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 use a website to increase sales. 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.
To help you understand domain names and the components that affect your ability to register a domain name and operate a website, we’ve created this detailed article.
- What is a domain name and why is it important?
- What are the parts of a domain name?
- Domain vs. URL — What’s the difference?
- Domain vs. website — What’s the difference?
- What is the domain name system (DNS)?
- Understanding the domain registrar vs. registrant vs. registry.
- Intellectual property and domain names.
- The importance of domain names for businesses.
- What to do when you are ready to move forward with a 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!
A domain name is the physical name of a website.
Domain names can only be accessed and used by the domain name owner — known as the domain name registrant (we’ll discuss this more below).
A domain name is the combination of letters, number and symbols someone types in their browser to access a specific web address directly.
For example, if you wanted to visit GoDaddy’s website, you couldn’t access it by typing “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.
A domain name is an easier way for humans to browse the internet and access a specific website — instead of using an IP address, which is the convoluted strings of numbers and letters computers use to recognize a website.
Related: What is an IP address?
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.
Picking the perfect domain name can have a critical role in how well your website performs.
The importance of a good domain name and their finite nature combine to create a demand in the domain name market. As a result, every domain has a monetary value and can be bought, sold and exchanged through various online marketplaces like GoDaddy.
A domain name is comprised of two different levels. A domain name will have the top-level domain (TLD) and a second-level domain (SLD). Let’s look at each more closely using the GoDaddy.com example.
What does top-level domain (TLD) mean?
The last section of a domain name is known as the Top-Level Domain (TLD). In our example (www.GoDaddy.com), the TLD would be the .com segment.
Top-Level Domains are sometimes called domain suffixes or extensions and are meant to communicate the purpose or location of a website.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) controls registries that make TLDs available. There are several types of TLDs that ICANN recognizes, including:
Generic top-level domain (gTLD)
Generic top-level domains (gTLDs) are the most common type of TLD used, and examples of gTLDs include .com, .net, .org and .edu. They are meant to signify the objective of a website — like commercial use (.com) or educational purposes (.edu).
Country-code top-level domain (ccTLD)
Domain names can choose to use a ccTLD to indicate the country within which that website is registered. For example, .us is the ccTLD for the United States, and .ie is the ccTLD for Ireland.
A ccTLD is meant to signify the country of a domain name, but some ccTLDs like Libya’s .ly and Tuvalu’s .tv are chosen because of their branding value (although, there is a risk to registering a ccTLD outside your country, and many ccTLDs have nexus requirements).
Sponsored top-level domain (sTLD)
Sponsored top-level domains (sTLDs) are actually a subcategory within gTLDs. A domain name using an sTLD is controlled by an agency. For example, .jobs is an sTLD reserved for human resource managers and is controlled by Employ Media LLC.
Unsponsored top-level domain (uTLD)
Unsponsored top-level Domains (uTLDs) are another subcategory within gTLDs. These are any non-restricted gTLDs like .com or .info that are available via most domain registrars.
When domain names first became available in the 1980s, there were seven total gTLDs and only three uTLDs that could be registered without restrictions (.com, .net and .org). The lack of options for TLDs led many people to choose “.com” as the TLD for their domain name — which has cemented .com as the preferred choice for many registrants and users.
Because .com has been around for so long, it’s not always possible to get a short and memorable domain name ending with this ever-popular extension. New TLDs are becoming available every year for different industries, interests and locations.
What does second-level domain (SLD) mean?
The second-level domain (SLD), sometimes referred to as 2LD, is the section preceding the TLD. In our example (www.GoDaddy.com), it would be the GoDaddy segment.
The SLD is often the most valuable portion of the domain name because it makes up the main identity for users.
While the TLD is important, most of the value of a domain name is found before the TLD. For instance, with Google.com, there is more value in Google than in the .com section. The role of the SLD portion of the domain name is usually to reinforce the brand or website identity.
The maximum length of an SLD is 63 characters, but generally, you want to pick an SLD that is short, branded and memorable.
