What is a Domain Name? The Marketing and Technical Info You Need to Know

What are Domain Names?
What are Domain Names?

When I first started on my own web development and hosting business back in 2000 I had no clue about DNS or how Domain Name Servers worked. To that point I also had very little knowledge about registering and maintaining domains.

It turns out this is still a mystery to many business owners and developers. But you can't have a website, at least that anyone will find and recall, without a domain name, it is the deed to your property.

Unless you are into the technical side of the Internet you may have never considered what a domain name is, how to register one, how they work and what does it mean to register a domain name.

Domains provide a decentralized naming system for computers and the services they host on the Internet. Without domains we would have to memorize IP addresses.

In short, domain names are easy to remember aliases for online service addresses.

They provide a way to brand your business and imply what your site, business or organization specializes.

Not only are they a marketing tool, they are an important aspect that drives the technical side of the Internet. In essence, without domain names we would not have the Internet we have today. It most likely would have never gained popular acceptance because it would have remained very unapproachable as a technical eco-system, limited to a small set of enthusiastic engineers.

Domain names also provide a valuable abstraction to allow multiple 'tenants' using the same service to be hosted on the same IP address.

If you are wondering an IP address is the IP in TCP/IP.

Individuals, businesses, organizations, institutions and governments can all register domains. The process is similar to paying for a driver’s license or the license plate on your car.

You register to 'own' a domain in 1-year increments. You can pay for up to 10 years for most domain types. There are numerous top-level domains, and each have their own set of registration policies and wholesale pricing. When I reference these values, I will stick to .com since it is the most common top level domains.

Domain name system (DNS) refers to the servers or hosted services around the internet that translate domain names to the proper IP address. Combined, domains and IP address function much like the postal system. They allow client computers to find and communicate with remote servers somewhere on the Internet.

There are multiple domain registration services available to register ownership of available domains. Most are reputable, but as with anything there are some shady characters you need to avoid.

For the most top-level domains you can register a year of ownership for roughly $15, but prices can vary from $5 to several hundred dollars per year. For example, the trendy .io extension starts at $42/year. Sometimes I see .in (India) extensions available for $5 or less when they are on sale.

These are the wholesale prices, not retail, which is what you pay to register a domain through a registrar. No, you cannot register directly with ICANN.

Often you will see registrars offering domain registration for $4.95 a year. But this tends to be a bait and switch tactic. Subsequent years are often priced 3-5 times the wholesale rate. So, it if looks too good to be true it is.

There are also domain speculators or businesses and individuals that buy a domain with the hopes they can flip it later for a profit.

I really wish I would have invested money is some popular domain names back in the early 90s. I would be set for life now, oh well.

Domain Background

When you register a domain, you have ownership over a little piece of the Internet. Your 40 acres and a mule so to speak.

What you do with that plot of real estate is up to you.

Domains you can register are second level domains. You cannot register a top-level domain, like .com.

Example top level domains are typically related to a country or now niches and common terms. The most popular top-level domains are .com, .net, .org and .edu.

love2dev.com is an example of a second level domain. 2048.love2dev.com is a third level domain name.

If you register a 'country specific' domain it might look like [your-domain].co.uk.

Some Common TLDs

  • COM (originally intended for US business, has become the defacto top level domain)
  • NET
  • ORG (for non-profit organizations)
  • EDU (educational institutions)
  • GOV (governments)
  • Country Specific (US, UK, CA, AU, IN, EU, etc)
Domain Name Organization Tree
Domain Name Organization Tree

These core domain extensions have been around since the mid-80s, give or take, back when the Internet was called ARPANET. Things have expanded since then. There are hundreds of top-level domain extensions available today.

As the owner of a domain you can use that domain to 'point' to different online resources and provision sub domains, which may also be called third level domains and below.

Once you own a domain you can create as many sub-domains as you like. WWW is a common sub-domain for websites. Technically it is a common alias for the web server protocol (port 80 if you are into the technical side of things).

In essence you can provision as many sub-domains and sub-domains off those sub-domains as you like.

Do don't purchase these sub-domains from a registrar. But you may 'purchase' the sub-domain from the primary domain name's owner.

