What is a Domain Name? | Complete Guide [2020]
A Beginners Guide to How Domain Names Work

Dale McManus

Co-Founder & Web Developer

Jun. 11, 2018

Hey, my name is Dale! My partner Alex and I have helped tens of thousands of people build beautiful websites around the world. In this simple, step-by-step guide, you’ll learn what a domain name is, why it’s important, and how to register one. Let’s dive in!

  • Level of Expertise:
    Beginner
  • Time To Complete:
    20 Minutes
  • What You Get:
    Working Knowledge

For the record: It’s super important for us to keep this site 100% free for you and 100% high quality. To help us do that, we’ve partnered with some of the products we recommend and earn a commission if you buy through our links. Read our full disclosure and partners list here.

What’s up, Internet!? Thinking about creating your own website? If so, you’ve probably wondered “what is a domain name?” at some point during this journey.

As always, we have a video guide for this available on our YouTube Channel and below:

If you liked the video and want more tutorials on creating a professional website you can also subscribe to our YouTube channel!

Pressing onward…

Many beginner users confuse domain names with URLs, websites, hosting, and other services.

So today, we’ve got a beginner’s guide to help you figure out what a domain name is, how domain names work, how to choose the right domain name for your website, and how to buy a domain name once you’ve found one.

Let’s get into the content…

What is a Domain Name?

Domain names are (ideally) easy to remember words that are used to find and go to websites. In simple terms, a domain name is like an address for your website.

You can think of the internet as a series of intersecting streets that go all around the world. On this world map, your website is your house. In order for anyone to find their way to your house, they’ll need an address. That address is your domain name – the thing people type in their web browser’s URL bar to find you on the streets of the internet.

How Do Domain Names Work?

To get a little more technical (not too much we promise), the computers on the internet, from that laptop your reader is using to the servers that host your website has an IP address, which is a series of 4-12 numbers separated by dots (.) that let’s computers identify and find each other.

For example, here’s the IP address for Create a Pro Website:

192.185.226.162

And if you’re looking for a few seconds of amusement, you can find your computer’s IP address by going to Google here.

While these numbers are great for machines, it’d be hard to remember 12 digits for every website you want to go to. That’s where domain names come in.

With a domain name, you can visit a website by typing in an easy to remember word or phrase, like createaprowebsite.com.

What happens when you enter a domain name into your browser?

how domain names work infographic

When you enter a domain name into your browser to find a website, your computer sends a “lookup request” to a global network of servers called the Domain Name System (DNS).

The DNS is a massive database of millions of registered domain names, each associated with a particular website’s nameserver and IP address.

When the DNS gets your lookup request, it finds the nameserver associated with the domain name you’re using; this is usually managed by your hosting company.

For example, if you use HostGator to host your website (like we do), your nameservers will look like this:

ns8375.hostgator.com

ns8376.hostgator.com

When the nameservers get your lookup request, they look up the IP address for the website you’re looking for then forward you/your computer to it.

It seems complicated, sure, but thanks to the hard work of a lot of really smart people, all of this takes place in less than a millisecond after you hit enter.

Go technology!

Parts and Types of Domain Names

Domain names are read from right to left, just like normal text (if you speak English).

To the right, you’ll find a general description of the domain name, this is the “Top Level Domain.” And to the left, you’ll find a specific description of the domain name, the “Second Level Domain.

Think of it like a person’s name – their family name to the right/at the end, their personal name to the left/first.

TLD: Top Level Domains

There are over a thousand TLDs available, but the most common you’ll see are .com (which make up over 50% of the internet), .org, .net, .edu, and more recently .io and .co.

The official list of TLDs is maintained by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) – which includes gTLDs and ccTLDs.

gTLD: Generic Top Level Domains

gTLDs are the one’s you’re used to seeing – .com, .co, .net, .org, etc.

They can be used by anyone, anywhere in the world (technically so can ccTLDs but it doesn’t make much sense to use a country-specific TLD if you’re not in that country).