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 tells the server to display a specific resource to an end user. While a URL and domain name have similarities, the URL is much more descriptive. In fact, a URL actually encompasses the domain name.
For example, https://www.godaddy.com/help/what-is-a-url-8809.html is a URL that includes the domain name GoDaddy.com within it. In fact, let’s look at the other elements of that URL.
URLs include schemes or protocols that communicate how to access that specific resource. In the example above, https:// is the protocol. Most web addresses will use either HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) or HTTPS (HTTP with SSL).
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, to create new directories to separate and store web files, or to communicate unique segments of a website to the end user.
For example, Tumblr uses subdomains for each of its users.
In the two addresses above, Example. and Example2. 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, with a unique subdomain.
In our previous example, www. — which stands for the World Wide Web — serves as a subdomain. Many domains do not use the www. subdomain, but some still prefer it.
You must set up proper redirects to your canonical domain if you want to resolve any issues between www and non-www subdomains for your URL.
Related: DNS records — A beginner’s guide
The domain name
Following the protocol and subdomain is the domain name, which we discussed previously. In our example, that would be the GoDaddy.com section. Domain names include the top-level domain (TLD) and second-level domain (SLD).
The path section of the URL defines the exact resource for the web server to display. In the example, the path would be /help/what-is-a-url-8809.html and includes the critical elements of the URL following the TLD. It’s important to note that the path will begin with a forward slash and is case sensitive.
The directory or subfolder
A URL might include a directory or subdirectory within the path section of the web address. This section of the URL is essentially a folder within the main website that houses the specific resource. In our example, /help/ is the directory. Some URLs have directories and subfolders within those directories.
The file name
The last major section of a URL is the file name or file extension. This 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 what-is-a-url-8809.html which is a specific webpage found in the /help/ directory on GoDaddy.com.
The difference between a URL and domain
A website’s URL will always include the site’s domain name. However, as you can see, there are several other sections of the URL that are required to access any resource or page of a website.
The domain name directs users to one specific page on the website, and it won’t include the protocol or subdomain — if one exists.
While there is only one domain name for a website, there can be an endless number of URLs.
Every page, image and other media on your website has a unique URL. As the name suggests, Universal Resource Locators are used to pinpoint and render your website’s unique assets.
Many people inadvertently confuse domain and website — but, the two terms are quite different within the context of the internet. While a domain name and website are closely related, they are not the same; and it’s important to know the distinction.
What is a website?
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.
In other words, your website is what a user sees when they visit your domain name or specific URLs on your domain.
The difference between a website and domain
Brands often use their website and domain in the same call-to-action — “Visit our website at XYZ.com!” This kind of marketing communication might explain why so many people confuse the terms website and domain.
The domain is the series of characters someone puts into their web browser to access your website, which is the visual result once they visit the domain. The website provides the user experience once someone visits your domain.
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.
The Domain Name System (DNS) is a technical process by which domain names (example.com) are translated into their corresponding Internet Protocol (IP) addresses (126.96.36.199).
As we mentioned previously, every website has a 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 the web page’s location.
When you type in the domain name or URL that you want to visit, the DNS works behind the scenes to find the site’s correct IP address, and then it connects you to the website.
How does the domain name system (DNS) work?
Think of DNS like the phone book on your smartphone. When you say call “name” or start typing the name of your contact into your phone, something amazing happens — your phone calls the person you wanted. This isn’t magic; it’s a complex process that receives and translates inputs into the desired output for an end user.
DNS operates the same way, but with web addresses.
Just like every person has a unique phone number, every website has a unique domain name and subsequent IP address.
The translation from domain name to IP address is known as DNS resolution. The DNS resolution process includes several steps that happen almost instantaneously to resolve the DNS query.
Step 1: A user types a domain name or URL into their browser. The user’s internet browser issues a query request (DNS query) to the network to render the appropriate web page.
Step 2: A request is sent to the DNS recursor (recursive resolver) that was assigned to your computer from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). If the DNS recursor has the IP address cached, it will return the A record (host record).
