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 of a Domain Name

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.

Top level domain

The top level domain (TLD or “parent domain”) is that part to the right of the dot, usually “com” if you’re in the US.

Some other common TLDs you’ll see:

  • .org – used by nonprofits
  • .net – originally meant for companies involved in networking technology, now just a poor man’s .com
  • .edu – used by educational institutions
  • .mil – used by the US military
  • .gov – used by the US government

And if you go to websites in other countries, you’ll also see TLDs like .uk (United Kingdom), .ca (Canada), and .ru (Russia).

While most American servers and websites use three-letter top-level domains (.com, .org), a lot more two-letter TLDs have popped up lately, too –  like .co and .io (these can be a nice way to snag a great second level domain name if the .com is taken; more on that later).

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.”

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.

Shopify’s Domain Name Generator

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.

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!

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 guide to get started here! It’s a step-by-step tutorial that will walk you through the entire process in 30 minutes or less!

We hope you found this article really helpful!

We tried to answer all the questions we could think of to get beginners like you up to speed on the whole domain name thing.

If you found this post valuable, please check out our Youtube Channel and you can also share on Pinterest if you’re into that sort of thing:

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A Beginners Guide to How Domain Names Work

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