In most cases, there aren’t any restrictions on using gTLDs for any kind of site, but generally there’s some intent behind each; .com is meant for “commercial” sites, .org for non-profits, .edu for educational institutions.

A couple gTLDs are restricted – don’t try to create a .mil (“military”) or .gov (“government”) site yourself – if you can even find a way you’ll probably have a couple of men in black knocking on your door ASAP.

And some gTLDs will cost more than others; for example, depending on your domain registrar, a .com domain will cost you anywhere from $8-15 bucks a year, while a .co is usually $20-25.

ccTLD: Country Code Top Level Domains

ccTLDs use two letters based on international country codes to identify sites in specific countries, like .uk for the United Kingdom and .jp for Japan.

They’re generally used for companies looking to do business in those specific countries to let people know where they are, since everyone can use gTLDs like .com and .org anywhere in the world.

Other types of domain names

Second Level Domain

A second level domain (SLD or 2LD) is the part to the left of the dot that usually refers to the specific business or organization who owns the website you’re going to.

In our case, our SLD is “createaprowebsite.”

Subdomains

Subdomains let you have some separation between different parts of your site without having to buy a whole new domain name; eg in “example.createaprowebsite.com” “example” is a subdomain of our website (not real, you won’t find anything there lol).

For the most part, you won’t need to mess with these.

Sometimes it makes a bit of logical sense to have that separation, eg “developers.facebook.com” will take you to their knowledge base for people who develop apps using Facebook’s API.

But Google treats subdomains as entirely separate websites – meaning you have to work to get your main domain ranking AND your subdomain ranking if you want both to show up in search engines.

So it’s usually better to just use pages and internal linking to keep different parts of your site separate.

Free domains

You can get free domain names from website builders like WordPress.com, Squarespace, Wix, etc.

They’re similar to subdomains since they use a special prefix (“example.”) in front of a standard second level/TLD that the builder uses for all their sites (eg “wixsite.com” in Wix’s case).

These can be handy if you want to do some of your website setup before paying for a premium website builder plan, but it’s definitely not a pro look.

Domain Name Examples

  • createaprowebsite.com
  • harvard.edu
  • wikipedia.org
  • dublin.ie
  • spain.info
  • jal.co.jp
  • reddit.com
  • redcross.org
  • alverno.edu
  • leadpages.net

Domain Name vs URL

When talking about domain names you might also hear about “URLs”

What is a URL?

What’s the difference between a URL and a domain name?

A domain name is usually part of a larger internet address called a URL.

The URL goes into much more detail than a domain name – adding information about the specific location on a website and how you interact with it.

What is a URL?

A Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is the full address of a website or other online resource (things like photos or downloadable PDFs).

Using the URL of this post as an example, the three basic parts of a URL are the protocol identifier, the domain name, and the path: https://createaprowebsite.com/what-is-a-domain-name/

what is a url structure

Protocol Identifiers

To continue our house/roads metaphor, the protocol identifier describes the way you’ll get to the house/website – a car or bus for a house, “http” or “ftp” for a website.

The most common protocol identifier you’ll see is “http://” or “https://” (which is a secured version of http). Those are how web browsers usually reach the various parts of a website.

As you get deeper into your pro website experience, you’ll also learn about other protocols like “ftp://” – which is used for securely uploading and downloading files for your website.

And you probably use SMTP every day – that’s how emails are sent!

Paths

The path is the specific folder or page on the website you’re going to.

If your domain name is your house’s address, the path is the specific room in the house you want to go to.

URL Examples (Domain Name Bold)

  • https://www.harvard.edu/about-harvard/harvard-glance
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Wide_Web
  • https://www.jal.co.jp/en/information/
  • https://dublin.ie/whats-on/
  • https://www.leadpages.net/templates

Domain vs Website

A website is a collection of web pages grouped together under one name: the domain name.

So a website is like your house and (again) the domain name is its address. Domain names get associated with a website through a registration process; you’ll need to register a domain name before anyone can use it to get to your site.

Anyone can register a website with a company called a domain name registrar.

