We all need a place to call our own. And the internet — home to cat memes, fake news, and the Net Neutrality debate — wouldn’t be the same without domains.
Since the first domain was registered 30 years ago, the internet has expanded at an astounding rate. In fact, by the end of 2015, there were more than 314 million active domain names on the internet with a year-to-year growth of 9 percent. That means that each and every day, people around the world are registering domain names and claiming a piece of internet real estate.
So what exactly are domains, anyway? And why are they so important?
Domains — a.k.a. domain names — are how we organize all of the websites and pages everyone visits on the web. The Domain Name System, or DNS, is the universal naming system for assigning addresses to web pages and web servers. Think of the DNS as one large phone book. Essentially, domain names are what we type into our web browser to visit a specific site. Without domain names, the internet would basically be useless. There, we said it.
In this article, we’ll cover what domains are, how they work, and how to register your very own online home. But first, let’s take a closer look at the hierarchy and formatting of domains.
How Domains Are Formatted
The first rule of domain fight club? Put that left-to-right junk you learned in English class to the side. The hierarchy of domain names is organized from right to left.
Let’s take a look at some domain names:
The general descriptors are called top-level domains (TLDs). TLDs come at the end of the domain name — think “.com,” “.org,” “.net”.
The specific descriptors to the left of the TLDs are the second-level domains (SLDs) — like “google,” “wikipedia,” “twitter,” etc.
To the left of the SLD is the machine name (e.g. “www.”).
Each level of the domain is separated by a period — the eponymous “dot.” So, in the “google.com” example, “google” is the SLD, and “.com” is the TLD. Most American web servers use three-letter TLDs, like “.com” or “.net,” while many other countries use two-letter or two-letter combination country code TLDs (ccTLDs), like “.ca” for Canada or “.co.uk.”
In more recent years, new generic top-level domains (ngTLDs) were introduced, which has opened the internet to a new world of possibilities for TLDs. These can be customized specifically for your business, so you could have a domain name that ends in “.marketing” or “.store.” But more on that later.
One thing that is important to note is a domain name is not the same thing as a URL. The truth is, the domain name is merely a part of the URL, which is the larger, more specific internet address that may contain a specific page address, a folder name, a machine name, and even a protocol language.
Here are some examples of URLs so you can see the difference (the domain names are bolded):
Domains have a particular set of formatting rules that determine whether or not a domain name is valid. Here’s a quick overview.
- Domains are not case-sensitive. Typing “Google.com” as opposed to “google.com” into your web browser will yield the same result.
- There are no spaces allowed in domain names. Oftentimes a dash may be used to differentiate certain words in a SLD for the purpose of clarity. For instance, say you run a business that helps people find merchandise resellers. The domain “who-resells.com” is way easier to understand (and more appropriate) than, ahem, “whoresells.com,” am I right? There isn’t any sufficient evidence that search engines, like Google, penalize sites in the page rankings due to dashes in the domain name. However, it may be more difficult for users to find your site if there are dashes in the domain name, so make sure you only use a dash if it helps with clarity.
- While letters, numbers, and dashes are allowed in a domain name, special characters (?, &, !, etc.) are typically not allowed.
- SLDs must be at least two characters long and have a 63-character limit. TLDs do not count towards this limit.
Although domains may initially seem complex, it’s pretty simple when you break down the language of the internet. Now, let’s delve into exactly how domains work.
Where Do Domains Come From?
Time for the birds-and-bees talk already?! They grow up so fast.
Let’s get technical for a minute. As discussed above, a domain name uses an easy-for-humans-to-remember string of letters or numbers (like dreamhost.com) to point to something specific on the internet, typically a webpage or web server.
So, what happens when you actually enter a domain into your web browser’s address bar?
As a user, you are directed to a specific web server’s IP address, which is translated in your browser, using the DNS, into what we recognize as the domain name format. IP addresses consist of four sets of numbers (values ranging from zero to 255) separated by dots (e.g. 126.96.36.199). The DNS translates the IP address into a more easily graspable language; after all, we humans are much better at remembering “Facebook.com” rather than “188.8.131.52.”
So, where do domains actually come from? Well, the primary governing authority on the Domain Name System is Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN was formed in 1998 in order to oversee and organize the maintenance and management of the DNS.
This organization plays a very important role in the inner workings of the internet because, without them, we wouldn’t have a streamlined, universal way of communication between computers across the globe. Here’s a simple breakdown of what they do, according to ICANN themselves:
- They are responsible for coordinating the names and numbers that relate to internet addresses. They do not actually register domain names with the exception of “.int,” which is used for intergovernmental agencies with international treaties.
- They work to ensure the security, stability, and interoperability of the internet through creating fair policies and through operation of the DNS.
- They allocate IP addresses to five Regional Internet Registries, or RIRs, and in-line with IETF decisions. The RIRs then allocate addresses to ISPs (Internet Service Providers) who sub-allocate to networks and individual users.
In other words, ICANN supervises the DNS and offers the opportunities necessary to accommodate for an ever-expanding internet with millions and millions of domains. ICANN delegates the responsibility of maintaining certain TLDs to what are called registry operators.
