Once you’ve decided to build a website, you need to make an important decision, even before you consult our roundup of the best web hosting services: What’s your domain name going to be? You know, it’s the [yoursitename].com web address by which all your (hopefully) many customers will find you. Furthermore, how do you go about staking your claim for it? Purchasing a name is a relatively simple process (although finding one that isn’t already taken can be a challenge), but there are many factors that you should consider. Since your domain name is, in effect, the name of your website, you want to make sure you get a good one. But what makes a good one? And since it’s also the address of your website, you want to make sure you understand the contract between you and the domain name registrar. Is it starting to sound a little more complicated? Don’t worry: This primer can help you get started.
Domain Names Defined
Domain names put a friendly face on hard-to-remember numeric internet addresses. Every computer on the internet has a unique internet protocol (IP) number. A domain name represents one IP number or more. For example, the IP number for the domain name whitehouse.gov is 220.127.116.11. The whole purpose is to give users an easy-to-remember handle so that when sending an e-mail to, let’s say, the President of the United States, you can type email@example.com instead of the more unwieldy firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Anyone can buy a domain name. To do so, you visit a domain name registrar, such as GoDaddy or Namecheap, key in the domain you want to buy, and pay a fee. You can’t buy just any domain, of course—only one that isn’t already registered by another person or business and that bears a valid domain suffix. In general, you’ll want to buy something that is catchy and short so that it’s both easy for people to remember, and easy for them to type in—like “PCMag,” for example. That good search engine optimization (SEO) and it’s also common sense. You might also want to do some research on key terms for your business. If you can get a good one into your site’s name, that’s all the better, from an SEO perspective.
You might find that many of the shortest, catchiest names are taken already, especially if you’re entering a space that is already well represented on the web. To make matters worse, cyber-squatters often scoop up these attractive names as an investment with an eye to reselling them later to legitimate would-be site owners—more on this later.
If you’re having trouble finding a domain name (whether because of crowding or cyber-squatters), check for a help facility on each registrar’s site. Domain registrars typically house search engines that return a listing of available names similar to the one you want. When you search for a domain name at Namecheap, for example, you get both the status of that name and a list of suffixes available for that name. Maybe [Sitename].com isn’t available, but [Sitename].biz or .org is.
The Suffix Factor
The suffix identifies the name as belonging to a specific top-level domain (TLD). There are numerous TLDs available for general purchase, including .com, .edu, .game, .green, .hiphop, .net, and .org. The most popular of these by far is .com, which is supposed to indicate commercial sites, but in reality has come to include almost everything.
You can expect to pay anywhere from $1 per year to Scrooge McDuck bucks, depending on the domain name and suffix. In fact, if you’re in search of a highly desired domain with a popular suffix, you may have to open your wallet in a big way, because chances are someone else already has it registered. Carinsurance.com, for example, sold for nearly $50 million! As mentioned, there’s also a thriving industry of squatters who look to flip domains (even those that are less obviously important than insurance.com) for profit. Some of them ask you to make an offer, suggesting that anything less than $500 will be ignored.
Web Hosts and Domain Names
You needn’t go to a dedicated registration service to buy a domain name, though. The best web hosting services, such as DreamHost, HostGator, and Hostwinds routinely offer a registration mechanism as part of the sign-up process. Hosting services typically offer a free domain name when you sign up for a web hosting package.
Keep in mind, however, that free domain names are usually free only for one or two years, after which the registrar will bill you for the annual or biennial fee. In other words, the provider of the free domain name pays only for the first billing from the registrar. Also take note of whether or not the provider charges a fee for setting up a domain name. Most services offer to transfer an existing domain name to their servers at no cost, but sometimes you’ll find a setup fee over and above the registrar’s fee.
Please note that not all web hosts give you the option a domain name. Cloudways, for example, is a solid web host that requires you to purchase a domain name from elsewhere.
Registrars offer a wide variety of registration durations—one year, three, five, and even ten. Be careful about registering for more than a year, though. First, there might be restrictions on your ability to transfer the domain name should the registrar give poor service. Second, the registrar could go out of business, leaving your domain name without a host. Check the policies closely.
The Domain Contract
We’d all like to think that, once bought, a domain name is ours forever and under all circumstances. This is not necessarily the case. Be absolutely certain to research what you’re getting before you pay. The contract you sign with the registrar could affect you in a number of ways.
Many registrars reserve the right to revoke your domain name for specific reasons, typically if you use the domain for illegal purposes or purposes deemed unacceptable (such as spamming). Many contracts contain a clause letting the registrar delete your domain name for no apparent reason. The implication, of course, is that the domain name is the registrar’s, not yours.
Furthermore, practically all registrars reserve the right to make changes to the registration agreement whenever they wish and without letting you know. The point is that every registrar needs to be checked out carefully.
The Waiting Game
Even when you register and pay for your domain name, you won’t necessarily be able to use the name for several hours or even a few days. The domain must propagate, meaning that the official domain name registry must be updated with your website’s Domain Name System information. That’s something that occurs on the backend without any need of input from you.
Some registrars promise to have the name up nearly immediately, but the delay can be up to seven days. Typically, though, you should expect to see the domain name up and running on the web within 48 hours.
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Note that you can also transfer your domain name from one registration service to another. You’ll want to do this if you’re not satisfied with your current domain hosting service, if you find a better deal when your current registration is coming due, or, most likely, if you’ve signed up with a web hosting service that will also transfer your name to its site. Expect to get the transfer for free, but if that isn’t offered, search for another domain hosting service.
Under no circumstances should you pay more to transfer a name than to get a new one. Check what the transfer will require. Does the new service handle the task completely? Or do you have to go into your current registrar’s site and change the technical details manually? Finally, check the transfer policy of the registrar before registering your domain name.
Typically, you can’t transfer a name during the first 60 days after registration, but the period could be much longer. Don’t expect any registrar to refund money you’ve paid for months of service you won’t use.
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