Our recommended hosting company, HostGator, is also a domain name registrar because you can purchase your domain name through them at the same time that you purchase a hosting package.

While you can buy and register a domain name without a website, you can’t have a website without a domain name.

As you dig into your website building journey, you might find yourself doing this; we’ve thought of tons of great domain names over the years and bought them just to have in case we want to use them in the future.

Domain vs Hosting

If your domain is the address, and your website is your house, then web hosting is the plot of land on which your house is built.

Websites are hosted on computers called web servers, which run special software (Apache and Nginx are two popular examples) that lets them find the website’s data and send it to your web browser when you try to visit the site.

These web servers and all the power chords, ethernet cables, and other stuff that makes them run are usually owned and managed by a web hosting company that takes care of the technical stuff for you.

Basically, all of THIS:

what is a domain web servers cables image

You can buy web hosting and register domain names separately (from different companies), but most hosting companies offer domain registration to make things easier for you.

If you buy your domain name from one company and your hosting from another, you’ll have to take some extra steps to set up your nameservers to get things working correctly; this isn’t too difficult but it’s another thing to do which is why we recommend getting your hosting and registering your domain name at the same time from the same place!

How to Choose a Domain Name

So now that you know a bit more about what a domain name is and how domain names work, you’re probably wondering how you can come up with a good one for your website idea?

This could be a whole post in itself, but here are a few tips for choosing a great domain name:

Use Keywords

Keywords are how people search for things online and how search engines like Google figure out whether your site has the information people are looking for.

Using keywords that describe your website in your domain name is not only good for letting people know what your site is about, but it will also help you get to the top of the search results (which means more visitor traffic and potential revenue for you).

For example, our website is all about creating amazing, professional level websites (even if you’re a beginner) – so we chose the domain name “createaprowebsite.com” because it lets people know what we do and has some nice keywords that help us bring in traffic.

Make It Easy to Remember

Making it easy to remember how to get to a website is what GOOD domain names are all about.

If you make your domain name easy to remember, you’ll get more people coming back to your website again and again. And it’s easier for those people to tell their friends about you!

To help make your domain name easy to remember, try to come up with a catchy name that describes what you do.

Also…

Keep It Short

Domain names should ideally be less than 10 characters (we know, we broke the rule) or about 2-4 words long.

The shorter, the better as it’s easier to remember and say a short domain name, but these days it’s really hard to get a great short name (don’t even think about any one-word domains… unless you want to spend 10s if not 100s of thousands of dollars to get one).

The main point is you don’t want to end up with something like “thisisaterribleexampleofadomainnamedontdothis.com

It’s confusing, hard to say, and it will get typed incorrectly into the browser.

Make it Easy to Type

To that last point, make sure people know how to quickly type your domain name.

This is good for when they want to go to your website directly or they’re trying to remember you and type it into Google.

The biggest point on this, besides keeping things short, is to not use words that can easily be misspelled, misread, or mispronounced (in case they hear the name from someone else).

More bad domain name examples (all real):

  • oldmanshaven.com
  • speedofart.com
  • gotahoenorth.com
  • therapistinabox.com
  • analemma.org

Sometimes the perfect domain name is already taken.

If so, try a hyphenated version (but make sure it’s not too long if you do).

For example, if “perfectdomainname.com” is taken (which it is), you could try “perfect-domain-name.com” (also taken).

Hyphens aren’t ideal but they can work.

Get the .Com

Ideally, you’ll want to snag a .com as this is the most widely used top level domain in the US; people will automatically assume that’s what you use if they only sort of remember you.

But a lot of these are taken, so in a pinch .net, .org or some of the newer TLDs like .co and .io can work.

Avoid Legal Hassles

Depending on what you want to do with your website, this might not be a huge issue, but it’s worth spending a bit of time searching around to see if anyone else is using a similar name for their domain or website before you buy a domain name and set up your site.

A quick side note on this, sometimes a website name and your domain name aren’t quite the same.

For example, CloudApp is a great tool for capturing and sharing screenshots and recordings.