Domain Name Structure

An Internet address is composed of a protocol, like https:// and the domain. The domain itself is composed of a top-level domain, like .com, the domain you can purchase and any sub-domain you may have provisioned.

Domain Name Structure Diagram
Domain Name Structure Diagram

You can purchase a second-level domain, like love2dev.com. For practical purposes we will call that a domain name since it is what most of us associate as a domain name. But technically any address that it not an IP address is a domain name and is a unique domain, even sub-domains.

Are Domains Only for Websites?

To most of us we associate domain names with websites. But that is only a small part of their functionality. They can map to a website, which is a service running on a server. But they also map to other services, like e-mail, FTP, messaging and hundreds of other services mapped to protocols and ports on servers.

Like WWW there are other common sub-domains we commonly use as defector standards to map to some of these services. You may see domains like pop.domain.com and smtp.domain.com for e-mail protocols, etc.

Why Do We Have Domain Names? or How Do Domains Work?

Internet servers have Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. These addresses are a set of for octal numeric values, 0-255. For example, 127.0.0.1 is your local IP address, when you use localhost.

Web developers know what I am talking about, if you don't know what localhost is, don't worry.

People have a much harder time remembering numerical IP addresses. The average consumer could not memorize or really care about IP addresses. Domain names are much easier to remember than 216.27.17.86. Our brain can remember words rather than long numbers. So, the first purpose is it makes things much easier for average users to access our properties.

For what it is worth a typical human can retain about 8 numbers in their short-term memory, but good luck remembering a numeric sequence for the long term not used over and over, like your phone number.

The next reason domains are great is we have so many more possibilities for addresses. IPv4 IP addresses, the sequence described earlier, is pretty much exhausted, hence why IPv6 was created.

IP addresses are what computers use to address communications with other computers. We as humans just do not see the details. So when you type Love2Dev.com in your browser's address bar your computer does a quick look up to determine what name server has the records to resolve where this domain is hosted.

Your computer then uses the IP address to open a line of communication with the server, not the domain. The domain is supplied as part of the request header so the server and translate to the correct site or service.

Domains give us a infinite number of potential web addresses. Servers are assigned IP addresses, but can have multiple domains assigned by using host headers.

Mapping Multiple Domains to IP Address
Mapping Multiple Domains to IP Address

Unless you manage a server you won't need to worry about the technical side of this. Just know you can map multiple domains to a single IP address.

Domains are a great branding tool. With Love2Dev.com I sort of tell you what this site is all about, I love to do web development. SpartanObstacles.com is a site about obstacle course racing, the IP address really would not help the average user know what our property is all about.

We can also map multiple IP addresses to a domain name. This is what makes content delivery networks possible.

How the Domain Name System is Managed

The entire registration system is overseen by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). It is a non-profit, independent, organization responsible for maintaining the authoritative database of domain registrations.

You can't register a domain with ICANN. That is handled by a commercial registrar. Network Solutions was the first public registrar, but thankfully the industry is 'deregulated' so there is competition now. Now there are hundreds of registrars. I have used OpenSRS for years, but am thinking of using Amazon's Route 53 registration service lately.

When you register a domain, you must supply valid contact information. This will be stored on a Whois record, which is like your deed of ownership. Unfortunately, spammers use these records to market their services. So, in recent years many registrars have begun offering a 'privatization' service where they will suppress this information from the public record. This can be worth it if your phone rings too much.

Just be aware there are times when you need to temporarily remove the privacy, so ownership can be verified.

How to Register a Domain Name

This may seem like a simple question with a simple answer, How to Register a Domain Name.

But it never ceases to amaze me how many business owners, marketers and developers do not know the fundamentals of domain registration.

The process is a simple, but extremely important step in the development of a successful web site.

Once you decide on a domain there are some key things to look for in a domain registrar. I mean you want ot make sure you avoid a domain scam service like IDNS.

You also need to make sure you provide key pieces to ensure your ownership of the domain.

  1. Find the right domain name
  2. Ensure the domain is available
  3. Find a Reputable Domain Registrar
  4. Go through their registration process
  5. Configure your name servers to resolve the domain correctly
  6. Make sure your domain is associated with your name servers

After you have figured out what domain you would like to register, you should find a trustworthy domain registrar. This can be harder than you think. THERE ARE MANY SHADY domain registrars in the world.

