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What is a Domain name? Everything you ever wanted to know (and more)


 Ready to learn about domains? What is a domain name? What does DNS mean? How do I register one? Why would I want to? Everything you need to know and more.

 (Photo by Sindy)

 
 
If you want your own website with your own domain name, you have to register a domain first. Here’s an overview of domains, the terms surrounding them and what’s involved in registering a domain name. Let me know in the comments if you have further questions!

 

Table of Contents

Terms

Domain Registration

Terms

DNS

Here’s the official word from Wikipedia:
[testimonial]The Domain Name System (DNS) is a hierarchical naming system for computers, services, or any resource connected to the Internet or a private network. It associates various information with domain names assigned to each of the participants.[/testimonial]

Kinda dry, huh? Basically, it just means that every computer or anything that is connected to the Internet (I’m going to call these websites from now on) has an address, so that you can find it when you want it.

IP Addresses

The actual address of a website is called an Internet Protocol Address, or more commonly, an IP Address. The IP Address is a number – something like 192.0.32.10.

As you can imagine, a bunch of numbers isn’t the best system for humans to use. We’re never going to remember that.

So, the DNS (Domain Name System) was created, to give people a better way to deal with addresses. The DNS system associates a name with the IP Address to make it easier to remember, and also so that it remains constant even if the IP Address changes. You can still get to Example.com every time you type that address in, even if the IP Address it points to has changed.

Domain Name

192.0.32.10 = Example.com

 
That name that gets associated with an IP Address is called a “Domain Name.” So, instead of 192.0.32.10, you go to Example.com. Either one will work (go ahead, try it), but Example.com is a whole lot easier to manage and remember.

Cat in Cardboard HouseThink of it this way. It’s a lot like the difference between the street address for your home and its latitude and longitude. 12345 Some Street is a lot easier to remember than 39.866025,-121.608153, wouldn’t you say? How would you like to have to give that out every time you invited someone over?

Yeah, me neither.

 

URL / URI

You may see “URL” or even “URI” go by in reference to domains. There are some very technical descriptions of what URIs (Uniform Resource Identifier) and URLs (Uniform Resource Locator) are, but unless you are really getting deep into tech-land, it will never really impact you.

If you really want to know about them, check out the Wikipedia article here .

For the rest of us every day web-browser laymen types, we’re just going to say that a URL is basically the same thing as a Domain Name and leave it that.

Attention: Serious Tech-Heads – please don’t leave me hate-messages in the comments. I know they’re different. It just doesn’t really matter to the Average Joe web surfer. Really. It doesn’t.

Top Level Domains (TLDs)

There are a bunch of different types of Domain, and they are identified by the letters AFTER the dot. All of these types are called Top Level Domains or “TLDs.” The TLD that you are probably most familiar with is .com. But there are a whole bunch more available, including .org, .net, .eu., .au, etc. Here is a list. I won’t say it has them all because it seems that more are added all the time, but this one is pretty comprehensive.

There are lots to choose from, and it’s entirely up to you as to which you choose. The good news is that because they keep adding new ones, you can probably find a domain name you like. If it’s not available with one TLD, try it with another.

The bad news is that even with the proliferation of different TLDs, .com is still considered the king. If you are doing business, you want to do your level best to get a .com name. Unfortunately, many times the one you want is taken. You may have to get creative with your domain name, but don’t despair. Just remember that sometimes a “nonsense word” domain gets really successful – i.e., Google.com or Zazzle.com.

DNS Nameservers

After you register your domain name, you will need to point it at your actual website (remember the IP Address, above?) so that when someone types in the domain name, they get the right website.

The way you do this is by putting your web host’s information into your DNS Nameservers settings with the domain registrar where you registered the domain (That’s an ugly sentence, isn’t it? Can’t seem to find any other way to give you that information that makes it any better though, so bear with me). See the “How to Register a Domain” section, below.

Whew! That was some dry, boring stuff, huh? Now on to the good part.

Domain Registration

Domain Name Registrar

A Domain Name Registrar is an entity that manages the registration of domain names. Most Registrars are companies that sell domain registrations, such as Godaddy.comNamecheap.com.

Who Needs to Register a Domain?

Anyone who wants to host a website with a domain name of their choosing needs to register that domain.

How To Register a Domain

Registering a domain is very easy. Just go to your chosen Registrar – I recommend Godaddy.comNamecheap.com – and use their Domain Search function to see if your preferred domain is available.