But when they went to start their site, that domain name was taken, so while their app and website name is “CloudApp,” their domain name is “getcloudapp.com.”

How to Find a Domain Name

As you’re thinking about potential domain names for your website, you’ll want to check to see if they’re available.

There are a couple of tools we recommend for this.

Our Free Domain Name Generator

As part of our mission to do everything we possibly can to help make starting your pro website easy, we’ve put some elbow grease into creating our own FREE tool for you to find the perfect name for your new site.

Check out our free domain name generator here!

Shopify’s Domain Name Generator

If you hate us that much, Shopify also has a cool domain name generator you can use to see if a domain name is available and get ideas.

Just plug in a keyword or two and they’ll show you what’s available using those keywords, as well as a few variations.

Check out the generator here!

Namechk.com

Namechk has been around for years as a web and iOS app.

It’s a handy tool to check the availability of not only a domain name (across a few dozen top level domains), but also on a ton of popular social media sites as well.

In a few seconds, you’ll be able to tell if your name is ready and open for you to use anywhere you might need it to build and promote your blog or business.

How to Buy a Domain Name

Did you come up with the perfect domain name for your website?

Great! Have you found out it’s available on a good TLD and all the major social networks?

Awesome! Now you’re ready to buy and register your domain name!

How much will that domain name cost you?

It varies from company to company, but you can generally expect to pay about $14.99 a year for most top level domains, with some specialty ones (like .co and .io) going for as much as $50 a year.

There are a ton of companies out there that offer domain name registration services.

However, as we mentioned above, you’ll also need to get a hosting service to set up your website – a domain name isn’t enough.

For that, we recommend HostGator, because you can get your domain name and web hosting all at once!

We’ve used them for years to create dozens of websites for ourselves and our friends and their service has always been reliable, they’ve helped answer any questions we have, and they make it super easy to set up websites using WordPress (a popular Content Management System or CMS used to make setting up websites and adding content to them simple).

And when you use our special link (right here), you can get started for as low as $2.75/month, depending on which plan you choose!

You can also check out our FREE website getting started guide/WordPress tutorial! It’s a step-by-step tutorial that will walk you through the entire process in 30 minutes or less!

What is a domain name FAQ

1. How much does domain name registration cost?

It depends specifically on the domain name registrar, host, or website builder you buy from AND what TLD you go with, but generally a .com will cost you $8-15 per year.

Some hosts/builders will offer a free domain name for a year when you sign up for a year or more of hosting – definitely take advantage of that.

BUT many of them charge more for renewal than domain registrars, so be sure to figure out how much renewal will cost and consider transferring your domain name out before you have to pay a hefty fee (the worst example we found charges $50/year for domain name renewal – absolutely insane!).

You’ll also find that sometimes domain names can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.

This is because someone has bought the domain name because they think it’s popular and would be worth a lot more than the usual amount.

If you’re hoping to launch your fitness blog on something like “fitness.com” (assuming it wasn’t already taken), be prepared to shell out hella cheddar (so much it’s worth just finding something else unless you’re already ballin lol).

2. Can I buy more than one domain name?

Yup yup, no restrictions other than your wallet here!

3. Can I cancel my domain name registration?

Some domain name registrars will let you cancel your domain registration at any time, which lets someone else buy and register it.

Some will say tough luck and make you just let it expire.

In pretty much every case, though, you actually won’t be able to get a refund either way.

That’s why we recommend just getting 1 year domain name registrations to start; when you get deeper in the game and have been running your site for years and know you’ll be around a while, go for something longer.

When you’re just getting started, you might find it’s your 4th website idea that really takes off, no need to hold onto those first 3 domain names.

That being said, most of us in the web building world make buying and holding onto domain names we like a little bit of a hobby.

Kinda like 21st century coin or stamp collecting and definitely just as nerdy.

4. Can I move my website to a different domain name after setting it up?

You sure can!

The details of how to do this are beyond the scope of what we’re covering here, but if you use a website builder or WordPress you can change your website’s URL in the back end.

