What is a domain name? The best beginner’s guide (2023)
Your domain name is the backbone of your digital presence. It’s one of the most important things for your visitors to know and remember, and it’s a critical component of your omnichannel marketing strategy. Because of this, knowing what a domain is can go a long way in setting your online presence up for success — particularly if you are a business looking to increase sales through your website.
To help you understand domain names and how you can register your own domain name to operate your own website, we’ve created this detailed guide.
Guide to domain names — An overview:
- What is a domain name and why is it important?
- What are the parts of a domain name?
- The different types of domains
- Domain vs. URL — What’s the difference?
- How do domains work?
- How to find and buy a domain
- The importance of domain names for businesses
- Next steps: What to do after picking your domain name
Domain names can seem like a complicated topic, but after you finish this guide you’ll have the foundation necessary to make intelligent decisions related to domain names and domain registration. Ready? Let’s go!
What is a domain name and why is it important?
If you think of your website as a building, then the domain name is its street address. Your domain is the place people need to go to visit your website, and each domain is completely unique.
From a technical side of things, a domain name makes it easier to browse the internet and access a specific website. Instead of having to use an IP address, (which is a convoluted string of numbers and letters computers use to recognize a website), a domain name is a simpler combination of letters, numbers and symbols someone types in their browser to access a specific web address directly.
For example, if you wanted to visit GoDaddy’s website, it’s not enough to just type “GoDaddy” in your browser — that would simply provide you search results for “GoDaddy” and would not render the actual website. Instead, you need to type the domain name “GoDaddy.com” in the browser to navigate to GoDaddy’s website.
Because a domain name is meant to make it easier for people to visit your website, it’s important to keep it simple and memorable. But before you start picking the perfect domain for your business, let’s cover the main things you should know about domain names.
Related: What is an IP address?
What are the parts of a domain name?
A domain name is comprised of two principal parts: the second-level domain (SLD) and the top-level domain (TLD).
The Second-Level Domain (SLD) is the part that appears after “www.” in the above example. The maximum length of an SLD is 63 characters, but generally, you want to pick an SLD that is short, branded and memorable.
The Top-Level Domain (TLD) is the last section, which in this case is the “.com” section. TLDs are also called “domain suffixes” or “domain extensions” and there are now many options besides “.com” that people can use for their domain names.
The different types of domains
An organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) controls registries that make domain extensions (or TLDs) available for purchase. ICANN assigns IP addresses, runs accreditation systems, and maintains a centralized database of all domain names and their corresponding IP addresses. As the governing body over website domains, there are two main types of domains, or TLDs, that ICANN recognizes:
Generic top-level domain (gTLD)
Generic top-level domains (gTLDs) are the most common type of domain extension used, and examples of gTLDs include .com, .net, .org, .gov and .edu. These TLDs are meant to signify the objective of a website — like commercial use (.com) or educational purposes (.edu).
Related: What are the 5 most common domain extensions?
Country-code top-level domain (ccTLD)
Domain names can use a ccTLD to indicate the country where a website is registered or where a company or organization conducts business. For example, .us is the ccTLD for the United States, and .ie is the ccTLD for Ireland.
While a ccTLD is meant to signify the country of a domain name, some ccTLDs, like Libya’s .ly and Tuvalu’s .tv, are chosen because of their branding value (although certain ccTLDs have limitations on who can register them).
It is also notable that these two types of domain — gTLDs and ccTLDs — can be combined, giving us common extensions like .co.uk or .com.au.
Domain vs. URL — What’s the difference?
We’ve already mentioned that a domain name is a specific string of text that can direct someone to a website. This definition also loosely describes a Uniform Resource Locator (URL). In fact, people often use URL and domain interchangeably — even though there are specific differences.
What is the URL?
A Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is a string of characters in a web browser that identifies each item that exists on the internet, so that the server can display a specific resource to an end user. Every element on the internet — for example, each image and video we use on this blog — has a unique URL address so that it can be located. While a URL and domain name have similarities, the URL is much more descriptive. It actually encompasses the domain name and allows servers to pinpoint and render unique assets on a website.
For example, the below URL:
This URL takes you directly to a GoDaddy Help article that walks you through setting up a new domain.
Within the Help URL is the domain name GoDaddy.com. So we can see that the domain name is just one part of all the elements that make up a URL. The domain name serves as the principal address (or homepage) for a website, while the URL takes you to specific pages or resources on that website.
Let’s consider each component that makes up the URL in the below diagram:
The URL protocol communicates how the browser must request access to a specific resource. Most web addresses will use either HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) or HTTPS (HTTP with SSL).
The difference between HTTP and HTTPS is the “S” — which refers to security. HTTPS websites have SSL security, which is an encryption that protects the sensitive data of its users. If your site doesn’t have an SSL certificate, you should strongly consider adding it because visitors are hyper-aware of their personal data online, and 85% of online shoppers will actively avoid an unsecure website.
Related: How to enable HTTPS
A subdomain is an optional part of a URL that creates a completely separate section of your website. If a URL has a subdomain, it will precede the domain name with a period.
