Guides

The Complete Guide to Domain Names

Introduction to domain names

We use them any time we go online, they appear in advertising, some of the best-known represent entire companies. We’re all familiar with domain names. They’re a seamless part of the internet that few people consider. What are they, what do they do and why are they important?

Note: you’ll find a glossary covering many of the terms relating to domains at the end of this guide.

What is a domain name?

Domain names are a string of text that help you locate a site or resource (e.g. www.google.com). They can also be referred to as a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) or a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI). They all refer to the same thing though: an address.

Commercially, they have been around since 1985, but they existed before that on the precursor to today’s internet, the ARPANET. They exist because each machine connected to the internet uses an IP (Internet Protocol) address. Depending on which protocol you use, these consist of a series of numbers and letters, separated into groups.

For example, here’s what an IP (v4) address looks like:

172.16.254.1
Not the sort of thing that rolls off the tongue, or something you could guess in order to find a company’s website. The newer v6 standard is even harder:

2001:0DB8:AC10:FE01::
Remembering each unique address, especially as they can change, would be impossible. So the option to use names that mapped to IP addresses was added.

Initially this was done with all of the IP addresses and their relevant domain names stored in a single file on each computer, but it got so large and the network so fluid that this became unsustainable. To solve this, the Domain Name System (DNS) was created.

This allowed text addresses to be dynamically mapped to IP addresses so requests could be routed to the correct machine.

The importance of a domain name

We all know some domains names, either because they belong to global entities or because they are important to us personally. You may visit some regularly while others have seeped into our consciousness through constant bombardment. They’re not just necessary for an online presence, they also allow people to find you online.

For an individual this is becoming increasingly important, despite social media fulfilling this role for many (rightly or wrongly). For a business they’re even more significant though. Why? Because we live in a connected world and your customers expect to find you online. Surveys show 93% of people do online research before reaching out to a business so if you don’t have a digital presence or can’t be found then you’ll be excluded from the sales process entirely.

It’s not just about lost business though, there are a number of reasons for having your own domain name. After all, there are a number of ways to give your business an online presence.

Control

Firstly, having your own domain gives you control. The rise of social networks has meant that more and more businesses believe they can survive with a Facebook page or a Twitter account. The problem with this is that you’re at the mercy of those networks, which are controlled by other companies.

They have little interest in your business, except as a way to increase their profits. They could change the rules tomorrow and eject all businesses from their network, or begin charging huge fees. They could remove your ability to post and only allow customers to comment about you, or any number of other things.

Having your own domain name puts you in control of your online presence.

Websites are only one aspect of a domain name, another common reason for having one is to set up a custom email address. When you sign up to an Internet Service Provider (ISP) they’re likely to offer you an email address (or several) as part of the package. If you stick with those for all of your business transactions then you’re tied to their service, forever. If they decide to hike the prices you’re trapped paying them for fear your customers and suppliers won’t be able to reach you.

Discoverability

The days of phone directories are long gone. These days we turn to the web to find contact details for a company, check their opening hours, read about what they do or browse the products they offer.

Most people use a search engine for this (hence why being ranked highly is so important) and having your own domain name is a must for getting listed properly. If you have an easy to remember domain, however, people will often go straight to your site. This has the benefit of bypassing a search where your competitors will appear, avoiding the risk of revenue going elsewhere.

People obviously need to know your domain before they can enter it, which is usually limited to existing customers, but having your own domain also helps when it comes to search results too. Google is known to give preference to sites that have their own domain name, for example. Your search ranking can also be influenced by the words in the domain name itself.

As mentioned previously, 93% of consumers use the internet to perform research before they make a decision to purchase. Small business owners agree on the importance of a website (one use for a domain name), with 77% saying it was a great way to find new customers and 81% said it helped grow their business.

The lack of an online presence is likely costing you revenue.

Credibility

Who doesn’t have a website? Who doesn’t want to publicly announce they’re open for business and show what they offer? Typically companies that aren’t above board.

I’ve seen plenty of examples where a company doesn’t have a website, their email address is supplied by their ISP (or a free service) and they list a mobile number, but no landline. Those are the sorts of businesses people are wary about working with. We’ve all heard stories of unscrupulous con-men who took a customer’s money and disappeared, or ignored all attempts to contact them.

