your chosen domain name to reflect the scope and nature of your website or business. After all, your domain is the perfect chance for you to advertise your brand.

With that in mind, you might want to consider using a tool like Google Keyword Planner. This will help you identify keywords that can give you a competitive edge, while still being sufficiently popular and easy to remember.

Google Keyword Planner.

It’s also essential that your domain name accurately captures what your website is about. At a glance, it should offer prospective visitors an idea for the kind of content they’ll find, and possibly even your site’s style and/or tone.

If you need some extra help coming up with domain name options, you can also use a domain name generator. With this kind of tool, you can brainstorm ideas related to your site’s niche, audience, and primary focus.

Finally, remember to keep your domain name short, simple, and easy to remember. A confusing domain name can drive visitors away, while a well-considered choice can help you build traffic much faster.

3. Check the Domain Name’s Availability and Purchase It

Once you know what domain name you want (or have a few possibilities in mind), it’s time to find out what’s actually available. After all, there are millions of websites online, and each one needs to have a unique domain. So many prospective names are already taken.

Fortunately, it’s easy to search for available domain names. Any registrar or web host that offers domains should provide you with a tool that lets you enter in the desired domain name and check its availability.

A domain name search tool.

You’ll also typically be presented with alternative suggestions, as well as domain names that include various top-level domains. So if your original idea is taken, you may be able to find something very similar.

Multiple domain name options.

Once you know what domain you want, you should be able to obtain it by selecting a “buy now” button next to the name. Then, it’s just a matter of entering some personal and payment information and completing the purchase process.

If you’re picking up a domain name from your web host, you should also be able to choose and buy your name alongside your plan. If you get your domain name somewhere else, though, don’t worry — you can still connect it up to your site’s web host.

Frequently Asked Questions About Domain Names

At this point, we’ve gone over the basics when it comes to understanding and purchasing domain names. If you still have questions, however, don’t worry. Before we wrap up, we’ll look at a few commonly-asked questions about domain names.

Can I buy multiple domains?

You can buy as many domain names as you like. You can even connect multiple domains to the same website. This can be helpful if you want to make sure visitors who misspell your domain or use the wrong TLD still end up in the right place.

If I move my website elsewhere, will I lose my domain name?

Once you’ve registered a domain name, it’s yours until the registration period expires. You can move your website to a different platform or host and still use the same domain. This applies whether you’ve bought your domain from your web host, or somewhere else.

Can I cancel my domain name registration?

The answer to this question depends on where you registered your domain and the TLD itself. Some hosts and providers will let you cancel and provide a refund, while others may permit the cancellation without a refund, or simply encourage you to let the domain name expire. Therefore, it’s a good idea to check out prospective domain name registrars’ policies before making a purchase.

What if my domain name expires?

If your domain name expires, you may be given a window of opportunity to renew it before someone else can take it. For example, here at DreamHost, we offer a renewal grace period of 30 days. This ensures that you have enough time to keep your domain name active.

Am I able to sell my domain?

Yes, you can sell your domain. This is called “domain reselling,” and it’s extremely common. There are entire marketplaces where people buy and sell domains they no longer want or need; some people even try to purchase high-value domains to sell them at a profit.

Should I be worried about my online privacy?

When you register a domain name, some personal details may be accessible through sites like WHOIS. However, certain providers offer privacy protection safeguards, so you don’t have to worry about questionable people looking up your details. DreamHost, for example, offers domain privacy for free.

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Our Domain Name Extensions Are Waiting

It’s understandable to have questions about domain names, especially if you’ve never bought one before. That’s why you should take all the time you need to find a host you feel comfortable with before diving into purchasing your domain.

Ready to register your domain? Our domain registration guidelines equip you with everything you’ll need to successfully navigate the process and start your website off on the right foot!

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If you have questions or just could use some help figuring some thing out, get in touch. Our team of web experts has been in the business for over 20 years and knows how to help you figure out the right next steps.