You’re here because you want to know what a domain name is, and how domains work? It seems like an easy enough question to answer, but it can still trip up a lot of beginners.
When you’re building your first website there are a lot of technical terms you’ll come across. And there are a handful of things you’ll need to get right if you want your website to not only work properly but thrive and grow.
It’s easy to confuse a website with a domain name, your hosting provider, or even understand what does domain mean?
Below you’ll learn everything you need to know about a domain name, how they function, and why they’re necessary.
What Is a Domain Name?
A domain name is what you type into a web browser to access a website. The domain definition is a unique name that identifies a website. Chances are you’ve already typed in a few domain names today.
For example, the domain name of Twitter is https://www.twitter.com. While the domain name for this website is https://www.hostgator.com.
Domain names are completely unique to a website, which is why they are so valuable.
Domain Names and IP Addresses
When we look at the internet as a whole it’s essentially a network of computers connected to each other. Each of these computers is assigned a unique IP address that identifies that computer alone. IP addresses resemble a random string of numbers, which look like 67.454.66.3.
But, could you imagine having to remember that unique string whenever you wanted to visit a website?
It would be a pretty frustrating experience.
So, instead, we have domain names that stand in place of these unique IP addresses. For example, we can look at an IP address as the GPS coordinates of your home, while your domain name could be your street address, or even the more informal name, “Jim’s House”.
They all reference the same thing, but some methods are easier to remember.
How Do Domain Names Work?
Now that you’re equipped with the basics of domain names and IP addresses, let’s dive a little deeper into how they actually work. This will give you a deeper background on what happens behind the scenes when you type a domain into your browser.
Once a domain name gets typed into a browser that request gets sent out to a network of servers known as the Domain Names System (DNS). This network then looks up the nameservers of that domain and forwards the request to the appropriate server.
The nameservers are managed by your hosting company, which will then forward the request to the specific server where your website is stored.
The server then locates the website, or web page, that was requested and sends the data back to the user’s browser.
That’s a lot! Right? All of this happens in under a second. This request occurs so quickly, you don’t even notice it’s happening.
Different Types of Domain Names
When you’re trying to find the perfect domain name you’ll be able to choose between dozens of different domain name extensions. These are the final part of the domain name, for example, .com, .net, and .org.
Here are the most common types of domain names you’ll come across:
1. Generic Top-level Domains
Top-level domains are the most popular types of domain names. There are hundreds of these available and will generally be the best type of extension for your domain.
Here are some of the most common:
- .com (commercial)
- .net (network)
- .org (organization)
Ideally, you’ll choose a domain that uses one of the above extensions. However, there are hundreds of these available. The entire list of available TLDs can be found on the IANA website. Keep in mind that not every TLD on the list will be available for you to register.
2. Country Code Top-Level Domains
Country code TLDs are assigned to specific countries and generally used for websites that are based (or serving an audience) in those countries.
However, some ccTLDs are used in other circumstances as well. For example, the ccTLD .co is for the country Colombia. But, you’ll find a ton of new websites and startups use that domain as well.
Here are some common ccTLDs:
- .us (United States)
- .co.uk (United Kingdom)
- .ca (Canada)
- .de (Germany)
- .fr (France)
3. Sponsored Top-Level Domains
rTLDs are a group of top-level domains that are reserved for specific organizations and agencies. To register one of these you’ll need to meet the specific requirements. If you operate under the category that each domain is reserved for, then you can use that TLD.
Otherwise, pick one from one of the other categories.
Here are a few examples:
- .gov (these are reserved for government organizations)
- .mil (these are reserved for military operations)
- .edu (these are reserved for educational institutions)
- .int (these are reserved for international organizations)
Domain Names vs Websites
Domain names and websites are related, however, they aren’t the same thing. For example, let’s look at your phone number and existing phone. Although you need both working together, they aren’t the same.
Your phone number is like your domain name, while your website will be whatever phone you’re currently using.
You can get a new phone (website), but you’ll keep your existing number (domain name) no matter if you upgrade your phone, or even move to a new provider.
Let’s look at another example:
Say you’re running a website that offers running tips and your current domain name is “letsrun.com”. However, you found a new domain that’s even a better fit, so you buy it. All you have to do is connect your new domain to your existing website and everything will be the same, except your domain.
Your domain name is never stuck with any website. You can disconnect it and use it for another website, or purchase a new domain and connect it to your current site.
Understanding the DNS System
The Domain Name System (DNS) is managed by an organization named Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). They’re a non-profit that creates policies and manages the existing domain name system.
Any registrar that sells domains must get permission from ICANN to conduct business.
Domain name registrars (like the one here at HostGator) can sell domains, and help you manage your records, renew your domains, conduct domain transfers and more.
Choosing the Right Domain Name for Your Website
There’s a lot that goes into finding the perfect domain name for your new website. It needs to convey what your website is about in a few characters, it needs to be brandable, memorable, and a lot more.