Having your own domain name (much like a landline number) gives your business a look of professionalism and of permanence. It suggests you didn’t start up yesterday and won’t be gone tomorrow. Customer’s fears over your reliability and dependability will be lessened.

When asked, 84% of consumers said a business with a website was more credible than one that only had a social media page.

In short, having your own domain name increases your standing in the eyes of potential customers.

Mobility

Something else the control of your own domain name offers is the freedom to move at any time. Found a better deal at another ISP? No problem, your domain is separate to your internet connection. Is your web host constantly unavailable? Move to a new one.

You can’t relocate your Facebook page. Your hands are tied and you’re at the mercy of whatever Facebook decides to do. You can post photos to Instagram, but their terms of service could change, or you could run afoul of their posting rules, or you could find yourself targeted by someone posting inappropriate comments. You can’t do anything about it except close your account or register a complaint and hope someone in the swamped arbitration team looks on you kindly when they finally get around to it.

Domain names offer the flexibility to change service whenever you want. You can even switch registrars (the company that registers domains) at any time.

Personalization

Third-party services are usually easy to set up and run, but that means you can encounter a lot of competition. If you have a common name you’ll know that it’ll likely to be taken already, whether it’s an email address, a Twitter handle or a username.

There are pros and cons to this, because spammers and hackers can guess these details and use them to their advantage. It can also risk sharing of personal information (I have colleagues who receive messages meant for someone else because they happen to share a name and use the same third-party service).

Having your own domain means you know the details you want are available. No more adding random numbers to the end of your name or using your middle initial. You’re in control. Which of these looks more professional?

steve.smith178@btinternet.com
steve.smith1977@hotmail.com
steve.smith@yourdomain.com

Staying connected

It’s not just about making your business accessible to customers though. Businesses themselves are all taking advantage of technology to streamline their processes and reduce costs.

Invoicing by email is becoming the norm, as it is for general communication with customers and suppliers. Why waste time rushing to post a letter when you can send electronic communications instantly, at zero cost? Why waste time opening physical mail and filing it when a single click can open it and another click can file it? Why pay for storing all that paper?

How domains work

It can be helpful to understand, even at a basic level, how domain names work. This is especially true when it comes to some of the terminology as you’ll encounter it when setting up a new domain name.

The Domain Name System (DNS)

DNS is described as a “a hierarchical decentralized naming system for computers, services, or any resource connected to the Internet or a private network.” What that means is it provides a way to name, and therefore locate, anything attached to the internet without it all being stored in a single repository.

As mentioned earlier, before DNS there was a file on each computer that was updated with a list of names and IP addresses. Over 300 million domain names have been registered to date, with the number growing daily, so you can imagine how big a file that would now require and how often it would need to be updated.

By distributing the look-up across multiple name servers the system became much more scalable without the need to store huge files on each device.

When you request a website in your browser it follows a process like this:

  1. The browser sends a request to one of the root (.) domain name servers, which looks at the last part of the domain and redirects the browser to the appropriate top-level domain name server
  2. The top-level domain server (e.g. .com) looks at the text of the domain and redirects the browser to the appropriate name server
  3. The name server redirects the browser to the IP address of the actual server where the site is stored
  4. If the address is a sub-domain, the server redirects the browser to the appropriate folder/path
  5. The web server software identifies the page to be returned (or uses a default if none specified)
  6. The file is returned to the browser and the contents are used to render the page
  7. The name servers store the database of domains and IP addresses that they know about and translate between the two (turning a domain name into an IP address).

Record types

It’s not a one-to-one relationship when it comes to domain names and IP addresses though, multiple types of DNS records can be associated with a domain. Again, some of these you’ll come across when configuring your domain name, or if you want to use a particular service (to host your email elsewhere for example). This list isn’t definitive, I have limited it to the ones you’re most likely to encounter.

A records

These are the main records on a domain name and point to the relevant server’s IP address. In short, they allow your domain name to resolve to a site. As such, they’ll be most commonly used when you set up a website. If none of the other record types are found, those lookups will fall back to using these entries.

MX (Mail Exchange) records

These relate to how messages, typically email, are handled by your domain. They can be controlled independently of A records, which means your email could be hosted separately to your website. This is common if you’re using a service such as Google Apps or Office 365 to handle your email instead of using a service provided by your domain provider.

