What is a domain name and how do domain names work?
Domain names are the memorable names used to access websites, you’ll likely know them as the text you enter into the URL bar of your web browser; usually starting with http://.
Domain names are a fundamental element of what makes a website work, but domains are often of those topics that can leave newcomers a tad befuddled.
With all the web design and content creation tools around these days, building a website is easier than ever; and a lot of the time learning the jargon isn’t required. But, if you’re like a lot of people and just starting your journey to becoming a webmaster, you may have come across the term “domain names” and found it more than a little baffling.
What is a domain name?
A domain name allows you to quickly find websites without having to memorise the long set of numbers that computers use to identify them.
A common analogy is that domain names are like postal addresses for websites.
They’re used to locate files and resources associated with a given website and distinguish them from all the other billions of records out there on the internet.
To help visualise this, imagine a town where the houses are all identified by their latitude and longitude. So, the only way to locate a particular place is to remember something like 50.927653′ N, -2.3064718′ W
While identifying homes by coordinates is super precise, it’s easy to see how difficult life would be for a mail carrier in this town.
That’s why we use road names and numbers instead. It just makes life easier when we’re looking up the location of a house.
Domain names serve precisely the same function, only for files on the internet instead of buildings.
How do domain names work?
Domain names work as an easy to remember reference for the computer that houses a websites files. Every device on the internet has a unique ID number called an IP address. IP stands for Internet Protocol, and it’s the backbone of how information is stored and located on the web.
An IP address is a long-ish number that looks something like this 192.168.0.1 and is the like the latitude and longitude from our previous example.
An IPV6 address looks a little like this 2606:4700:3037::ac43:abce
Domain names are an easy-to-remember address for a website. Every domain name is associated with a single IP address and is used as a reference to find that IP address when needed.
The domain names and their associated IP addresses are registered on a network of systems called Domain Name Servers (DNS) that are maintained by various entities around the world.
In the UK, BT is one of the primary DNS entities.
When you type a domain name into your web browser, it sends a request to one of these DNS servers. The DNS server then looks through its database of registered domain names and attempts to find the IP address that references the site you’re looking for.
If the first DNS server can’t find the address in its database, it will send the request to other DNS servers. Eventually, one of them locates the IP address and returns it to your web browser, allowing you to connect to the website you requested.
Incredibly, this worldwide search for your information usually all happens in a few milliseconds.
How is a domain name different from a website and web hosting?
Domain names and web hosting both play a crucial role in running a website, and both are needed. The difference between a domain name and web hosting is that a domain name is a reference to the computer that stores the website; while the web hosting is the computer.
Your web host is the physical medium where the files of your website live. Web hosting companies maintain a collection of computers and hard drives that store the data for the sites hosted there.
Think of your web host as the building where your office is located.
Your domain name is the address of your office. When someone wants to find your website, they’ll need to look it up using the domain name.
You can run a website without a domain name. But, doing this would be like opening a brick and mortar store with no sign and no listing in the phone book. It would be tough for anyone to find you.
Web hosting is the place where your website lives. That means you can’t have a website without hosting.
Who maintains the DNS systems?
ICANN is a global organisation that manages the assignment of domain names on the internet. It stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
ICANN oversees registrar companies that sell individual domain names. It also operates some of the servers that make up the DNS network.
While there are many registrar companies and thousands upon thousands of DNS servers on the internet, ICANN is there to make sure every domain name is associated with just one IP address and is registered correctly in the database.
What makes a great domain name?
Choosing a domain name is as important these days as selecting a name for your company.
So, how should you choose a domain that will work well for your site?
Selecting a domain name is a big question that involves requires you to think about marketing, psychology and even trademark laws.
When choosing a domain name, you should:
- Pick one of the big three most recognised extensions: .com, .net, or .org.
- Use something easy to pronounce and spell.
- Keep it short and snappy.
- Avoid any special characters or weird stuff that will make it hard for people to remember.
Your domain name will end up being your online brand, like a sign a storefront. You want customers to instantly recognise it and easily remember it when they want to find your site.
How do I buy a domain name?
You can buy domain names from any number of domain registrars online.
We highly recommend dynadot.com for purchasing a domain name. We’ve found they are the cheapest around for .com, and .co.uk domains and they don’t play around with hidden fees or pointless upsells.
Some hosting companies like Krystal have plans that include a free domain name, so before purchasing a domain, ask your hosting provider if they have a similar offer.