To be a major presence on the Internet, you need to have an easy-to-find web domain to point visitors to your site. However, to create your own web domain, you need to do a lot more than just come up with a snappy name.
What is a domain name, exactly?
Every device on the Internet has an Internet Protocol (IP) address. To access information from the Internet, such as the page you are reading now, requires access via this IP address. This string of numbers and, in the case of IPv6, letters tells the browser the location of a server, letting it look there for a particular file.
There are a couple of problems with this system: Memorizing a string of random characters is difficult, making IP addresses a no-go in advertising. Also, a website may be spread across several servers, each with its own IP address. If the user only knows one of these addresses and the server linked to that address is down at the moment, they can’t access the site.
That’s where domain names come in: These are names that combine words or phrases with a dot and a suffix indicating the type of site it is. This memorable name can be typed into the address bar of a browser, and from there, the browser can contact a Domain Name Server (DNS) to get a list of IP addresses associated with the domain name. The user has something he or she can easily remember, and if one server is down, the browser can try other IP addresses associated with the domain name.
Understanding Domain Names
The Internet Corporation controls the structure of domain names for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Among other tasks, they release new top-level domains that can be used by domain name registrars.
Every domain name ends with a top-level domain (TLD), a short phrase that defines the website’s basic purpose. There are six primary TLDs, with several others either available through informal registration methods or proposed for future use:
- com: Commercial
- net: Networks, first seen as a domain for portals to multiple computers and services, are now mostly used as an alternative to com.
- org: Organization
- gov: Government, available only to government agencies
- edu: Education, available only to educational institutions
- biz: Business
There’s also a two-letter code used to indicate the country of origin, which can be used alone or combined with a top-level domain shortened to two letters, i.e., “.com” becomes “.co.UK”. Although the servers don’t have to be located in the country indicated, this is often used to indicate who the content is intended for. “.tv” is actually the country domain for Tuvalu; the small island country sold off the rights to this name for use by those wanting to associate websites with television.
In front of the top-level domain name are one or more subdomains. Subdomains in front of this primary name are usually used to point to servers that handle a specific function, like “mail” for email services or “www” for web pages. The result is something that looks like this: subdomain. subdomain.TLDHow do I create my own web domain name? There are three basic rules to picking a name:
The name has to follow the format laid out by ICANN. Aside from the “.gov” and “.edu” TLDs, there aren’t any real restrictions on registering under any TLD, sometimes referred to as buying a URL. The name can’t already be registered. Finding out if a domain name already has an owner is as simple as typing it into the address bar.
The name can’t be “offensive.” For Americans, the Truth in Domain Names Act of 2003 and The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 make it illegal to use domain names that could trick people into seeing pornographic content using an innocent-sounding name.
Along with these restrictions, there are a few questions that should be answered before picking a name:
- Which top-level domain best explains the purpose of the website?
- Will the name be easily confused with another website?
- Is the name easy to remember?
- Should the domain name be focused on the product name or a general service?
- Should additional variations like “www.possibledomainname.com” also be registered?
Now that I have a domain name in mind, how do I register it?
ICANN handles registration through the InterNIC Registration Service, which hands off domain names to approved registrars. Rates vary, but most places will charge a flat fee to register a name for a year. “Cybersquatters” act as Internet scalpers, registering names that they think are valuable, then charging unusually high prices for them.
This leaves the question of where to register the name. Most Internet Service Providers have a domain registration service, while there are also several registrar-only companies. Please read the fine print: Some ISPs will register the domain in their own name rather than yours. This means if you switch ISPs, you could lose the domain.
“.gov” domains are handled by dotgov.gov and “.edu” domains by net.educause.edu; both groups require proof that the site will be run by the type of institution specified by the domain name. Otherwise, any unowned domain can be handled by any registrar.
Interested in buying an existing domain name? Contact information for the operator can generally be tracked down using ICANN’s “whois” system.
How do I use the domain name once I get it?
A domain name can be registered and left unused. However, to have it go to a website, it needs to be associated with at least one IP address. In the meantime, the registrar should “park” the domain name, linking it to a simple “coming soon” message. This way, a name can be purchased before the site is ready, keeping anyone from buying it beforehand. First, the website will need an “A record” on the ISP’s name servers. The steps to set up this record will vary from ISP to ISP.
Once the A record has been created, the name servers will need to be listed with the domain name. This address will generally look something like “ns1.ispexample.com.” Every ISP should have at least two of these servers. Enter the server names into the domain name registration forms, and the registrar will automatically link the domain name with the IP numbers it gathers from the ISP’s name servers. Keep in mind that it may take a day or two for this information to spread across the Internet.
Once the registrar and name server’s initial connection is made, this information will automatically be updated if the IP address changes. If you change ISPs, you will need to create a new A record and change the name servers to those used by the new service provider.