CNAME (Canonical Name) records

Another common one, especially if you redirect certain services (such web page hosting and email) to providers other than your registrar. It’s a way to declare one domain name is an alias of another domain/IP address. Typically it’s used when you want to give a third-party’s domain the right to act like yours.

NS (Name Server) records

Name servers store information about which machine the site or service a domain name refers to, they’re also where you set all of the other records (the name server sets your DNS records). By default these records will be the name servers (at least two) of your domain registrar, but if you host your website elsewhere the provider will typically ask you to set the name servers to the ones they provide. They’ll then automatically handle the settings for the other records.

TXT (Text) records

These don’t have a specific purpose, but because they allow arbitrary text to be associated with a domain they have been adapted to a number of purposes. The most common is domain ownership verification, especially for email. The Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) standards both require specific entries to be added to a TXT record and are used to confirm a third-party is allowed to transmit email on your behalf.

Picking a domain name

How you pick your domain name will likely depend on whether your business already exists or not.

If you’re just starting out, for example, you have the ability to name your company whatever you like. As such, you can check whether the domain names relating to it have already been taken and modify your name accordingly.

If you have an existing business then the name is already chosen, potentially limiting your options. I say potentially because there are no rules on what domain name you use. Nothing says you must use your company name as the domain name and there are plenty of options to create variations or something unique.

Types of domain name

The suffix can having a bearing on how easy your domain is to remember, find and how well it ranks. The most common of the top-level domains (TLDs) are the likes of .com, .net, .org etc. These – referred to as generic top-level domains (gTLDs) as they’re not specific to any area or industry – have been around the longest. They’re the ones people are most familiar with and likely to be the ones they would add to the end if they were trying to guess a domain.

Then there are country code top-level domains (ccTLDs). These are issued by a particular country and can be limited to citizens thereof (that’s increasingly rare though). Some examples of ccTLD are .uk and .fr while there’s also a .us although this is less used than .com.

Some ccTLDs are very familiar outside of their nations. Take .tv for example, which is issued by the small Pacific nation of Tuvalu, or .co which has jumped in popularity for use in company domains, but is actually Colombia’s ccTLD.

Some of these have been around since the mid-eighties and aside from the odd new ccTLD not much has changed, but there has been a big change in domain names recently. In 2008, ICANN (the body that oversees TLDs) announced a bunch of new domains and the ability for anyone to apply to create others (at a price). As such, we’re now up to nearly a thousand TLDs.

With so many available, you should be able to find a variation of your chosen domain name to register no matter what it is, you just need to find the right domain suffix. Whether you should use one of the new suffixes is a bigger question.

Something like a .com certainly brings more weight and authority, but many were bought up long ago, legitimately or not. They’re big business too, with some being sold for millions of dollars. Newer variants, such as .xyz, are far more arbitrary and may actually make it harder for people to find you.

Companies will often try to register multiple variations of a domain name (and there are companies out there who will try and sell you all the variations under the sun, so be wary). You certainly don’t need to buy them all up, it’s not essential to own them. Apple didn’t control the UK version (.co.uk or just .uk now) of its domain name until 2013 for example. That said, if you can get the most popular ones (.com and a country-specific one) then it’s wise to do so.

Choosing the right TLD will partly come down to your sector. While .accounts is fine if you’re an accountancy firm, it’s probably a good idea to have a more established TLD too. That said, because of the nature of the software sector, registering a .app TLD probably won’t be so much of an issue because of your intended audience.

It’s also worth noting that many people don’t type domains into their browser’s address bar, they use a search engine instead (or these days, expect some sort of digital assistant to do it). So while securing the ‘best’ TLD can help, it’s not the end of the world. The massive increase in TLDs has lessened the stranglehold of the established ‘norms’ and offers a lot more freedom.

In fact, depending on your business, it may actually be better to go local rather than global, either to target your audience better, or to gain cache from a location. Not only are their country-level domains, their are now city-level ones too (such as .london, .nyc and .joburg).

Naming ideas

If you’re registering a domain name for your company, the natural choice is the company name, but is it the best choice?

Let’s say your company is called Eversham and Brothers Finest Cheeses Ltd. Your first inclination might be to register evershamandbrothersfinestcheeses.com.

On the plus side, it’s probably not been taken, but it would drive people insane typing it in and would likely result in numerous typos. Even if your customers only ever find you through a search engine, you and your employees will be entering it repeatedly and you’ll face a constant battle trying to fit it onto signage and stationery.