Here are some things to think about when you are choosing your domain registrar.

  • Are they ICANN Certified
  • Infrastructure & Support
  • Do They Make Money Registering Domains or Other Services

ICANN certifies each registrar and has several requirements in place before a company can begin registering domains. First is a $100,000 registration fee. Next is infrastructure and service requirements, when I evaluated the costs associated with these it was easily another $200,000 plus per year to maintain even the slightest operation.

Next the wholesale costs for a domain is around $11 per year. Some extensions are more expensive, like .tv. You may be think, they keep their cost low on volume. This is not the case. Many are using domain registration as a loss-leader with hopes you will buy other, more profitable services.

There are 100's of ICANN accredited domain registrars today. You can quickly do the math and determine the volume theory vaporizes as fast as the downline for a multi-level marketeer.

Now you should also figure the customer acquisition costs for a domain registrar. Remember a domain name costs the consumer typically $10-30 per year. Pay Per Click advertising for domain registration costs between $5-40 per click or visitor. Even with a 10% conversion rate this cost between $50-400 per new customer for a product that cost the company $10-20 to purchase wholesale.

You can calculate the long-term customer value and the potential upsell for hosting services many registrars offer. I think this is pretty short sided because most of these companies again offer hosting well below their cost too. Domain registration customers are not typically long-term loyal customers either. Many burn out on the Internet within a year or two.

I wanted to get you to think about this because some domain registration companies offer registration for as little as $1.99 per year. You need to ask yourself where are they making money registering domain names?

Now that you have chosen your domain registrar, you need to make sure you register your domain(s) in your name.

A few years ago, I heard a tragic story about a large radio station in the Raleigh market. They let their web design firm register the domain for their call letters. The web design firm was a little shady and wrote the contract with the radio station so that the station lased the use of the domain from the design firm. This was bad because two years later the station hired a new marketing company and could not get their domain name for their new site.

This situation happens more often than you think. Often it is not done with malicious intent, but rather laziness on the part of the registering party. I have worked on new client sites where they realized they did not own their domain. Like the Raleigh radio station, their previous hosting company registered their domain, in the name of the hosting company.

This is a quick sign there may be other issues with this web host. Often, in these situations you are better off finding a new domain.

What Are Name Servers?

An important aspect of the domain name system are name servers or DNS. These are online services that maintain a database of a small set of domains. They provide the important IP address mapping for a domain.

You will need to create a host record for the domain you registered. Within that host record you add records for different protocols to map those requests to different addresses. This mapping can be to an IP address or even an alias to another domain.

If you are not technical, don't worry, this is a task for your web master or devops engineers.

However, when you register a domain you should know your name servers. You should have at least 2 name servers, but more is better.

I use Amazon's Route 53 for my DNS service. They provide for name servers for every host record. These name servers are distributed around the world. The idea is the closer physically a name server is to the user the faster the name resolution process can happen.

Multiple name servers also mean there is a natural backup is and when any of the name servers go offline.

Without name servers no request to a domain could be translated to the actual IP address. For a computer is it like using a phone book. They reference a domain's DNS server to get the IP address, or in my analogy the phone number.

Multiple Domains to Help Banding and SEO

You can have multiple domains pointing to the same web site. I have several pointing to this web site. I bought a few because they had a relevant backlink profile to help raise Love2Dev's search profile.

The key to this strategy is to configure a 301 redirect from the secondary domains to your primary domain or URL on your site. For example if you visit IHateAngular.com you will reach my JavaScript SEO page.

Even if you only use a single domain you will also need to provision the www sub-domain because that is a defector standard. You should redirect all requests to a single domain as your canonical or single source. This allows you to promote a single domain and helps Google apply link equity to a single source and not distribute it across the different domains.

Your web hosting provider should be able to accommodate multiple domain hosting for you. You should expect a fee for this service, it is a separate site after all.

You may also buy a domain to promote a specific product or named promotional. You can setup a real site or define a 301 redirect to a specific landing page. The braded effort makes it easy for targeted consumers find your landing page.

Domain Names and SEO Value

There is a lot of mis-information floating around that domain names have SEO value. Google has gone out of their way to emphasize the actual domain is not used as a ranking signal. There are hundreds of ranking factors used by Google, but a keyword in the domain is not one of them.