Your domain is responsible for creating a first impression, it can impact your SEO, and needs to be in alignment with your brand. It’s also important to consider the domain meaning, you’ll want to ensure the meaning of the words is in alignment with your brand, and doesn’t have an alternative meaning in other languages. That’s a lot for a few simple words!
Luckily, we’ve written an entire article on finding the right domain for your needs.
How to Purchase a Domain Name
Now for the fun part. It’s time to purchase your first domain name. If all the information above seemed like a lot, don’t worry.
The domain registration process only takes a few simple steps.
1. Choose Your Registrar
The first step in buying a domain name is deciding where you’re going to register it. There are dozens of different domain name registrars to choose from. Some only register domains, while others are a service offered by hosting companies, like the domain registrar here at HostGator.
You can purchase hosting via the same company you use to register a domain, or you can do the two separately.
If this is your first time building a website, then it can be helpful to take care of both from the same company, so you cut out a few technical steps.
To do this, head over to HostGator Domains. Here you’ll be able to search for domains, choose your extension, and add hosting to your plan.
2. See if Your Domain Is Available
It’s time to see if your chosen domain is available. All you have to do is type your domain name into the search box and click ‘Search’.
On the next screen, you’ll be able to see if your domain is available. As you can see from the image below, this domain is already taken.
So, we can start a new search. Or, choose one of the other domain name extensions, or even an alternative domain that’s recommended by the tool.
3. Purchase the Domain
Once you’ve found a domain that’s perfect and available all you have to do is click ‘Continue to Checkout’ and complete your order.
Once you complete your order you’ll have your very own domain name, and it’s time to start building your website!
Domain Name FAQ
Even with all the information above, you probably still have a few questions related to domain names.
Here are some domain name frequently asked questions that should clear up any confusion that’s still lingering:
Free vs Paid Domain Names: What’s Best?
Maybe you’re trying to save money, so you’ve been looking at free domain names. These are domains that typically come with website builders and will look something like yoursite.wordpress.com. Your site will be a subdomain of the primary domain.
Usually, you’ll want to avoid using free domains as they don’t look professional. Plus, you don’t own the domain, so you can’t bring it with you. Also, your domain will always have the domain of the service provider, so it’s very difficult to build a brand and it’s never truly yours.
How Much Do Domain Names Cost?
In general, a domain name will cost around $10 to $15 per year. However, if you’re purchasing a domain that has a lot of value and is already owned by someone this number can shoot up to the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Think of domains like cars.com or credit.com.
However, most people will be registering a domain for the first time, so it’ll fall within the $10 to $15 range.
Also, a lot of hosting companies will include a free domain name when you sign up for hosting.
What About Transferring Domain Names?
Yes, you’re never locked into a single provider when it comes to your domain name. As long as you keep paying the annual fee, you own the domain name.
You can transfer it to another registrar or hosting company, you’re never locked in. However, if you do transfer your domain to another provider make sure it’s pointed towards the location of your host.
What’s the Best Domain Name Extension?
Ultimately, this will come down to your business, but there are some general rules you can follow. Most people tend to prefer TLDs like .com, .org, and .net, along with ccTLDs for businesses targeting a local market.
You can get more creative with your domain name, for example, “mysite.coffee” or “mysite.ventures”.
But, it’s recommended you stick with the domain name extension that’s the easiest to remember.
What’s a Subdomain?
Subdomains are a domain that’s nested under the primary domain. For example, here at HostGator, you’ll find the support resources using the subdomain “support.hostgator.com”.
Once you register a domain you can create as many subdomains as you’d like. Some common uses for subdomains include hosting an online store at “shop.mydomain.com” or even a blog at “blog.mydomain.com”.
Can I Cancel a Domain Name Registration?
Yes, but it depends on the length of time of your initial domain contract. For example, if you registered your domain for three years, then you might have to wait for it to expire.
It depends on the registrar you used to register your domain, some allow you to cancel whenever, while with others you’ll have to wait for your domain name to expire.
However, if you haven’t enabled auto-renew, then your domain name will expire on its own and become available to the general public.
Can I Sell a Domain Name?
Yes, once you purchase a domain name you can sell your domain whenever you’d like. There’s actually a huge market for domains that are brandable and unique.
Some people even build entire businesses around domain flipping, which is the process of buying, holding, and selling domain names. There are all kinds of domain marketplaces where you can sell your domain like Sedo and Flippa.
Does Domain Privacy Matter?
When you’re going through the domain registration process you’ll have the opportunity to hide your domain registration information. Normally, this information can be looked up via a tool called ICANN.
If you don’t want these details exposed to the public you can register your domain privately, but keep in mind that these registration services come with an added fee.
Hopefully, by now you can answer the question: what’s a domain name? As you can see, there’s a lot that happens behind the scenes the moment a domain is typed into a browser.
Choosing a domain name is an important decision for your website and one worth investing time and energy into.