Registry operators are then tasked with maintaining a registry of active domains under their TLD.
So for example, Verisign is the registry operator that maintains the .com and .net TLDs. From there, a registrar, accredited by either ICANN or a registry operator, sells and distributes domain names to internet users. Nowadays, it is super common to find hosting companies — like DreamHost — that double as a registrar, so you can register a domain and pay for web hosting in one fell swoop.
Do You Need a Domain Name?
There are three important reasons why you absolutely should want your own domain:
- Owning Your Domain — For example, if you wanted the domain “jingleheimer.com,” you would have to register that domain name through a registrar. Some companies, like WordPress.com, offer free website services that do not include a domain registration. So in that case, your site would appear as jingleheimer.wordpress.com (read more about WordPress.com naming conventions here). We definitely get that for some people, a free option is the best budget choice. But if you’re looking to build a brand or rise to the top of search engine results, you’ll need your own domain.
- Having a Permanent Web Address — Once you purchase your domain name, that domain is reserved. You own that domain name until you choose to let it expire. So as long as you keep the domain registered (it’s easy to set up auto-renewal), it can be your home on the internet forever.
- Registering a Domain is Cheap — Registering a brand new domain name averages between $10 and $15 a year. That is a small price to pay for owning your very own address on the internet. DreamHost offers free domain registration for the first year when you sign up for the annual shared hosting plan. That knocks out your web hosting and domain registration with one (digital) stone.
Registering your own domain name is the best way to own your content on the internet. It looks more professional, and registering your own domain is simple, affordable and gives your content a permanent online home.
How much does running a WordPress website actually cost? We’ve run the numbers.
Choosing the Right Domain Name
Once you make the decision to pour a digital foundation on the internet, it’s important that you choose the right domain name for your site. Here are several things to keep in mind as you pick your domain.
Remember the Power of .Com
There are hundreds of TLDs to choose from, but perhaps the best and most effective is .com. The reason is simple: exposure. According to a study performed by marketing firm Searchmetrics, 75 percent of the 100 million web links analyzed directed to a .com TLD. Love it or hate it, .com is simply the most used and recognized TLD on the web.
Unfortunately, sometimes the .com that you want won’t be available, leaving you to settle for a .net, .org or .info. In that case, it might be a good idea to rethink the name of your SLD.
Another option to consider is registering a new generic TLD, like a “.social” or a “.xyz.” Although, these are still relatively new in the world of web building, ngTLDs have quickly been increasing in popularity and offer small businesses a chance to cultivate their own online community (more on this later).
Of course, if you work in a government agency or educational organization, it would be best to go with a .gov or .edu, respectively. Also, if you have a business that markets specifically to a certain geographic area, it would be a good idea to use a ccTLD, like .co.uk for England or .jp for Japan.
Consider the Length
Remember, you’re limited to 63 characters. But this isn’t Twitter. You don’t want to use up all your characters; it will make your domain name too difficult to remember — and way too time-consuming for your would-be visitors to type into a browser.
But this is a double-edge sword. Short domain names with only a few characters can be just as difficult to remember as long ones. Plus, it’s easier to confuse just a few letters with other short domains.
A good rule of thumb? Keep it under 15 characters and stick to three words or less. That way, your domain will be memorable and easy to type.
Think About Keywords
Make room for a keyword that will be easy to remember and may even support or reinforce your search engine optimization efforts (we’ll talk more about SEO later). Considering localization is important too. If you have a site that is promoting a local business or community, using regional keywords or phrases is a solid method for attracting users in your area (for example, basketweavers.nyc for all things related to basket weaving in New York City).
Keep It Simple
Avoid numbers, words with more than two syllables, or inside jokes unless it directly relates to or is crucial for your business or brand. When keywords or phrases become too specific, the domain can become hard to remember. Also, make sure your domain name can’t be construed as something that you didn’t intend (like that “who-resells.com” example earlier).
Research Your Domain
If you feel as though you’ve picked the right domain name for your site, it’s time to make sure your potential domain is legally and marketably viable. Make sure your domain choice isn’t infringing on any trademarks and that there isn’t another website that is already operating under that name. It is important that you protect yourself legally, but it is also worth doing this to make sure your business or brand name doesn’t conflict with any existing businesses. Remember, you want to stand out from the crowd, not get lost in it.
Don’t Forget About Privacy
Lastly, it’s important to think about your privacy when registering a domain. Domain privacy, commonly referred to as WHOIS protection, hides your personal information from the public WHOIS database when you register a domain.
Why would you want your data hidden? Well, when you register a domain, your personal details (like your name and home address) are considered public information. That means that anybody could search your domain in the WHOIS database and find out who you are and where you live.
That’s why DreamHost includes free domain privacy protection when you register a domain with us. Sketchy weirdos shouldn’t have access to your name and address — no matter what.
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Registering Your Domain
Once you are ready to own a new domain, it is time to register it. There are many different ways to register a new domain name. As mentioned previously, there are tons of domain registrars all over the web from which you can buy a domain.