Websites might use subdomains to test or stage web development (test.example.com), to indicate a specific geographic location (uk.example.com), or to communicate unique segments of their website to the end user (blog.example.com).
For example, Tumblr uses subdomains for each of its users.
In the two addresses above, User1. and User2. are both subdomains that Tumblr uses to store and display unique pages to its visitors. As you can see, both websites use the same domain name (tumblr.com), but they feature a unique subdomain.
The domain name
Following the protocol and subdomain is the domain name, which we discussed previously. In our example, the domain name is the GoDaddy.com section. Domain names include the top-level domain (TLD) and second-level domain (SLD).
The URL path comes after the top-level domain, and it defines the full, exact resource for the web server to display. In our example, the path would be /help/set-up-my-domain-40634. The path begins with a forward slash and is case sensitive.
The subdirectory or subfolder
The subdirectory or subfolder appears directly after the domain name and is essentially a folder within the main website that houses a specific resource. In our example, /help/ is the subdirectory. Some URLs have further subfolders within subdirectories.
The file name
The file name is the last major section of a URL, and it tells the web server the exact file to display to the end user. Common file names include .pdf, .png and .html — although, most websites remove the HTML extension automatically from URLs.
In our example, the file name is set-up-my-domain-40634, which is a specific webpage found in the /help/ subdirectory on GoDaddy.com.
How do domains work?
As we mentioned previously, every website has a unique, complex string of numbers and letters known as an IP address that computers use to render a web address to an end user. While humans use words, letters and numbers to navigate to a specific website, the internet uses IP addresses to identify each web page’s location.
When you type the domain name or URL that you want to visit, your web browser looks for the website’s address in the domain name system (DNS). This domain name system is a large database that works similar to a telephone directory, but it exists to find IP addresses and connect users to the corresponding websites.
The process basically works like this:
- A user enters the domain they want to visit in the browser.
- The web browser sends a request to the DNS for the URL.
- If the domain name is not found in one DNS server, the request moves to the next DNS server, continuing until the request is found.
- The DNS server with the website’s corresponding IP address returns that address to the user’s web browser.
- The user’s browser receives data about the site from the server hosting the domain.
- The received data is converted and rendered as the expected web page.
If we were asked to remember the IP addresses to any website we wanted to visit, it would be overwhelming and cumbersome. It would be like trying to memorize all your contacts’ phone numbers and needing to input the entire number in your phone whenever you wanted to call or text that person.
However, thanks to DNS, users only need to remember the domain name. DNS resolution occurs in milliseconds — so the user never even recognizes that the process is occurring.
Related: What is DNS?
How to find and buy a domain name
Now that you have a foundational knowledge about what domains are and how they work, you are in a good place to search for and register a domain name of your own.
To help you get started, we have these recommendations for selecting your domain:
- Keep it simple. Try to find something that people can remember and is related to your business.
- Avoid numbers, hyphens, or uncommon words. These things just make it harder for people to remember and type in your domain.
- Use keywords. You can combine the name of your business with popular or common terms in your sector.
- Include your location. If you have a business that only services a specific city or region, consider including it in your domain name.
- Register different extensions. While it’s great if you can secure a .com, you’ll maintain more control over your brand if you register the same name with various extensions, like .info, .net, or .org.
When you find the name and domain extension you want for your website, you just need to follow these simple steps to buy your domain:
- Go to a domain provider (like GoDaddy) and verify the registration fee for the domain you want.
- Create an account with the domain provider.
- Pay for the domain. This payment designates you as the owner of that domain for a set amount of time.
- Add additional services, like SSL certificates, website builder or hosting, if your provider offers them.
If you want to register your domain with GoDaddy, we make the process easy. You can search for your domain right here and find out what our current promotions are:
If you search for the name of your brand, project or business and find out that it’s already owned by someone else, you still have some options:
- Consider a domain extension that is not .com — some examples include .online, .shop, and .co. Check out the full list of available domain extensions at GoDaddy.
- Consider switching words around. For example, if you wanted to register katiescandy.com, but it’s taken, see if candybykatie.com is available.
- Try GoDaddy’s Domain Broker Service — you let GoDaddy know the domain you want, and we assign a dedicated broker to reach out to the current domain owner and negotiate a deal.
The importance of domain names for businesses
Digital marketing is no longer an option — it’s a necessity for any business to survive in 2023 and beyond. Unfortunately, research suggests that roughly 46% of small businesses still do not have their own website.
The rapid adoption of mobile technology and social media has increased the need for businesses not just to have a website, but to have a mobile-friendly website and an engaged online presence.
Consumers are turning to the internet before purchasing anything — from what to eat for lunch to which dress to wear for their wedding. If you operate a business, you need a website.
As we’ve discussed already, you cannot have a website without a domain name.
Your domain name is more than just a random web address people can use to access your website; it’s a powerful opportunity for businesses to build a brand identity and improve the consumer experience.