Think about the websites you visit regularly, or those that grab headlines. They all have relatively short URLs. Long addresses are fine, but are probably best avoided, for the sanity of visitors and staff if nothing else.

It’s not a rule, but shorter is generally better when it comes to domain names. It’s easier for people to remember, easier for them to type in and has more punch.

Going back to our example, it could be cut down to eversham.com, assuming it’s still available, but it’s not very descriptive and could result in confusion with similarly named companies. Although its impact on your overall standing has lessened in recent years, your domain name is the first step in search engine optimization (SEO) – where you rank in the results of search engines.

Evershamcheeses.com would be an option, it’s simple and to the point. Everyone knows what your specialism is and who the site belongs to.

If you were keen to build a brand and emphasize the quality of your product you might decide to go for something like finestcheeses.com though. This would reinforce what your core proposition is and allow you to target visitors (this would likely attract those expecting higher quality items who won’t so concerned by premium prices).

All Beauty, an online retailer, started out as cheapsmells.com. While the latter is very descriptive, it has obvious connotations (you’re expecting discount prices and products) and only includes one of their product ranges. As their offering widened (and no doubt they wanted to move up the value chain) they decided to rebrand their entire company.

It’s certainly worth thinking about your target market. If our example was aimed at the gourmet or epicurean buyers then finestcheeses.com would be great, but if we wanted to sell to a wider audience it would be better to go for something that’ll instantly stand out. Something like cheesechompers.com or cheekycheese.com would be more memorable, for example.

There’s nothing stopping you registering more than one domain to reach multiple audiences, even if they all point to the same site. You also avoid the problem of a domain being registered already if you go for something a little more unique.

Volkswagen, Audi, Seat and Skoda all form part of the same group. The underpinnings of their various cars (the chassis, the running gear, the engines) are all the same. The different brands allow them to target different consumers though. Audi is aimed at the premium end of the market, Volkswagen is upper-middle, while the others are designed for more cost-conscious consumers. That separation allows them to target the whole market without the various brands competing against each other.

You may have noticed that I haven’t hyphenated any of the examples I’ve used. There’s some evidence to suggest one hyphen is okay, but more than one can negatively impact search rankings. Personally, I think they interrupt the flow of someone entering your domain, especially on mobile devices where the hyphen is often on a separate keyboard. As such, I’d suggest avoiding them altogether.

The type of business you run (or are starting) will have an impact on the domain name that is right for you. If you’re a tech company aimed at tweens or hipsters you’ll be looking for something considerably different to a family-run business that has been around for generations.

It’s worth remembering that the decision you make isn’t set in stone, you can change it at any time (though it may impact your search rankings for a time, plus the hassle of updating all of your suppliers and customers). It’s certainly worth giving it plenty of thought before you leap though.

Concepts, brands or company name

Something else to consider when picking your domain name, is whether to simply use your company name or to go for something more abstract.

Trend Micro, an antivirus company, owns antivirus.com in order to give them a thought leadership position in their market (think anti-virus, think Trend). Not to mention good SEO results. While vacations.com redirects to Travelocity and eathealthy.com points to Kraft’s recipe site. You’re not limited to only one domain name and there’s nothing that says it should include your company name, so why not look at something that takes you from a company in your sector to the company.

Incidentally, another antivirus company (Symantec) controls tuneup.com, which would make more sense for the automotive market to my mind, so probably isn’t doing them any favors. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should buy a domain.

In the UK, the DIY chain B&Q do own b-and-q.com but they only use it for corporate communication. Rather than confuse customers over whether it should be bandq.com or b-and-q.com or how they type an ampersand into the address bar, they opted for diy.com for their customer-facing site instead. It simplifies the address and suggests they are the place for DIY.

What if someone has registered the domain you want?

You know the domain name you want but it’s already registered, what do you do? There are a few options.

If the site has been registered and no one is using it, or it’s simply being used to show advertising, you could approach the owner and ask to buy it. There’s no guarantee they will sell it, but if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

To find out who to contact, first check the site as it may have a link for those interested in buying (this is true of domains bought by domain farmers/flippers). If there are no contact details on the site, you can perform a whois search on the domain name. There are plenty of sites that allow you to do this, just do a quick search for whois in your favorite search engine. You may find the domain operator/registry (e.g. Nominet, VeriSign or Donuts, Inc) will let you do this too.

