What is a ‘domain name’?

A domain name is the bit you type in when you want to look at a web page on your browser. It is also the first thing you need when you want to set up a web site of your own.

The internet is an all-digital place which means that everything needs to be either a one or a zero. Computers really only understand something being on (a one) or off (a zero) but for the sake of humans can also be programmed to understand numbers that we find it easier to understand. We can easily cope with 201 rather than 11001001 but when it came to listing the long string of numbers required for a web address, humans would rather deal with words, and that’s what a domain name is – a word representation of the numerical address of web site.

The end part of the domain name is known as the Top Level Domain (TLD) and is the after the ‘dot’. It reflects either a region and/or the type of business that the web site has been created for. Some are restricted by the nationality of the website owner or business location – you have to live in that country to be able to use that TLD but many are freely available to anyone who asks.

Special TLDs are only available to particular groups. Governments are the only ones who can use .gov, educational establishments are the only ones allowed to use .edu and military organisations have exclusive use of .mil. It used to be only internet service providers who could use .net and non-profit organisations who could use .org but that has dropped by the wayside now and anyone can grab them.

The market has also recently been opened up to new TLDs and although they cost a great deal more than the traditional extensions their popularity is growing and this is opening up the domain name world to a whole new batch of names and extensions.

The middle part of a domain name, the bit between the dots, if you like, is the part we choose for ourselves and what mostly makes our domain name different from everybody else’s. It doesn’t allow spaces or underscores and is not case-sensitive so capitals do not make any difference. You can have a dash or numbers and these do make a domain name different from any that do not or have them in different places.

The middle part and the TLD is the domain name that you actually buy from a place known as a domain registrar, although strictly speaking you only ever rent the name as if has a given life, which is renewable at the end of its life.


The first part of the domain name (usually www, but can be almost anything else) is also known as the sub-domain and is subject to the same restrictions as the middle part and allows a domain name owner to sub-divide the domain into totally separate areas. Hence abc.domainname.com is a different domain (effectively) to www.domainname.com and unless specifically linked cannot communicate with each other. For example, you might see a car manufacturer have a different sub-domain for each model of vehicle that they sell.

Uniform Resource Locator – URL

There is another part to the full domain name, otherwise known as the URL or Uniform Resource Locator. This is seen as http:// at the beginning of the domain name. Modern browsers do not require this to be typed in and add it automatically if it is omitted. There are other prefixes that are available but are very seldom used and need not concern us at this stage of the game. Just in case you are interested http stands for hyper text transfer protocol.

Strictly speaking a URL consists of the full address of a web page not just a web site. The page address is added at the right hand end of the domain name after a forward diagonal slash. After the slash can be a folder name (or number of them) and/or a file or page name. There are a number of page names that are accepted without mention such as index and default and different page types such as htm, html, php, asp and cfm depending on the technology that the host server runs (more on this in the hosting document).

So our full URL looks like this: http://www.domainname.com/folder/index.htm and you know what each component of the name is.

How to choose a domain name

Now to the important bit – What to choose for your domain name?

Well it may be easy. You’ve picked something you’d like to sell and a generic product name is available. However that is unlikely these days and most single words are already in use, at least in .com form. With new TLDs being released you may be lucky if you really want a short name.

More likely is that you will have to settle for a 2, 3 or 4 word phrase if you want a .com domain name or you may be able to get .org, .biz, or a country specific TLD – assuming what you’re putting up on your website is specific only to that country. If you are selling a single product or group of products you may be able to pick a phrase that is descriptive of what you are selling. Pick words that are clear and unambiguous. You want a phrase that you can speak and people will instantly know the exact words you’re using. Hence avoid – to, too, two, – their, there, – air, heir and other homonyms because without spelling them out people won’t know which words your domain name contains. For similar reasons also avoid numbers since people won’t know whether to spell the number or just use the numeral.

A word of warning here.

Unless you own the copyright on a particular brand name, do not include that brand name in your domain name. Nasty lawyers come after you with big sticks to persuade you that what you are doing is naughty and that you should cease and desist. Avoid the problem – avoid brand names.

With the confusing number of top level domains, it may be that you are undecided on which one to go for. By far the most popular is of course .com and is the first thing most people think of if you tell them a domain name. Chances are if they only remember the ‘middle part’ they will try .com at the end first anyway. The rest of the TLDs are all pretty much of a muchness as far as an online identity is concerned with a few exceptions which are easy to avoid.

One of the new TLDs is .xxx which is being sponsored by the online porn industry. Unless your site will run that way, it is certainly one to avoid. Obviously you won’t even be offered .gov, .mil, .edu and other specialist TLDs so you won’t pick one of those by mistake. Your guideline should be, if you’ve seen it before, then you should be OK.

There are also some opportunities for lateral thinking. If you’re in the USA the option of .us is open to you, as www.delicio.us is a clever use of that TLD. If your site is television based whether a TV station or TV sales then .tv domain names could be a thought for you. That TLD is actually for a Pacific island nation (Tuvelu) but they will allow anyone anywhere in the world to use it.

So there’s some thoughts and ideas for picking and buying a domain name. Next you’ll need somewhere to put all the web pages that people will see when they type in your new domain name and that is the subject of the next document.

How to get a domain name for yourself.

As I said above, you get a domain name from a domain registrar, which is a company that represents the domain administrators which are usually nationally based although some of them are global. There are a number of registrars on the internet, some of which you may have heard of or seen on your internet travels. There are no actual price restrictions on the cost of domain names and these registrars usually compete on price with each other, sometimes to the point of being lower than the price they pay from the domain administrator – but not often!

My suggestion for domain registrar is Namecheap – http://www.namecheap.com as they have a great reputation for service, which is sometimes desperately required when things go wrong. The other well known registrar is GoDaddy – http://www.godaddy.com still has a good reputation but have been known to suspend a domain name if they receive complaints about it. Almost all domain registrars have free registration to their sites so it will cost you nothing to log in and compare prices and features.

Very often domain hosts also sell (or re-sell) domain names but there is one good reason why you would not want to buy your domain name from the same supplier as your web hosting, and that is the fact that web hosting companies have been known to fail and go under. This would take your domain name away from your control as well. At least with the two parts being separate you can point your domain name to a new host when you have the need without any problems.

Many domain registrars also offer hosting of their own, but are often uncompetitive on price and for the reason stated above it’s better to keep domain registration and web hosting with different companies.

If I gave you an exact word for word, click by click description of what to do, there is every chance that whichever registrar you decide to go with would be different or may have changed because of a website update. Also you’re intelligent people and don’t need to be told to put your name in the box marked ‘name’.

What you might want help with is choosing the domain name itself.

As time has gone on the shorter and snappier names have all been taken. It is now very difficult to get anything shorter than 5 letters that is a single pronounceable word, especially a word that is in the dictionary. You may not be able to find NEW domains but you will certainly find second hand ones available. Take a look on Ebay (I got 3 on there once for $10 each. They weren’t recognizable English words, but they were 5 letters and pronounceable!),  Sedo – a well known site for people reselling existing domain names and sites or take a good search around for expired domains – again there are specialist sites who deal in them, but beware as there are people who will put huge values onto domains claiming they are ‘unique’. Well duh! Every domain name is unique, otherwise we wouldn’t know where we might end up.

Domain names are a big subject, as you might have gathered from the length of this post, but if you’re in the market for becoming a marketer then sooner or later you will want your own domain name. Hopefully now you’ll know more of what they’re all about.

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