In today’s technology-driven world, having a website is no longer just a competitive edge. It’s the central piece of your online presence. So if you’re ready to pull the trigger and finally create that dream website for your brand, the first step is to buy a domain name.
If you don’t know what a domain name is or how it relates to website hosting, you’re in good luck because that’s exactly what we’re going to cover in this guide—and more.
A Quick Primer on How Websites Work
At its core, a website is essentially a computer server that sends files to the computers of users. These files contain not only the text, but also visuals like images and videos along with instructions on how to style all that content on the user’s screen.
So when someone hosts a website on a server, it means that they are using specialized software to turn a computer into a server that sends the contents of a website to users across the globe.
Now, to access a website, users have to type the server’s address into their browser. Since server computers communicate with user computers over the internet, they have what’s called an IP address. For example, “18.104.22.168” is the IP address of one of Google’s many servers.
Web browsers use this IP address to know where a server is and how to start a line of communication with it. However, can you imagine remembering those long strings of random digits for every single website you use in your life?
That’s the problem that domain names were created to solve.
Here’s What Domain Names Really Are
Given how hard it would be to remember long strings of digits (IP addresses), authorities decided to agree on a new protocol for naming servers through domain names. Today, there are companies that maintain registers of domain names and their corresponding server addresses.
The moment you enter a domain name in your browser bar, it connects to a DNS server which translates the domain name into an IP address. The browser then communicates with the server corresponding to that IP address to retrieve the contents of the website.
Another way of understanding domain names is to think of them as the contacts on your phone. Instead of having to remember everyone’s phone number manually, you can just type their name and automatically dial them up. Domain names are like the contacts on your phone, but they are maintained by companies for global access.
Domain Names vs Website Hosting
To create a website, you need both a domain name and hosting. Since you need a server computer that runs 24/7 with blazing fast internet access, you can’t use your home computer with its limited data connection. This is where hosting companies come in.
Hosting companies maintain a large number of next-gen servers running on specialized software and backed by a team of expert technicians. So when you buy website hosting, you’re basically buying space on one of these servers to put your website content and files on.
A domain name, as we talked about earlier, is simply a memorable address that users can type in their browser instead of having to remember the actual IP address of your server.
Together, these two elements make up the modern internet experience that’s become a natural part of our modern lives.
Types of Domain Names
Now that you know what domain names are and how they are different from website hosting, let’s consider the next challenge. There’s a wide variety of domain names type available for you to pick from.
Domain names can have one of many extensions. For instance, in “www.google.com”, dot com is the extension. Similarly, in “www.usda.gov”, dot gov is the extension.
Fact: The technical term for domain extension is top-level domains (TLDs).
There are more than a thousand extensions in the world. So instead of looking at individual extensions, let’s consider the three primary types or categories that all domains fall under.
1. Generic Top-Level Domains
The vast majority of websites in the world fall under the gTLDs category. That’s because the most popular extensions like “.com”, “.net”, and “.org” are all part of the generic extension family.
However, each individual extension denotes a different type of website. For example, “.org” domains are typically used by organizations. Similarly, “.com” was originally designed for websites with commercial activity elements. But today, this extension has become the de facto choice for the vast majority of brands.
Some extensions are reserved for special use cases only. For instance, only verified educational institutes can register “.edu” domains. Whereas “.gov” domains are most tightly managed as this extension is reserved exclusively for the government and its departments.
2. Country Code Top-Level Domains
To avoid confusion, many countries now have their own country code TLDs. This allows for local businesses to secure choice names without competing against a global pool of businesses for the same name.
For example, users from Colombia are typically served by Google.com.co, which is their domain name that’s reserved exclusively for Colombian searchers.
This matters because the vast majority of interesting dot com domains are already registered. Whereas the Colombian extension of “.com.co” has a much wider variety of available names. For local brands, this is the perfect opportunity to secure a catchy local domain name.
3. Internationalized Country Code Top-Level Domains
Last but surely not least are the local extensions that are represented through the character sets of the local language. These are rare and used by countries with non-Latin characters like China.
The Difference Between a Domain and Subdomain
So far we’ve talked about the top-level domain (extension) and the second-level domain (the chosen address like Google). But there’s a third component that’s called the subdomain.
A subdomain adds to your existing domain name. For example, you can type “mail.google.com” to bring up Google’s email interface. In that address, the extra “mail” followed by a period is the subdomain.
The good thing about subdomains is that you can create as many subdomains as you like without paying extra for each. You only have to pay for the domain once. The subdomains are free to create.
Many businesses use subdomains to host a separate blog (blog.businessname.com) or even an eCommerce store (store.businessname.com). However, whether you should put those components on a subdomain is a personal choice. There are no set rules here.
Domain names are a quality-of-life improvement. They allow you to remember your favorite websites through a memorable name instead of keeping a long list of IP addresses on hand at all times.
The key, however, is the word memorable. For your own brand, you should pay extra attention to choosing a domain that’s memorable and helps you stand apart from the competition.
However, the domain itself is not your website. It’s like a signpost that points web browsers in the direction of your website hosting server. To create a website, you’ll need both a domain name and a hosting server to point that domain towards.