Related: 5 smart and affordable digital marketing strategies to grow your venture
Increase professionalism with a domain-based email address
An often-overlooked benefit to registering a business domain is the ability to create and use domain-specific email addresses. Many small business owners still use free email services like Gmail or Yahoo to communicate with their customers.
Consumers are becoming more tech-savvy, and they expect the businesses they use to have a certain level of professionalism. In a highly competitive market, small differences like having a business email can be the factor that tips the scale in your favor.
Related: How to use a custom domain name for email
You can’t build a website without a domain name
The most important reason for you to register a domain name for your business is that you cannot create a website without one.
As we discussed earlier, your website is the user-facing experience someone receives when they visit your domain name. Therefore, you need a domain name if you intend on creating a website — which you most certainly should!
There’s an endless number of reasons to create a website for your business. Here are a few of the top reasons to build a business website.:
- Consumers research businesses online before making in-store purchases. Your website provides them with the information you want to convey about your business.
- Your website is always open (even when your physical store is not). Even when you’ve locked up for the night, your website can generate leads or accept new orders.
- It serves as a marketing channel for your business. A website affords you the freedom to control the message and user experience, unlike other online platforms like social media.
Next steps: What to do after picking your domain name
Understanding domain names and the ancillary components are important steps when deciding on the perfect domain name.
If you’re ready to take the next steps with choosing and registering your domain name, see below:
- Pick the perfect domain name(s).
- Register your domain through GoDaddy.
- Set up your new domain.
- Get a professional email address that uses your domain (e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Attach a website to your domain.
Also, try our free Domain Name Generator tool and find your next domain name.
Related: You’ve registered a domain name. Now what?
The GoDaddy product information in this article is outdated and currently under review for accuracy. For the latest up-to-date product information please visit godaddy.com.
Related FAQ about domain names
What is the difference between a domain and a website?
Conceptually, you can think of a domain like your home address and the website as the physical home. The address is how someone finds your home, but the style, size and layout of your home might vary drastically from one house to the next.
Your website is what a user sees when they visit your domain name or specific URLs on your domain. A website lives on a domain, and it’s the collection of files and coding language in the backend that produces a front-end experience for internet users.
What is the difference between a domain and hosting?
Using the same real estate analogy, your domain name is the address that people enter into their web browser to find your home (website) on the internet and hosting is the land that your website sits on.
You can’t have a website without a place to put it — web hosting.
Websites are stored — or “hosted” — on a publicly-accessible computer (a server). Some websites require an entire server to themselves. Others can share a server with hundreds of other websites. The storage space, and the features that come with it, make up your hosting plan.
Companies like GoDaddy offer different types of hosting, including:
- Shared hosting: This is the most budget-friendly type of hosting. You’re sharing resources — like neighbors in an apartment building — so you spend less but have fewer options and less control.
- Virtual private server (VPS): This type of hosting dedicates a specific portion of a web server’s capacity and processing to each customer. Like a condo, your space (on the server) is yours.
- Dedicated server: This is the mansion of housing analogies. It offers unlimited resources at a premium price.
What’s the difference between a domain registry, a domain registrar, and a domain registrant?
There are three different roles involved in the domain name registration process: The registry, registrar and registrant.
- Domain registry: The domain registry is an organization that owns the rights to domain extensions. They have the ability to create top-level domains, set the guidelines for using those gTLDs, and distribute the rights to sell those domains to registrars. Some registries include Identity Digital (formerly Donuts), Verisign, Afilias, Radix Dot Space, and Nominet UK.
- Domain registrar: Domain registrars are the place you go to purchase a domain name. These organizations must be accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and they have established the power to sell domains using specific TLDs. They work in coordination with the domain registries to distribute ownership rights for domain names to the general public. GoDaddy is an example of a domain registrar. You can check out our overview of the best domain registrars.
- Domain registrant: A domain registrant is a person or entity registering a specific domain name from the domain registrar. If you have ever purchased a domain, you are a domain registrant.
How long does domain registration last?
When you register a domain name through a registrar like GoDaddy, it’s yours for as long as you continue to pay the annual registration fee. You typically can register a domain for a period of time between one and 10 years — and you need to renew the domain name registration prior to its expiration in order to keep using it.
Can I register a domain with the name of a trademarked company?
Just because a domain name is available, doesn’t mean there isn’t a trademark protecting that brand name.
For instance, if you found a variation of GoDaddy (e.g., GoDaddy.biz) that was available for registration, you could not purchase and operate a business on that domain, because it would still be protected under trademark law.
When it comes to domains and trademarks, remember these basic considerations:
- If the name is identical to another business in the marketplace, it could be protected.
- Descriptive trademarks that are memorable through sales and marketing can be protected.
- If two trademarks confuse customers about the products or services, the first commercial trademark owner has priority.
- In the event of trademark infringement, the infringer may have to forfeit use of the domain and pay the trademark owner damages.
This article includes content originally published on the GoDaddy blog by the following authors: Genevieve Tuenge, Kelsey Pfeffer, Maxym Martineau and Mary Juetten.