Depending on the domain, and the people involved, procuring an existing domain could cost anywhere from the price of a transfer (which varies by domain operator) to silly numbers. In the latter case, unless you’re planning to be the next Facebook, Uber or Alibaba, I’d recommend walking away.

The second option, if you have the time (and the patience), is to use a service offered by a number of registrars where they’ll monitor a domain and inform you if it expires (i.e. someone decides not to pay to renew it). You can then swoop in and pick it up.

Another option, if the domain isn’t being used legitimately (i.e. isn’t hosting an actual site or it’s obviously just spam), it could be classed as cybersquatting (this only applies to pre-existing companies). In which case you could try contacting the relevant operator/registry for that TLD (for .uk addresses it’s Nominet, for example) and ask them to reassign the domain to you.

This has been done successfully on many occasions, but it could take some time, and may even include a court battle. Alternatively, a forcibly worded letter from your legal representative might be enough to achieve the same result (a whois search will usually provide a physical address).

Unless it’s an obvious attack against your company/brand, I wouldn’t recommend going this route. If the domain you want is taken and there’s no amicable way to get it, move on.

A simpler option, if the existing site is not in any way to be confused with your business, it to register a variant of the domain (e.g. domain.net instead of domain.com). Other common approaches include:

  • Adding a descriptive to the end (e.g. bufferapp.com)
  • Adding something to the start (e.g. getdropbox.com)
  • Using a phonetic or misspelt version (e.g. flickr.com)
  • Making use of the TLD (e.g. instagr.am, who.is, ma.tt)
  • Picking an alternative (see the ideas section)
  • Registering your own TLD (but you’re going to need really deep pockets)
  • If a competitor has got in first and registered your company name to stop you using it, contact the relevant registry/operator and they should be ordered to hand it over. Again, you could also get your legal representative to send them a formal letter demanding they turn over the domain name.

If someone has used it and is in the same industry as you, or worse, is operating something you certainly don’t want to be associated with, you could try legal action. You could also opt for something very different to avoid any of your visitors running into it by mistake.

For example, if you run a small store called Harry’s Hardware and found that harryshardware.com was hosting adult content, you wouldn’t want to register a similar domain for fear of someone running into the other site. Instead, it would be far better to steer well clear and opt for something like diymad.com or harrysplace.com.

Registering a domain name

Once you have decided on a domain name and checked that it is available, you need to register it. This is done through a domain name registrar – companies that are authorized and accredited by a registry/operator to reserve and manage domains using the TLD they control.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of registrars, though you may not have heard of many of them. They often provide their services through resellers, for example many web hosts simply re-sell someone else’s service as their own. They’re all charged the same fee by the controlling registry/operator, cost differences come down to the addition of their own fees or reductions due to subsidizing this base rate in order to sign up new customers.

Many will offer cheaper rates if you transfer a domain to them for example, or give away a free domain if you purchase hosting. You can also find savings by registering for multiple years (think of it as a bulk discount). Some domains can be registered for periods of ten years or more.

The overall cost of most domain names will (generally) be pretty inexpensive, but they vary quite considerably. Some of the new custom TLDs are very expensive though (from several hundred dollars to several thousand), so make sure you check before setting your heart on one.

Things to watch out for

You may be offered a free domain name with your hosting package or your host may offer to register a domain for you. Generally speaking these are a good deal, with the cost simply offset by the hosting fees, but I’m a little wary of these sorts of offers. Some come with hidden penalties, not all financial. As with everything, there’s no free lunch, they’re making the cost back somewhere.

I’m not saying you should shy away from a provider who is offering this, they may simply be looking to appeal to those wanting the easiest solution.

The problems usually arise when it comes time to renew the domain or you choose to take your hosting elsewhere. In this situation some companies, not all obviously, will try and charge you well over the odds.

Another trick involves who your domain is registered to. Some companies have been known to register your domain in their own name. Which means when you want to move it, or do anything with it, you need to go through them. As they’re listed as the domain owners, you have no real way to call on the authorities to help you – it’s not your domain. Companies can use this to tie you to them in some way and/or charge whatever they like to do the simplest of tasks.

