In the 1980s, before the internet became the vast landscape we know it as today, anyone could register a domain name for free. However, by 1995, a company called Network Solutions realized the potential for licensing internet space and began charging $50 a year with a contract minimum of two years to register domain names. Today, domain names can be highly competitive to acquire.
What is a web domain?
A web domain is the common name given to your complex, numerical internet address. Every site on the internet has an IP address, which is a string of numbers that serves as the coordinates for your online destinations. A domain name is a text-based name that represents that numerical IP address.
When you type a web domain into your browser, it funnels your request through the Domain Name System (DNS) server to bring you to the desired site. DNS is a complex directory that converts a text-based domain, which is decipherable by humans, into the corresponding IP address, which is decipherable by computers. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a global nonprofit organization that helps coordinate the supply of IP addresses through the DNS, along with a variety of other responsibilities such as registrar accreditations and internet policy development.
Components of a domain
There are three main components that comprise a web domain: the top-level domain (TLD), the second-level domain, and the subdomain (known as the third-level domain). These components appear right to left in a URL. Note that not all URLs have subdomains.
TLDs, or domain extensions
The top-level domain (TLD), also known as the domain extension, appears at the end of a domain name, after a period. Think .com, .org, or .io. There are three primary types of domain extensions—generic top-level domains, sponsored top-level domains, and country code level domains.
Generic top-level domain
Generic TLDs include extensions such as .com, .org, and .net. Generic TLDs are either unsponsored and managed through ICANN, or sponsored and coordinated through entities such as private companies or nonprofit organizations.
- .com The .com domain extension stands for “commercial.” The .com extension comprises over one-third of all registered domain names. Having a .com extension gives your site credibility while also enabling worldwide access. It has fewer restrictions than, say, a country code extension, which usually requires you to actually operate in that country.
- .org The .org domain extension stands for “organization,” and may direct the user to sites for nonprofit organizations, charities, and other communities. Anyone can register for a .org extension, but it may affect the way others view your business. For instance, running a for-profit business off a .org TLD may appear deceptive to users. The Public Interest Registry manages the .org top-level domain on behalf of ICANN.
- .net Short for “network,” the .net domain extension is another popular extension for technology sites or other general commercial business, though is a less popular option than .com—only 3% of websites use the .net extension.
Sponsored top-level domains
Sponsored top-level domains include extensions like .gov, .edu, or .post. With sponsored TLDs, entities outside of ICANN are in charge of processing and regulation.
- .gov The .gov domain extension strictly refers to sites run by the U.S. government. Among other responsibilities, the General Services Administration (GSA) is in charge of assigning domains with .gov extensions to those who meet the right criteria.
- .edu Short for “education,” the .edu extension is for U.S. schools and universities. EDUCAUSE is a nonprofit association that focuses on learning advancement through enhanced IT, and also serves as the domain registrar for all .edu sites via a contract with the US Department of Commerce.
- .post This specialized domain extension refers to sites that deal with global postal policies. The Postal Union, a United Nations agency, sponsors this branch of extensions.
Country code level domains
Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) are top-level domains that indicate a sovereign state. Examples of ccTLDs include:
Second-level domains, also known as domain names, provide the specific name of where you’re headed, such as “Google,” “Twitter,” or “NewYorker.” Second-level domains are the words to the left of the TLD, and what people usually type into a search bar to get to your website. Long or complicated second-level domains, particularly those that don’t relate directly to your company’s name, can make it tricky for visitors or potential customers to remember where your site is.
A subdomain is the text to the left of the second-level domain. It can help organize your website. When you have sites that need different servers or programs to run than your main site, a subdomain can help you segment your content. For instance, google.com refers to the main Google search engine site, but docs.google.com is a subdomain that refers to Google Docs. Some other common subdomains include “blog” or “mail.”
How to buy a domain
Buying and registering a domain name is a fairly straightforward process. The first step is to research the availability of your desired domain. If it’s available, compare the prices and terms of a few domain registrars (like GoDaddy or Namecheap). Once you buy, you’ll want to subscribe to a web hosting plan and build your site.
Choose your desired name
Some helpful tips for creating your domain name include avoiding names that are too long or difficult to remember, keeping the name relevant, and avoiding trademark infringement.
- Make it memorable. Your second-level domain name is what people will type into their search engines or address bar to find your site. Make sure it’s easy to remember by keeping the spelling and pronunciation simple. This name is likely going to be the one people associate with your company, so try to get a domain that is your company name or something close to it.
- Make the name directly relevant to your services. Keep your domain name relevant to your product, service, or organization. Even if your exact business name isn’t available as a domain, choosing a domain name that’s closely related will help build brand recognition for your business.
- Avoid trademark infringement. Ensure your site name does not infringe on any existing trademarks or copyrights by using a trademark-lookup tool.
- Select the proper extension type. The .com extension is the most popular commercial extension for websites, but many domain names aren’t available with the .com extension, because they’ve already been taken. Other extensions like .net (or even a niche domain like “.fun”) can be good alternatives, but they often don’t have the same level of credibility as .com. If you go that route, consider looking for an extension that is relevant to your business. For instance, if you run a yoga studio you might want to use a “.yoga” extension, or those who offer private tennis lessons may use “.tennis.”
Check availability on a domain registrar
Check the domain name registrars to see if the name you want is available. If it’s already taken, you’ve got the following options:
- Brainstorm add-on words. If your exact business name is taken, get creative by thinking of short words you could append to differentiate your domain. For example, the insurance company Oscar wasn’t able to get oscar.com (that was taken by the film award), so they chose hioscar.com instead.
- Ask the current owner. If the website you want is already taken, you can try negotiating with the current owner to transfer ownership over to you (for a reasonable price). Try finding their contact information (such as an email address) using ICANN’s lookup tool, which helps identify domain owners. Note that some domain owners pay to keep their information private, while other domains may have been purchased through an LLC or other business entity.
- Change extensions. If the domain name you want is already taken, you can try changing the domain name extensions to another choice such as .org, .io, .net, or a niche domain of your choosing.
Purchase your domain
When you’ve settled on a domain, it’s time to buy it. Domain prices vary, depending on how desirable the domain is. Many domains cost between $10 and $20 per year, which you’ll have to pay annually to maintain ownership over the domain. Premium domains—ones with high marketing value like “insurance.com” or “business.com”—can sell for thousands, or even millions of dollars.
Create your website using your domain name
After you purchase a domain, you’ll subscribe to a hosting service and build your website. You can use a website builder, hire a web developer, or code your own site if you know how.
A domain name is one of the most important components of your business website or marketing strategy. Domains are affordable ways to build your online presence and spread the word about your brand, products, or services. The domain extension you choose and how you set up your site can impact how well the site performs, and in turn, how well your business does.