Every website you visit online has a domain name, which means that every website owner went through the process of buying and registering that domain name.
And it’s a step that requires working with a domain registrar.
What Is a Domain Registrar?
A domain registrar, sometimes called a DNS registrar (short for domain name server), is a business that sells domain names and handles the business of registering them. Domain names are the main address a website uses on the web—they’re the thing that usually starts with www and most often ends with .com.
While technically, computers identify websites with a different sort of address—an IP address that’s a long string of numbers separated by periods (e.g. 18.104.22.168)—humans wouldn’t be much good at remembering and using that kind of address. So for us, websites also have an address made up of alphanumeric letters, that usually spell out a word or brand name.
And there’s a specific type of process behind how people claim domain names. There are registries that manage the different top-level domains. The registries are large, centralized databases with information about which domain names have been claimed and by who. But the registries don’t sell the names directly, they delegate that job to DNS registrars.
Registrars must be accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Then, each time they sell a domain to a customer, they’re expected to register it with the appropriate registry by updating a record with your information.
Domain Registration FAQs
For the most part, this process happens behind the scenes for website owners.
You don’t have to know how the sausage is made, but if you’re curious to learn more, we’ve got the answers to the most common questions about domain name registrars.
What is the role of a domain name registrar?
The domain name registrar handles the process of updating the registry when a customer purchases a new domain name.
As part of that, they keep track of which domain names are available and typically provide customers with an intuitive search tool to find out what options they have. They handle the financial transaction with the customer, and provide the tools needed to maintain the domain name subscription over time.
You can’t buy a domain name outright, you can only rent it for up to ten years at a time.
DNS registrars usually provide the option of annual renewals or multi-year subscriptions, sometimes offering a discount for registering the name for a longer period of time upfront. Domain registrars will often provide a user account where you can keep up with your domain registration status, and features like automatic renewal or email reminders.
What is a domain registrant?
That’s you! Well, assuming that you, the person reading this, is planning to buy a domain name or already has one.
Once you take the step of selecting and purchasing a domain name from a domain registrar, you become the domain registrant. And the title will continue to apply for as long as you keep up your domain subscription.
In most contexts though, people are more likely to call a “domain registrant” a domain owner, or a website owner once their site is up.
What is a domain registry?
A domain registry is the database that includes all the information about a specific top-level domain (TLD). The term is also sometimes used to refer to the organization that manages the database, as well as the database itself.
Domain registries have relationships with domain registrars, who submit domain name registration requests and record updates to them on behalf of customers. One of the biggest examples of a domain registry is Verisign, which manages the databases for several of the most common TLDs, including .com, .net, .gov, and .edu.
What is private domain name registration?
Part of the domain registration process includes providing the registrant’s information to the database of domain owners. In addition to the domain registries, the WHOIS directory tracks information on every website domain that’s registered, who owns it, and their main contact information. That’s because someone needs to be able to identify website owners who use their site for illegal purposes.
But in our age of high-profile data breaches and growing concern around internet privacy issues, not every website owner wants to put their name and contact information out on the open web. And it shouldn’t be a requirement for running a website.
Thanks to the private domain name registration options now offered by many DNS registrants, it’s not. Domain registrars usually charge a little more in order to shield you from having your own name and information included in the directory. They provide enough contact information to the WHOIS to keep you on the right side of the law, typically an email address associated with the registrant’s company, and keep the rest of it private.
What is a domain name server?
We talked earlier about how computers don’t use domain names to recognize website addresses, they use IP addresses. Domain name servers are the technology that translates between the two. The domain name system is the protocol established to ensure machines exchange the right data for the average internet viewer to see the correct webpage when they type a domain name into their browser or click on a link.
Domain name servers play an important role in that system, storing all the information required to connect a specific domain name address to the correct IP address. Each time a computer queries a domain name server for a particular domain name, it finds the appropriate IP address to serve up.
How do I register a new domain name?
Now that we’ve covered much of the back-end technical stuff, you’re probably wondering how this all translates into what you, a would-be website owner, need to do to get the domain name that you want for your site. Luckily, the process for you is pretty easy. Start by finding a domain registrant you want to work with (more on how to do that in a bit).
Most of them make it easy to search for available names, see the different top-level domain options you can consider, and go through the purchasing process. Provide your name, contact, and payment information through a secure form on the registrar’s website, and you should be set!
How do I find an available domain name?