The good news is providers are usually upfront about it, although it may be tucked away in their terms and conditions (which no one reads). If you can’t find any reference to who controls the domain and what their domain renewal costs are it may be worth asking before you sign up. Any bad practices will likely be highlighted somewhere online too, so a web search should turn up any complaints. This isn’t limited to hosting or full-service companies, I’ve seen domain registrars add charges for transferring a domain too.

The majority don’t work this way (the short term gain generates a bad reputation that will cost them eventually), but it’s worth bearing in mind.

Something else to be aware of is that, by default, the details you use to register a domain are publicly available via a whois look-up. If you use your home address that means anyone can see it.

There’s usually the option of a private registration (on most TLDs anyway), which doesn’t expose your details. Some registrars offer this free of charge (or included in the price, more accurately) while others will offer it as an add-on. If it’s something that is of interest to you then you should factor it in when you select a registrar as it may impact the price you pay. Some also offer it free for your first year, but charge thereafter.

The registration process

The actual process is similar for any registrar:

  • Go to your chosen registrar’s website
  • Search for the domain name you wish to register
  • Confirm it is free (or pick an alternative TLD)
  • Select the number of years you wish to register for
  • Confirm your selection and enter your details (your business’ name and physical address)
  • Pay for it
  • Once this has been done you’ll typically need to wait for a confirmation that the request has been made to the registry/operator, and then the domain is yours.

Many TLDs have the option to ‘lock’ a domain, so it can’t be transferred. This is an added step to prevent someone swiping a domain you have registered. It’s worth checking this is turned on if available.

Next you have to set it up in order to use it.

Using a domain name

How you use your domain will depend on a number of factors. Firstly, what service(s) you intend to use it for. Most people obviously register a domain name for a website, but it could simply be used for email addresses, or for a number of other reasons (such as hosting static files or providing shorter link URLs).

The most common reason for getting a domain name is to have a website. For this you need to have your website hosted on a server somewhere and your domain name needs to point to it. You would need to buy some web hosting (many registrars offer hosting and many hosting companies offer domain name registration, but you can buy them from separate companies without issue).

If you’re simply registering the domain so you can receive email at your own address, you may not need to do anything else to make use of an offering from the same company who registered the domain, but you may also wish to sign up for a dedicated, paid service from a third party.

Immediately after registering, your DNS entries are likely to be controlled by your registrar. What you’ll need to do to set up your domain will depend on where the services you want to use are hosted in relation to your domain registrar.

If you registered your domain through the same company that hosts your website, you’ll likely have very little to do as they should create the DNS entries for you. It’s not a problem if that’s not the case but you’ll need to point your domain in the right direction(s). To do this you’ll typically go one of two routes: name servers or individual DNS records.

Name servers

Name servers are what responds when someone types your domain name into a web browser and it goes looking for the machine hosting it. It holds the various DNS entries for the main domain and any sub-domains. These point anyone requesting your address to the correct server.

Technically, when you register a new domain, you’re also setting it up on a name server. If you’ve registered it with someone other than your web host, you’ll typically want to change these to your hosting company’s name servers, which they’ll provide details for.

There will be at least two (one for backup) but you can usually assign up to four. When you update your domain to point the name servers at your hosting company (usually via a control panel provided by your registrar – they’ll have instructions for how to change things like name servers, which is a simple process) any future search for your domain will go there and use the DNS on those name servers instead.

The benefit of using the name servers provided by your hosting company is that they will set up the other DNS records and maintain the correct addresses needed for your site. This is definitely the recommended (and easiest) option, especially if you want a hands-off approach to management or are planning a complex selection of sub-domains. That said, you can leave the name servers set to those of your registrar and use individual DNS records to point traffic the IP address of your site. This is usually a bit more difficult to set up though.

DNS records

As mentioned in the chapter covering how domains work, there are a number of different record types that point visitors (and other services) to the correct server (regardless of where your name servers are located).

For example, if your website is hosted somewhere other than your name servers you’ll need to set up the correct A records to point to your hosting. It will depend on where you’re hosted though, as some services use CNAME records instead. So check with your provider if you’re unsure (they’ll typically supply instructions or include them in their Help section).

Generally speaking that will be enough as everything will follow that primary record, but different services have different requirements. If you’re using a third-party for email, such as Google Apps or Office 365 for example, then you’ll also need to add some MX records to redirect any mail servers to the appropriate service. Again, instructions should be provided.

