To start a website, you need a domain name. So here's a background to what they are and how they work.
What is a domain name?
You domain name is what people use as the address of your website. The real address for your website is lots of numbers and dots (an IP address) which relates to the server that's hosting your website - but that wouldn't be easy to remember or look good on a business card! Therefore since the 1980s it's been possible to associate a domain name with your web server's IP - resulting in much easier to remember addresses.
How you associate the domain name with your server varies and your web developer can talk you through this - sometimes you need to update what are called "nameservers" and sometimes you just update the "DNS" - the Domain Name System - to create an A record or similar.
Domain names are unique – whereas you and your next door neighbour may share a UK post code, you don't share domain names. If someone has already registered the address you want, I'm afraid you'll have to think of an alternative.
When we talk about domain names – ie. .co.uk, .com, .org. etc – we're actually talking about top-level-domains or TLDs. There has been a recent boom in the amount of different TLDs available - as of February 2015 ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) had over 800 valid TLDs listed.
Traditionally, most different types of TLD (.co.uk, .com, .org, etc.) had a particular use in mind, or were from a particular country. For example, .co.uk domains are typically for UK based companies, whilst .org.uk means you are a UK based charity or organisation. The .com domain was initially for American businesses, but is perhaps now seen as a universal/international option. We, The Web Guild, opted for thewebguild.org to indicate an International organisation - we're based in the UK but a .org.uk could seem irrelevant to our overseas audience.
People have had fun over the years, with new domain types being released, creating funny domain names from the extensions now available. A well known example is the social bookmarking site Delicious; when they first launched they used a .us domain of “icio” and a sub-domain of del. (more on those later) to give them http://del.icio.us.
A popular country domain name is .co – the domain for the country of Columbia, but instantly of interest to companies all over the world who haven't got their ideal domain and so are having to use a hyphen in the middle of their company name or a .biz or similar.
At the moment a great number of sector specific TLDs are being released, rather than domains tied to countries. For example, in my local town the other day I saw a business advertising with a .florist domain. It will be interesting to see if members of the public - and search engines - recognise these domain names as valid websites.
(I mention search engines just because back in 2010 I had a client who registered a .travel domain - which involved jumping through a lot of hoops and checks. The site launched and Google just would not recognise it; we changed the site to run off a .com and Google indexed the whole site practically over night. Therefore the site was very search engine friendly, Google just didn't know what to do with a .travel domain.)
The increase in the amount of TLDs has also caused some confusion with some businesses thinking they can have whatever TLD they want... if you've got stacks (and I mean stacks) of money your request may be considered by ICANN but generally you've got to pick from the list! If you have a .com version of your domain name, you may find you currently get priority on reserving your sector specific TLD.
Registering a domain name
The thing to know here is that you don't "buy" domain names - you register them with a domain registrar. This is because domain names don't become your property forever and ever - you register a domain name for a set amount of time (1 year is usually the minimum for a .com, .co.uk's tend to have a minimum of 2 years).
When it comes time to renew - don't worry - you get first refusal. But you've got to make sure that you take note of any email reminders from your domain registrar and you keep your contact details (and possibly payment details) up to date on their website... if you don't pay the renewal invoice, your domain name will go back into the pot and will stop taking people to your website. And of course once it's back in the pot, someone else could come along and register it and then you won't be able to get it back - unless they let it expire sometime in the future but that would be a minimum of a year away.
Choosing a domain name
One of the hardest things about starting a website can be choosing your domain name and, as explained above, every domain name has to be unique so if you want a name but another company is already using it, you can either try to buy it from them (unlikely / expensive), or you have to get imaginative and find an alternative.
A common misunderstanding from people getting to grips with websites is that many (and I mean many!) domain names have already been registered for no purpose other than to sell them on. So you'll try to visit the domain name you ideally want to see if anything's there, and find a page saying "this domain is for sale". This means the domain has already been registered/is taken. If there's anything there at all, it means someone has bought the domain and is trying to sell it. And of course they'll want to sell it on for a profit so it's going to be more expensive to buy a domain from them than register one that's not previously been registered. A new .com is about £10 / $15 - buying a domain name privately can easily be hundreds or thousands (or millions if it's really sought after). So you can get in touch with the seller and make an offer – or you can get a fresh domain.
Just a tip if you are tempted to make an offer on an already-registered domain because it's better than the one you've already got - email from a personal email address. Don't email them from email@example.com because the seller will realise that what they've got is all the more valuable to you!
Even if you type in an address and you get a plain white page, it still means the domain is registered as someone has had to put that blank page there. If a domain hasn't been registered and so is free for you then all you will see when you try to visit it is some kind of “404 sorry that page doesn't exist/are you sure you're connected to the Internet” message from your browser. Because you are literally trying to view something that doesn't exist.
Of course – last hurdle – is that someone may have registered the domain name and just not done anything with it yet, in which case you'll also find absolutely nothing there. So, to truly know if a domain is free, you have to use a service to check if it's available or not.
Tips for choosing your domain name:
- Consider what domain type suits your business/organisation – if you're a UK based company you would traditionally use a .co.uk; an organisation would use a .org.uk.
- Sometimes you see domain names such as www.somethingltd.co.uk – and I've been asked why. The ltd is because the company is a Limited company. So you shouldn't use this unless you are Limited.
- Consider hyphens – eg. www.your-company.co.uk.
- You can't use punctuation other than hyphens in domain names – so no question marks, underscores or full stops.
- Maybe use your location – if you're fixed/aren't likely to move. Eg. www.yourcompanysouthwest.co.uk.
- Think how your domain is going to be publicised – if it's going to be read out on radio advertisements then make it clear and memorable, and not something people are going to wonder how to spell. But if you're promotion is going to be largely SEO and links from other websites, so people will be clicking on links rather than having to type in the address then spelling is not the same issue. The same goes with the length of the domain.
- It doesn't have to make sense – what's “google” or “vimeo”?!
Transferring a domain
"Transferring" is the term used when passing a domain from one registrar to another - or from one person's registration to another. It may be that you wish to use a different registrar from now on, so you transfer the domain from Registrar A to Registrar B. Or it may be that you've sold your company and so the new Directors need to have control over the domain - so again you may need to transfer it to Registar B if they already have an account there, or they may have an account with Registar A / your registrar, in which case you do an "internal transfer".
Exactly how you go about a transfer depends on the company you’re moving from and the company you’re moving to and their procedures. It also varies for different domain types. Sometimes it can all be done through the registrar's websites and sometimes you need to call or email their support team. But overall, the process involves giving the new registar the heads up that you’re passing the domain to them, and then telling your old registar details of the new registrar so they can pass it over. Sometimes there’s not much for you to do, and sometimes you need to keep an eye on your email and enter some authorisation codes when prompted.
Sub-domains and domain name structures
A sub domain is whatever comes before the TLD in your web address. For example, if your website address was http://www.mywebsite.com, a subdomain could be: http://resources.mywebsite.com. Typically sub domains don't have www. infront of them but they can do if you wish - you just need to state your preference when your web developer / host sets it up for you. Often a sub-domain will need a new hosting account, but there are no extra domain registration fees to pay - you don't need to register sub domains, you can just create them once you have the main TLD.
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