Are you planning to start a website for your company or yourself?
If so, you'll need a domain name. In this article I will cover everything you need to know about domains - from what they are, through their limitations, to where to register one.
A domain is a name, which is used to identify your website and e-mail address (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org). If you type in your domain name to the address bar of your web browser application and hit Enter, a website will open, which that domain represents. For example, this website has the following domain: essentialsoftheonlinebusiness.com.
Every website has to have it's own domain name in order to function properly in the Internet. One website can have many domains (so it can be accessed by typing different domain names), but one domain always points to only one website. This means, that if someone has already registered (bought) a particular domain name, no other person can register it (unless the initial registrant doesn't renew it for the next billing period).
Domain name suffixes: global (international), national, local, functional
Now you know what's a domain name. It always consists of a string of characters, which is made up by the owner (the allowed characters are letters, numbers, underscores _ and minus signs -), after which follows a dot and a suffix (ending, also called TLD - Top Level Domain). There's a wide choice of suffixes. The difference between them is only in their sounding, although some of the suffixes are national (like .fr for France) and if your business is targeted only at a specific country, a national domain suffix will do a lot better in search engines than any other suffix.
If you're going for an international or English-based site, you're better off with a global domain suffix (.com is by far the most popular choice and people will remember it best, but if it's taken, you can go with .net, .org or .info). Many companies from the European Union use the .eu TLD.
You can also register a domain with a functional ending (like .travel or .pro). For media companies, the .tv and .fm endings are very popular, although technically they're not functional suffixes - they are national, belonging respectively to the Tuvalu and Federation of Micronesia.
There are also local suffixes, like .waw.pl (targeting the capital city of Poland - Warsaw), but they're not being used because of their long and inconsistent names.
How to choose a good domain name?
In practice, it's best to try to register a domain that consists of your company's name together with one of the above endings (.com would be best). You can also register a domain name which has keywords (like "training shoes") in it's name, which helps a lot in search engine rankings. Remember to connect words with dashes or make no spaces at all and don't use underscores. So, trainingshoes.com and training-shoes.com are great, but training_shoes.com is bad.
Don't let thinking about a domain name take more than 2 days - you can change it later on (although you will lose like 2-5% of power in the search engines). It is best to register a few domains with the same name with different suffixes, which may come in handy in the future. For example, if you're registering mycompany.fr but will want to expand to a global market later on, you may find that someone has already registered mycompany.com and wants a big payout to let it go. A lot of businesses earn their income this way.
Domains can have language-specific characters in them, like ą, ę, ź, ó in Polish. They're not used at all and should be changed to their Latin equivalents (so a, e, z o in this example).
To avoid confusion, it's best not to use numbers in a domain name, unless it's obvious if they're actual numbers or spelled out words.
A domain can't have a dot inside of it's name (more on this below). The size of characters (normal or capital letters) does not matter in a domain name - if you register essentialsoftheonlinebusiness.com, it will also be accessible by typing EssentialsOfTheOnlineBusiness.com.
What is a subdomain? Should you use the www. prefix?
After registering a domain, you will be able to create subdomains for that domain. A subdomain has identical capabilities as a domain. The only difference is, that the ending (suffix) for a subdomain is the whole name of the primary domain. For example: for the domain google.com a subdomain can be translate.google.com - so, you just put any strings before your domain name and connect it with the domain using a dot.
Only the owner of a particular domain name can create subdomains within that domain. A subdomain can point to a totally different website, than the main domain - for example de.youtube.com loads the German version of YouTube, while youtube.com points to the English version.
Creating subdomains is free and unlimited.
So, addresses like www.domain.com are subdomains. Typing in the "www." is usually unnecessary and people are using it less often. While registering a domain name, don't think about the "www." at all. That being said, after registering it, you should ask the person who develops your website to make a redirect from the "www." subdomain to the main domain.
How much does a domain name cost? Where and how to buy a domain name?
The cost of a domain name depends on the chosen suffix and the company, at which you register the domain. It's common for these companies to offer the 1st year of services for free, as the domain name has to be renewed each year (just like car insurance).
The national suffixes (like .fr) usually range from $11 to $20 a year. The global domains (like .com or .eu) can be bought for about $9 per year.
You should buy a domain name from a trustworthy registrar, who will put your personal information to the global domain owners database, and not his own. You shouldn't even check the availability of domains through a not well established registrar, as they can track what you're typing in and register it themselves before you do it.
I recommend using DreamHost for buying your domain names (and hosting too, which I will talk about below) - they're one of the top 10 registrars in the world and I use them myself. Plus, they offer a free domain name for life, as long as you use their hosting. If DreamHost doesn't offer registering a suffix which you need, go with GoDaddy.
Check the availability of you company's name or brand-related keywords with a popular suffix and register it.
What's next? How to connect a domain name with hosting?
Your domain name needs to point to the correct website (so to your hosting server). This connection is being made through DNS servers, which are billed into the price of every domain name purchase. Do not worry though - if you're using the same company to register a domain name and hosting services, it's most likely going to be set up automatically. Even if you're using different companies, it's an easy task that should be completed by your website developer without additional costs.
Remember, that your website will be viewable after up to 48 hours of connecting the domain name with hosting (this delay is called the DNS propagation time), so be patient. It usually takes just a few minutes, though.