Once you’ve found a domain name that you like and that is available, purchase it through the registrar’s shopping cart. Notice that the registrar will ask you how long you want to register the domain for – 1 year, 2 years, 5 years or more. Registrations only last for the period you purchase so that domains can be reused if they are allowed to lapse.

After the purchase is complete – that’s it! The domain is now yours, at least for the amount of time you purchased.

Point Your Domain Name to Your Website

Now that you’ve registered your domain, you need to set your Nameserver Settings so that when someone types in your domain, they actually see your website. If you don’t do this, it will continue to show the holding page put up by the registrar, and you don’t want to make them ANY more money, do you? No, of course you don’t.

To point your domain name to your website, you need the DNS Nameserver settings from your web hosting account. Don’t have a web hosting account yet? Well, an article is coming on that soon, so watch for it. But let’s assume that you do, for the sake of this article.

With my host (Hostgator.com – highly recommended), the DNS Nameserver settings are listed right in the control panel on the left hand side. If you can’t find the information on your hosting control panel, search the host’s knowledgebase or ask them directly. They should reply back asap because it’s an easy question.

The settings should look something like this

ns1234.yourhostname.com
ns1235.yourhostname.com

 
Or something similar.

Now, login to your domain registry account and look for “Manage Your Domains” or “Manage DNS Settings” or “Set Nameservers” or something along those lines. Once you’ve found it, they should have at least two, sometimes three, spaces to put your host’s DNS Nameserver settings into. If your host only offers two and the registrar has space for three – don’t worry. Just put the two in there and hit save. It will work.

Be sure to delete any nameserver settings left over by your domain registrar. You don’t want them competing with your host’s settings. Only your host’s settings should be listed – even if there are more slots available than your host gave information on. Trust me. It works.

After you have changed these settings at your registrar and made sure it has saved properly, wait a while and then go to your domain name. You should see your website appear there. Sometimes it may take a while – even up to 48 hours – for the changes to propagate throughout the Internet. But it generally doesn’t take that long and you can see your website fairly quickly (anywhere from almost immediately to overnight has been my experience).

That’s it! I’m certain there are lots more nitpicky details about domains that I could tell you. But this covers the big stuff that you will run into as you learn to host and manage your own website.

Questions?

Did I miss something? Do you still have a burning question? Ask in the comments below! I’m happy to answer questions anytime.

Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links.

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2 Responses to What is a Domain name? Everything you ever wanted to know (and more)

  1. Kristin May 13, 2011 at 12:15 am #

    Hi Valerie!!
    This is a great article — I’m glad I found your site!!

    Question: I can’t use godaddy anymore (we’re boycotting after that bonehead went and shot the elephant) so was wondering if you had any good second choices for buying domains? There are a lot out there, but if you had any personal recommendations I would love to know.

    Also, i have a new site I’m working on, but need to buy the .com and of course there is a (long-time) squatter on it. Do you have experience negotiating with those people? Can you do it yourself, or do you really need a third party negotiator? (don’t want to pay them if I don’t have to as they don’t guarantee they’ll get the domain name for you).

    Thanks for the help — you’ve done a lot of neat stuff. Keep up the great work!!

    -Kristin

    • Valerie May 13, 2011 at 7:07 am #

      Hi Kristin,

      Long time, no type! Thanks for the kind words! Unfortunately, I don’t have a recommendation for a Godaddy replacement just yet. I am, myself, still researching to decide where to transfer my domains. I have used Godaddy for years, it’s a bummer that we now feel we need to move on because of the CEO’s stupid behavior. Unfortunately, I wonder if enough people will do the same to make it have an impact.

      Anyway, one of the big ones that I have heard good things about is Namecheap.com. I have a friend who has used them and has good things to say, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten so far. When you’re researching, look for articles by sites other than just straight domain comparison websites – places like Mashable.com, Lifehacker.com, Wired.com, PC related magazines, consumer reports, that sort of thing. If the website you’re reading has a name like “bestdomainregistrars.com” or “domainregistrarcomparison.com” or similar, they are most likely an affiliate site that just lists all of their own affiliate accounts, and is not an objective source of information.

      I’m afraid I don’t have any info to share about getting rid of squatters, either. I believe you can do it yourself, but I haven’t done it myself so I don’t have a lot of info to share. Look for some articles about website selling and flipping to see if you can find any information on how to get the best deal in such a case. I know there are some sites and forums out there that cater to the domain flipping community and they would be where I would start looking.

      Good luck!

      Valerie

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