Cost-wise, most registrars will run you anywhere from a promotional first-year fee of $0 to $5 or a straight, annual fee in the neighborhood of $10 to $20 and up. You will need either a debit/credit card or a PayPal account to pay for the domain. Paying for a domain will allow you to claim and acquire that domain name immediately upon application. Before we dive into the process of registering a new domain, it is important to understand the difference between domain registration and web hosting.
While a domain is simply the address where users can find your site on the internet, web hosting is the service that essentially provides the “housing” for your address. An address means nothing if you pull up to an empty lot. You need both a domain as well as hosting in order to run a fully functional website. That’s why we think it’s a really good idea (and bargain) to keep web hosting and domain registrations under one roof.
When you register with DreamHost, for instance, you get a pretty sweet set of benefits.
- Get free a domain when you buy a hosting plan.
- Free domain privacy protection to hide your personal info from the public WHOIS database.
- Ability to purchase a broader range of domain extensions, like .com, .net, .co, .uk and .io.
- Easily manage your DNS server info and records.
- Protect your domain from being hijacked by scammers.
- Set up subdomains, like news.yoursite.com or blog.yoursite.com.
So let’s take a look at how to easily register your domain through DreamHost:
- Visit dreamhost.com/domains. This is our domain registration portal, specially designed to help you find the right domain name for your website.
- From here, enter the domain name you want to register into the search bar at the top of the page and press the magnifying glass button.
- Look through the Featured, Popular, and Suggested domain name sections of the page to find the domain name you’d like to register. Each available domain name will be accompanied by a button that shows how much the registration will cost you annually.
- Choose the domain you want, enter your email and password in order to create your account with DreamHost, and then click Continue.
- From here, you can complete the registration and process the payment. The steps are easy to follow. Keep in mind, domain registration is completely free for the first year when you sign up for a shared hosting plan; available TLDs change monthly.
If you are starting a business website, it’s important to note that, while not necessary, it may be a good idea to purchase several domains that redirect to your desired domain name. If you have a .com website, snatching up domains with the same SLD but TLDs such as .net, .org, .info, etc. can drive more end users to your site. You can also do this with various misspellings as well. For instance, “googel.com” and “gogole.com” redirect to the real Google.
Getting a domain is simple, easy, and necessary for establishing your place on the web. To learn more about registering domain names, check out our Domain Registration Overview.
Didn’t buy your domain with DreamHost? It’s easy to transfer your registration.
New Generic Top-Level Domains
As mentioned earlier, the internet has seen a new generation of top-level domains known as “new generic TLDs” or simply, ngTLDs. These are top-level domains that have been introduced by ICANN in recent years and don’t fit the same mold as a .com or .net. In October of 2013, ICANN announced that the first batch of ngTLDs was delegated into the internet’s root zone (the top of the DNS hierarchy which contains all of the delegations for top-level domains).
The very first ngTLD was .guru, and it was made available to the public in February of 2014. Following the success of .guru, a number of ngTLDs like .club and .link were introduced and were welcomed by new domain buyers. In June of 2014, .xyz was introduced, and two years later, more than six million domains were registered using this ngTLD.
So why is all this important?
Well, while .com is still the most popular top-level domain on the web, the internet is continuing to see a greater interest in these alternative ngTLDs. This is partly due to the fact that a great majority of .com domains have already been taken, and pricing for certain highly desired .com domains have become more competitive and therefore more expensive to own.
While it’s probably too early to tell precisely how ngTLDs will affect the future of how people approach creating websites, there has been a huge uptick in recent years. Five years into the future, we may see a significant influx of new sites popping up with ngTLDs that are completely dominating their respective markets.
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How Domain Names Impact Your Business
The right domain name can impact a website’s traffic and overall brand image for a business. Many might attribute this to a domain’s impact on SEO.
But how can a domain name affect SEO?
Well, truth be told, a domain doesn’t have too much of an effect on SEO. There are roughly 200 ranking factors in Google’s algorithm, and the domain name is only one of them. While this implies that a domain name would have very little to no effect on the site’s SEO, there are other ways a well-chosen domain can help. Here are three primary ways it can. Think of them as “the three Rs.”
If you have a solid domain name that is properly spelled and relevant to your business or vertical, your reputation and web authority will definitely increase. Additionally, acquiring all the possible counterparts of your domain name, such as variants of TLDs and SLD domain misspellings, will help protect you from possible reputation damage.
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Although including a keyword in your SLD isn’t a guaranteed SEO boon, picking a relevant domain will make it easier to get users to click on your links. They’ll know what they’re getting into!
Know your audience and register your domain accordingly. Having a domain name that targets a particular community or location can boost your site visits and interactions. A domain which speaks directly to the people you are targeting (basketweavers.nyc) can make people more inclined to visit your site.
The “Dot” to Our “Com”
Have we hammered it home, yet? Domains are important, not only because they are a crucial part of the overall construct of the internet, but because they are the first step on your journey to building an online presence.
Not to get emotional or anything, but we think that’s a pretty big deal.
So are you ready to start your website? Here at DreamHost, it’s super easy to find the perfect TLD for your website. Click over to our Domain Name Search to see for yourself.