5. Can I sell my domain names?

Yes indeed!

Some people make a whole income and business out of this – finding domain names they think someone else will want and pay more than the usual $8-15 for because the name is particularly brandable.

Millions are made every year doing this through marketplaces like GoDaddy and Sedo.

6. Can I transfer my domain name to a different website builder/host/domain registrar?

Yup!

Domain name registrars usually enable a “transfer lock” on domains you buy so someone else can snag them from you without your permission (eg you want to sell them the domain name).

But, as long as you’re the paid-in-full registered owner of the name, you can unlock any name for transfer, get a security code to confirm it’s being transferred to the right person (or to yourself if you’re just moving hosts/registrars), and move ‘er on over.

It usually takes somewhere between a day and a week for the transfer to complete and the DNS system to finish propagating the change.

Why would you want to transfer?

If you switch website builders or from a builder like Wix to WordPress (or the other way around), it can be handier to just have your domain name registered and managed from the same place your website hosting/files are.

Also, a lot of hosts (like Hostgator) offer free domain names for a year when you sign up for a year of hosting.

BUT some of them charge more than the usual $8-15 renewal fee (sometimes a lot more – we found one that charges an insane $50/year for domain renewal), so you might just want to get that free domain when you can then transfer it to a registrar that doesn’t charge as much as your builder/host.

7. Should I purchase my domain name through a domain registrar or a web host/website builder?

Pros and cons.

Pros of buying your domain through your host/builder

  • You can usually get a free domain for a year when you sign up for a year of hosting.
  • It’s usually easier to connect your domain name to your website when you do this (a bit more automated than if they’re in separate places).

Cons of buying your domain through your host/builder

  • Hosts/builders often charge more than the $8-15 you’ll pay at dedicated domain name registrars after that first free year.
  • If you switch hosts/builders, you’ll need to transfer your domain to that new host/builder (not super complicated, but it’s extra work and you’ll have to wait 1-7 days for the transfer to finish).

Pros of buying your domain through a dedicated domain name registrar

  • If you change hosts/builders, you can keep your domain name right where it is and just change 2 lines of text (updating your “nameservers”) to have the domain point to your new host/builder.
  • Renewal fees tend to be a few bucks cheaper at dedicated registrars.

Cons of buying your domain through a dedicated domain name registrar

  • You’ll have to do a bit more technical setup to get your domain properly connected to your web hosting/builder and website files.

8. What is domain privacy and do I need it?

ICANN requires anyone registering a domain name to provide an email, physical address, and phone number (kind of like your credit card – they want to tie that info to the domain for ownership verification purposes).

And if you DON’T have domain name privacy, anyone in the world can do a “whois lookup” and get that info (try it yourself, Google “whois [any domain name]” and you’ll see this info).

Domain name privacy is an add-on that some registrars like Namecheap) offer this for free, others will charge you $10-20 for.

When you grab it, they’ll keep track of your info for ICANN, but the public record will show their generic info so randos can’t see it.

Do you need it? Not technically. Do you want it? Absolutely.

We’ve made the mistake of not getting it before and immediately started getting spam calls about how our website was under attack and for just 5 easy payments of $99.99 we could fix the issue.

9. Are domain names with .com always the best?

.com is the most common TLD on the planet (about 50% of websites use it) and unless you’re building a non-profit site or one that’s for a business that just operates in a country (like Canada), it’s generally the preferred choice.

That being said, sometimes you come up with a really awesome website name and the .com is taken, but the .co, .org, or .net is not.

In this case, if there’s not a website on the .com; you don’t want to compete with another website that has it as they’ll get people who want to go to your site but forget it’s not a .com, don’t worry too much about it – .co is definitely becoming more common and it’s fine.

Probably best to stay away from some of the more obscure TLDs like .biz and .tv for two reasons, though:

  1. Some of them cost more for annual registration (like $25-100 a year at any registrar).
  2. Some seem kind of spammy to your visitors (we’re going for “pro” websites here).

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A Beginners Guide to How Domain Names Work

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