When you want to visit a website, you type the web address into your browser. The main part of this web address is known as the 'domain name' (for example: bbc.co.uk). This is the 'friendly name' that people use, as it's easy to remember - but it's not the actual internet address of the site. It's the equivalent of referring to 'Uncle Fred's House'. It's a friendly name, but not one that the Postman would recognise as a valid address.
What follows is a simplified version of how this friendly name system works, how it relates domain names to actual internet addresses and how you should go about choosing a domain name for your own website.
When you type a web address you are using the more friendly and easier to remember 'domain name', not the actual internet address of the website.
Choose a domain name: There used to be just a few top-level domain names to choose from, but now there are dozens. For businesses .co.uk or .com are still the most common.
Beware: Unfortunate re-grouping of wording can have unforeseen consequences so always double-check your proposed domain name before you register it!
In the same way as every property has to have a unique postal address, every device connected to the internet also has to have a unique data address. On the internet, every device has what is known as an IP (Internet Protocol) Address. This is in the form of a long string of numbers, such as 18.104.22.168 which although perfectly adequate - rather like 23 Broad Street, London, EC1 5WB - is not exactly memorable.
A meaningful friendly name is much easier to remember. What is needed is something that can relate the friendly domain name (e.g. bbc.co.uk) to the IP Address. The internet answer to this is something called the Domain Name System (DNS) and there are a number of DNS Servers spread across the internet. This is basically a very fast address list database which holds details of all the Domain Names and their corresponding IP Address, rather like a giant version of the address book you might use when sending Christmas cards by post.
When you type a website address into your web browser, the first thing it does is to check this database to look-up or 'resolve' the Domain Name into the corresponding IP Address. Having done that, the browser then sends a request, with the Domain Name attached, to that IP Address. Like every other device on the internet, your computer also has its own IP Address and this is also sent to the website so that it knows where to send the reply and the website page you then view.
To make things a bit more organised, domain names are split into several categories or Top-Level Domains (TLD's), much like houses, flats, offices, etc. might be in an address directory. Examples of TLD's are .com, .co.uk, .org, etc. which were loosely intended to relate to the type of business or organisation that the domain described. Some relate to the country or language; for example: .at, .de, .es, .jp, .br...
As the internet has expanded, so have the number of TLD's and there are now dozens covering cities, professions and many other categories.
In the same way as Uncle Fred's House is not the same as Uncle Fred's Flat, mydomain.com is not the same as mydomain.org. One or other may not exist (just as if Uncle Fred had a house, say, but not a flat).
Just as a postal address must be unique to ensure that post is delivered correctly, the same is true of a domain name. This can present a problem when choosing a name if the one you'd prefer to use is already taken.
Here are a few guidelines that should be observed when choosing a domain name:
Ideally choose a domain name that includes the name of your company or organisation or the brand name of your product.
Try to choose a name which is not common in your chosen market. Using a common name will mean that your domain will be lost in a huge list of similar businesses when people use a search site such as Google or Bing to look for you. A good tip is to try to search Google and Bing for the name you plan to use before you register it. If there are thousands of search results for similar names, then you will be trying to get noticed in a vast crowd. Try a variation of the name or a different name which has fewer existing results.
Avoid domain names that are very similar to those of other existing names, especially big organisations or brands who will not appreciate it. They may even take legal action to stop your name being used, especially if they think you are trying to capitalise on common spelling errors of their name.
Choose something reasonably short. Long domain names are harder to remember and harder to type into a browser. The longer a name, the more likely people are to mistype it.
No spaces or capitalisations are allowed in domain names, so check that there is no alternative way to read the name which may have unfortunate consequences. An early casualty of this lack of forethought was a domain for a therapist directory, called therapistfinder.com. Read it again and you'll see why it quickly disappeared.
When registering a domain name, you will be required to give your name and address details. If you are an individual or sole-trader working from home and don't have a business-only address, you may want to use the 'withhold registrant information' option which will omit those details from the publicly searchable 'who is' entry. You may have to pay a small additional fee for this.
Having chosen a domain name, one of the benefits of the system is that you can move the website to a different internet address (rather like moving house), but as long as you update the DNS, your visitors will still be able to find the site using the same domain name. Uncle Fred's House is always Uncle Fred's House, wherever he actually lives.
Let's suppose that you have set-up a website but that you now also want to sell items through an on-line shop. You already have a domain name and you don't really want to have a different one for the shop, but you do want to keep the shop separate from the main website.
In the real world, you might have the stock stored in a different building from the main office, but both would be on the same business park under the same name, but with perhaps a different number. In the on-line world, this is an ideal application for the sub-domain. A sub-domain allows you to have a separate sub-site, but under the same domain name. The name of the sub-domain is placed before the main domain name. So in this example you might decide to call it shop.mydomain.com to make it easy to remember. Note that this is not quite the same as mydomain.com/shop which, in the real world, would be more akin to having a separate room inside the same building.
You don't have to register a sub-domain separately, nor does it cost any extra and unlike the main domain name, it does not have to be unique.
If you want to know more, then please take a look at the other pages on this site. If you want to do more and have your own domain name and a professional web presence to showcase your business, but without the hassle of dealing with the 'techie' bits, then please get in touch to see how we can help.