Domain names are the human-readable web addresses.
Just like a regular street address takes you to a physical location, domain names take you to the website they are associated with.
Every website resides on a server somewhere in the world. The default address for each website is a series of four numbers, called an IP address (the IP stands for Internet Protocol).
Humans remember words better than strings of numbers, so domain names were invented to make navigating the internet easier.
Purchasing Domain Names
Website owners pay an annual fee to use each domain name. Domains can be purchased through domain registrars such as GoDaddy, Hover, NameCheap or Tucows. Hosting companies usually serve as domain registrars as well. In the very early days of the web, domains were costly, but today domains cost about $15 dollars and change each year. You can purchase the rights to use a domain name for up to ten years at a time.
If you do not renew your domain names, and allow them to expire, there is a short grace period during which you can renew with an additional fee added. How long this grace period is varies according to the registrar you purchased your domain through. After the grace period, the domain is taken off the market for a period of time, after which it returns to the pool of available names.
If a domain name is highly desirable and in demand, it may be in a domain name auction. These domains can cost anywhere from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars to obtain the rights to.
Anatomy of a Domain Name
There are two parts of each domain name, the top level domain, and the second level domain. Top level domains (TLDs) are the endings of each domain. These include .com, .net, .org, .co, .biz and country specific indicators like .us and .co.uk
The second level domain is the part the precedes the TLD extension. For example, the second level domain in yourdomain.com would be yourdomain.
Domain Names and URLs
Domain names are the base of any specific page address, a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) is the specific page. If yourdomain.com would be a domain name, and something like http://www.yourdomain.com/contact would be a URL.
Choosing A Domain Name
Choosing domain names go hand in hand with naming a business. It makes sense to research the domain name you have in mind when naming your business, to make sure either one haven’t been taken yet. This also ensures that customers won’t confuse you with someone else. It also makes sense to check if that name is available on all the social media platforms you plan on using. If you can have the same name for your business, your domain name, and your social platforms, that’s the best scenario possible. This makes your branding consistent everywhere.
Certain TLDs are reserved for specific purposes (Ex: .org is for non-profits, .gov is for government websites). But in most cases, the .com extension is the most desirable one to have. Potential customers will presume your company website will have an address of your company name + .com when searching online.
But what if the .com version of your domain name isn’t available? Then what do you do?
When Your Preferred Domain Is Taken
If your business is new, you are still able to name your company and domain something distinct to avoid brand confusion. If you have an established business and someone has your preferred domain name, it is time to evaluate the options.
If the .com version of your name is taken, find out who owns it and what they are using it for. By Googling whois plus yourdomainname.com, you will find domain name WHOIS reports. You can also go directly to sites such as DomainTools.com to get a WHOIS report on a domain. These reports tell you who a domain name is registered to, when it expires, the nameservers it points to, and whether there is a website associated with it or not.
If there is no site associated with the domain, you can try contacting the owner directly. They may agree to sell it to you, or they may be domain squatting, waiting for the highest bidder to purchase it. Domain squatting is to domains what house flipping is to real estate. Squatters have no intention of using the domain, but they know someone eventually will.
You can also go with an alternate domain name, and wait to see if the domain is renewed. Sometimes domains expire and go back into the general pool, but many are auto-renewed via credit card.
Another option is to use an auction service to bid for the name. Most domain registrars can help you with this, if you choose to pursue that route.
If these are not practical options, and there no site using the .com version of your name, you can register the .net version of the domain. Though .net was originally set aside for computer networks, it is the next TLD people think of when looking for a company site. There are other TLDs that may work, like .biz or .us. Many tech companies are now fond of using the country codes .co and .io. A complete list of top level domains currently in use can be found on the ICANN website.
Another thing to consider is how your domain name will look when it is spelled in all lowercase letters as one word. Let’s say your business was named Clothes Exchange. Written as one word, this might reveal an unintended message. In cases like this, the domain name would have to be different from the brand name to keep from offending potential customers.
Choosing an alternative domain name that is memorable is a part of branding. If your specific .com name is not available, your registrar service may suggest a variation that starts with “the” or “a”. If you make one of these your domain name, you would have to make sure all mentions of your brand include those articles as well.
An alternative for locally-based businesses may be to use a formula like RegionIndustryMarket.com, replacing each word appropriately. For example, newyorkrecordstore.com, sacramentofoodtruck.com, or portlandbarbershop.com. The more commoditified the offering, the better these will work. If you can get a well branded domain name, that is the best route to take.
Domain names can be up to 67 characters long, including the TLD. Short names are generally easier to remember. If the company name is long, and it is not widely mentioned as an abbreviation, a longer name may be better. Raising awareness of the domain name may be necessary in that scenario.
Hyphenated domain names (Ex: better-branding.com) should be avoided if possible. Many people forget to include hyphens when typing in the URL.
Does My Domain Name Affect SEO?
At one point, having a domain name that is an exact match for your target keywords was a plus. While it is still a factor,
most professional SEOs have seen exact match domains decrease slightly in rank since 2012. While exact matches don’t hurt, SEO experts advise against missing a branding opportunity with your domain name.
Many SEO pros believe that Google looks at other aspects of the domain name records as minor ranking factors. Domains that have never been used before may rank slightly better after they have been registered for a full year. Google never tells the public exactly how they determine rankings, or everyone would game the system. It seems like domain age is considered, just not very much.
If at all possible, do register your domain name for more than one year at a time. Google believes that sketchy websites will only be used for one year, but legitimate sites will be registered for multiple years into the future. Keeping your domains renewed for two or three years out is a good practice.
Should I Purchase Multiple Domains?
There are a few reasons you might want to purchase multiple domains and redirect them towards your website. If you purchase the .com, .net and .org variations of your domain name, it will prevent competitors from purchasing them. this will preserve your branding. If you expect your website to receive a substantial amount of traffic, it may be worth it to purchase misspelled versions of your domain name. Many people accidentally type the wrong address, and very large sites often own these variant domains. Smaller sites may not need to do this. You may also want to purchase domains that reflect your branding, that are not your brand name. This way, people may get to your site in several different ways.
For most businesses, a single domain will suffice, but it is something to consider.
How Do Domain Names Work?
When you first purchase a domain name, it is usually parked. This means it is pointing to default nameservers that state that the domain has now been purchased, but is not in use.
When you launch a new website, you will change the nameservers to the ones hosting your site. When changing the nameserver or DNS information, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days for the changes to take effect across the internet. Each Internet Service Provider (Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable) keeps their own records of nameserver registries, and they can take different times to reflect recent changes.
Nameserver records (aka Domain Name Server records) allow domain names to point to the correct spot on the server to display your website.
When Should I Purchase My Domain Name?
Buying a domain name usually happens very early in the web design process or before it even begins. If you are considering building a website for a new business, you should check to see if your domain name is available and purchase it.
Hopefully this answered a few questions. If you have any other questions about domain name registration, let me know in the comments below.