This part can be trickier. With billions of websites already out there, all of them with a unique domain name, a lot of your options are already taken. Finding an available domain name that’s easy to remember and describes what your website does can take some work and creativity.
Expect to spend some time using your domain registrar’s domain name search tool. Try out different variations on the names you have in mind. Consider synonyms and creative spellings. While a .com is usually the easiest option for visitors to remember, consider if you’re willing to go with another top-level domain like .website or .biz. The TLDs that aren’t as common will have more domain name options available.
What is a top-level domain?
A top-level domain is the last part of the domain that follows a period, such as .com or .net. ICANN controls which TLDs are available, and used to be pretty strict about opening up new ones. Early on, most specialty TLDs related to a specific industry, type of website, or geographic location. For example, .com was for commercial businesses, .gov for government websites, and .org for nonprofit websites.
But as the internet has grown, the need for more available domain names has caused ICANN to lift the restrictions on how many TLDs are available, and who can use different ones.
As such, when you do a domain name search on your chosen registrar’s website, you’ll see an array of TLD options at different price points. If the name you want isn’t available as a .com, you may be able to get it for cheaper at a .us or .site TLD address.
How does domain name transfer work?
When you choose a domain registrar to purchase your domain name with, you don’t have to make a long-term commitment to working with them. You have the option of switching over to a different registrar down the line, although you have to wait at least 60 days, due to an ICANN policy designed to reduce domain hijacking.
If you’re past that sixty day point, you can transfer your domain name to a new provider by unlocking your domain name at your current registrar, disabling any other privacy protections such as WHOIS domain name privacy, and obtaining a domain authorization code from your current registrar.
Once that’s done, follow the domain transfer steps provided by the new registrar you’re switching to. For HostGator, you can start the domain name transfer process here.
What to Look for in a Domain Registrar
Now that you know all the ins and outs of what a domain registrar is and how domain registration works, you’re probably ready to find a good domain registrar and get started. You have a lot of different options. Some companies only provide domain registration services. Others, like HostGator, offer domain registration along with other services like web hosting, so you can take care of multiple basic website needs all under one account.
With so many options to choose from, you need to know what to look for. Here are some of the most important factors to consider.
Some of the cost of registering a new domain name is related to the name you choose. In particular, different top-level domains come at different prices. But you’ll also see some variety in what different companies charge. When considering the pricing of different domain registrars, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind,
First, the prices advertised are generally for a one-year time period, but you should check to be sure. A domain name isn’t a one-time purchase, you have to plan on continuing to pay for as long as you keep your website. You want to make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, and not putting one company’s one-year price against the price another advertises for a longer period.
Also, it’s fairly normal for companies to advertise an introductory price that you pay for year one that goes up in the second year. Don’t just consider what you’re paying right now, think about what you can afford on an ongoing basis.
And as with most things, sometimes a cheaper price will mean you pay in other ways, as with weaker customer service or a worse customer experience. Don’t just jump at the first low price you see without researching the company to find out if they’re cheap for a reason.
While domain name management doesn’t involve that much interaction with the company, you still want to choose a domain registrar that will be easy to work with and reliable. Spend some time reading customer reviews and doing general research on the company.
Are they well known as a legitimate domain registrar? Do they have a reputation for solid customer service? Do people find the registration and renewal processes intuitive? Your domain name is an important part of running your website and maintaining it over time. You can always transfer your domain later, but you’ll be better off picking the right DNS registrar from day one.
Most domain name registrars provide services beyond just domain name registration. It’s very common for registrars to also be web hosting providers, and bundling the two services can increase your ease of use for managing each. Other good add-ons to look for are:
- Domain name privacy, which helps you avoid spam and any risk that comes with making your personal information more public.
- Auto-renewals, which allow you to put the renewal process on autopilot so you don’t have to worry about forgetting or doing any extra work to keep your domain name registration up to date.
- Email addresses that you can set up for yourself and people in your organization at the domain, making your communications look more official.
- A multi-year purchase option, so you can secure your domain name for longer without worrying about renewal.
If any of these are features you know you want, find a domain registrar that provides them.
Register Your Domain Today
As you know by now, HostGator is a domain name registrar that provides an intuitive domain name search function and easy registration process.
We offer domain name privacy, automatic renewals, and the option to buy your domain for up to three years at a time. And on top of all that, we’re one of the most respected web hosting providers in the industry. If you want the convenience of managing your web hosting and domain name registration in one place, you can count on HostGator to be a reliable option for both.
If you’re ready to move forward and buy a new domain name, get started searching.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.