The Google Search Team began eliminating keyword or exact-match domains years ago.

Matt Cutts Demoting Exact Match Domains
Matt Cutts Demoting Exact Match Domains

Think about it, brand names associated with a popular keyword often rank well for that keyword because they receive links and branded references using those keywords. Their domain could be xyz.com and they rank for 'cute kittens'.

But a keyword term can be useful from a human perspective because it is easier for our minds to associate your brand with the target term you want to be the organic search leader.

This is especially true for many of the new top level domains.

John Mueller has also stated as far as Google is concerned there is no idea of domain authority used for ranking.

John Mueller on Domain Authority
John Mueller on Domain Authority

There are still positive and negative reasons for using a keyword in a domain.

Using a head term, or high-volume keyword for a niche can help you earn a little trust from searchers. If the keyword or a closely related term to their search is visible in the search results it will increase click-through rates, which eventually improve rankings.

At the same token, you are potentially limiting your site's scope and focus. When I first started this business I had a crazy name, Extreme Web Works. I chose it because the name was available and sort of implied web development. A few years later I thought I needed to focus more on ASP.NET since that was the area of web development I focused on, so I changed to Professional ASP.NET.

That choice was not the best idea to go forward. This implied I only knew and provided ASP.NET related services.

But I am a web developer and the way websites are built now is very different than how we did it 15 years ago.

So I changed the name again to Love2Dev. This is a little limiting as well because it implies just development, when in fact I am really growing my online marketing and SEO services as a natural extension of the core development practice.

Choosing a domain is difficult and can be exhausting. The good news is you can pivot your brand if you need.

Domain Name Choice Guidance

When you decide on a domain you should register one that is memorable. It should invoke a combination of what your brand is about and a positive feeling. This way the domain is easy for our brains to remember and associate with the product or service.

Scientifically this refers to cognitive bias, which means our brains will remember common words easier than numbers, hyphens and non-standard characters. Hyphens and non-standard characters tend to imply spamminess.

Even if your domain is a pneumonic, make it at least sound like something positive and recognizable in your niche.

I also recommend sticking with popular top-level domains if you plan using brand recognition as part of your marketing strategy. It is more difficult for us to remember the 'odd' top-level domain extensions. If your site will only rely on linked traffic, then any domain extension is fine.

You will also want to check for social media handle availability related to the domain. You may also want to do a trademark check just to make sure no one is doing business under that name. Today most trademarks are made by doing domain research first, so this is not as common an issue as it was in the early days of the Internet.

Make sure your domain:

  • conveys trust
  • relate to your niche
  • is memorable

A good domain:

  • Can Increase Credibility
  • Lead to more Traffic

Domain Name Renewal

As I mentioned earlier when you purchase a domain you are purchasing the rights to manage a domain for a year. You can pay for up to 10 years in advance, which I highly advise.

But eventually you will need to renew your domain, just like your car.

When you fail to renew a domain name it will expire. There is a short period where you can renew the domain without it being taken from you. This is typically 30 days.

Afte that time frame it goes through a process that takes about 90 days or so where the domain eventually becomes available to the first party that wants it.

There is a thriving market for these expired domains. I register a few dozen every year. Some for new properties, others to claim their backlink profile and apply it to an existing property.

It is your responsibility to renew your domain. Even though I go out of my way to remind and invoice clients to renew their domains, every year a few fail to do so and then one day their site, email and other services stop working.

This happens more with clients that did not transfer their domain management to us. While we try to help them as much as possible, there is only so much we can do for them since they are using a registrar we do not have management through.

Summary

You can do everything right when you launch a new website, but if you make a mistake registering your domain you have no solid foundation to build your online business.

Domain names provide a decentralized system to make accessing computers and hosted services easy for humans.

You must register ownership of a domain. This is done in 1-year increments, but you can pay for up to 10 years at a time.

There are hundreds of domain registrars, but not all are good business partners. You need to make sure you do business with a reputable service. You also need to make sure you own the rights to the domain and are not merely leasing it from a service provider.

There is no direct SEO value in the actual name itself. However, you can buy expired domains with a valid backlink profile to inherit the link equity to possibly raise your SEO profile.

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