Summary

So there we have domain names. You should now have a better understanding of what they are and how they work. Plus the importance of having your own domain name and how to go about selecting and registering one.

At its most basic, the process is very simple, takes very little time and costs so little it will barely register on your balance sheet. Combined with the low costs of hosting a simple website and it’s probably the cheapest way to spread the word about your venture.

Not only will a domain name raise the profile of your business, but it will help reassure your customers you are here to stay. It shows a commitment to something long term and indicates you won’t simply vanish tomorrow. Everyone expects you to have a website these days.

They also expect to be able to contact you by email. Despite the rise of other communication methods, email isn’t going away any time soon and not only will customers want to reach you this way, but more and more of the businesses and services you use will wish to email you things, from invoices to login details. It’s easy to create separate addresses for each of these functions and personal addresses for staff. That way no one gets overwhelmed and you don’t have to worry about privacy and security.

Having your own domain also means you’re not tied to a particular service. If you find your internet service provider suddenly raises their prices, or their service is terrible, you can move somewhere else without worrying about having to update all of your suppliers or losing customers as they can no longer reach you.

There really is no reason not to have your own domain name, so get registering!

Glossary

A brief rundown of the terms you’ll see discussed in this guide in relation to domain names.

A records

These relate to IP addresses and are the ones that allow you domain name to resolve the server that hosts your site. As such, they’ll be most commonly used when you set up a website, but they’re also the default should any of the others be missing.

CNAME (Canonical Name) records

Another common one, especially if you redirect certain services (such as email) to other providers. It’s a way to declare one domain name is an alias of another. Typically it’s used when you want to give a third-party’s domain the right to act like yours.

Domain Name System (DNS)

The system of name servers that help route a request for a particular domain (or IP address) to the correct location.

Host

A company that provides (hosts) a web site or service on servers they control.

Internet Protocol (IP) address

An IP address is a series of numbers (or letters and numbers in the latest version) that are assigned to any device connected to the internet. The address is unique and allows data to be sent to that specific device.

MX (Mail Exchange) records

These relate to how messages, typically email, is handled on your domain. They can be controlled independently of A records, which means your email could be hosted separately to your website. This is common if you’re using a service such as Google Apps or Office 365 to handle your email instead of your web host.

Nameserver or name server

See NS records below.

NS (Name Server) records

Name servers store information about which machine the site or service a domain name refers to. When you create a domain name and are looking to host a website, your host will typically ask you to set the name servers to their own ones. They’ll then automatically handle the settings for the other records above. They will contain a listing of all of the records relating to your domain.

Registrar

Companies that allow you to register, transfer or renew a domain name. They will typically be approved by a registry to sell the domains they control. Some are simply resellers for actual registrars.

Registry

The entity that controls registrations for a particular top-level domain. For example, VeriSign or Nominet. They can set rules as to who is allowed to register with them and what the base cost will be.

Renewal

A domain is registered for a set number of years. Renewing extends that period. It can be done at any time and for varying lengths.

Sub-domain

A domain name is the part that precedes the top-level domain suffix. In www.google.com, .com is the TLD suffix and google is the name of the domain. Anything to the left of the domain name is a sub-domain. So www is actually a sub-domain, but it could be anything, such as mail.google.com. They can go ‘down’ multiple layers, so you can have foo.bar.google.com for example.

Sub-domains are often used to separate a domain for specific tasks. The mail sub-domain is often used for email marketing, for example, but they can just as easily be used to provide access to different parts of a website. Another common use is creating personalized URLs. Many sites that allow you to host content use a structure such as username.domain.com to provide an easy to remember address.

Top-Level Domain (TLD)

These are the suffixes, for example .com, that make up a domain name. There are several subcategories, for example ccTLDs (country code top-level domains) and sponsored domains (such as .app). They are controlled by an operating company (called a registry) that charges registrars a fee to register a domain using their TLD.

Transfer

Moving a domain from one registrar to another. This will typically cost the same as renewing for the same period, though sometimes discounts can be applied. It can also mean to change ownership of a domain (for which there can be a cost).

TXT (Text) records

These don’t have a specific purpose, but allow arbitrary text to be associated with a domain so have been adapted to a number of purposes. The most common is domain ownership verification, especially for email. The Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) standards both require specific entries to be added to a TXT record and are used

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