Step 3: If the user’s recursive resolver doesn’t have the IP address cached, it will send a query for the IP address to the DNS root nameservers.
Step 4: The root nameservers examine the top-level domain (TLD) of the query and refer your DNS recursor to the appropriate nameservers based on the TLD.
Step 5: Every TLD has a unique set of nameservers, and every domain name has DNS information stored on these nameservers via a zone file. When a query request reaches TLD nameservers, it reviews the second-level domain from the query request and defers the request to the authoritative DNS servers which hold the zone file.
Step 6: Your DNS recursor will then send a query request directly to the referred DNS nameservers. Because every domain has designated nameservers, these authoritative databases store important domain information in the zone file — including IP addresses.
Step 7: Your DNS recursor retrieves the A record, or the DNS record used to map the IP address, and stores this information on its local cache for future reference.
Step 8: Your DNS recursor returns the A record and renders the web address associated with the IP address to your browser.
Why is the domain name system (DNS) important?
Machines and humans communicate differently. While we might prefer letters and words, computers use numbers to communicate back and forth. Fortunately, the internet was designed to accommodate these different preferences through DNS resolution.
If we were asked to remember the IP addresses to any website we wanted to visit, it would be overwhelming and cumbersome. However, thanks to DNS, users only need to remember the domain name.
DNS resolution occurs in milliseconds — so the user never recognizes that the process is occurring.
How do you know which nameserver to use?
The hosting company you use for your domain name will determine the nameserver names or IP addresses for your domain’s zone file.
You will need to update the domain name’s DNS settings via your domain registrar who will then communicate those changes to the domain registry.
After you make changes to your DNS server settings, it can take up to 48 hours to update worldwide domain name servers. This window is known as propagation.
Domain registration and ownership can be an overwhelming concept to wrap your head around. To help simplify the process, we’ll take a look at the three most important roles for domains: registry, registrar and registrant.
These three pieces work together in a hierarchical manner.
The domain registry is the top of the domain hierarchy.
Domains are managed by the registry from start to finish. 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 popular domain registries include:
- Nominet UK
The domain registrar is the next role in the equation — the middleman so-to-speak.
These organizations must be accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The best example of a domain registrar is GoDaddy.
On GoDaddy’s platform, users can browse domain names across various TLDs to find their perfect domain name. They can then facilitate the purchasing and management of that domain through GoDaddy’s interface. The process of registering and managing domain names is the main role of the domain registrar.
Domain registrars are organizations that have established the power to sell domains using specific TLDs. Domain registries coordinate with various registrars to distribute ownership rights for domain names to the general public.
While there are only a handful of domain registries, there are ample domain registrars. The most popular TLDs like .com, .net or .org, for instance, have negotiated rights to sell their domains to various registrars — which is why you can buy the same domain name on different platforms.
You won’t be able to register every domain extension on all registrars, so it’s important to know which TLDs are available on your domain registrar.
The final piece of the domain registration puzzle is the domain registrant — aka the domain owner.
There are many ways for someone to acquire the registration rights to a domain, including:
Purchase an expired or new domain name
The easiest way to acquire a domain for registration is to find a completely new domain or one that is no longer controlled. There are many benefits to registering a new or expired domain. These domains are readily available —meaning you can register them in minutes on any domain registrar that can sell that extension. New or expired domains are also the most affordable acquisition option.
Related: How to secure expired domains
Buy an already-owned or registered domain name
Another way to acquire a domain for registration is to purchase the rights from the current registrant. There are several domain marketplaces online that facilitate the purchasing and selling of domain names from one registrant to the other.
In fact, many people purchase domain names simply to resell them for profit.
If you want to purchase a domain that is already owned by someone else, many registrars have services that can help you facilitate the acquisition of an already-owned domain.
Win a domain name in an auction
Similar to buying a domain name that is already owned or registered, you can also acquire your perfect domain name through auction. Domains may find their way on a domain auction platform if they expire or if the owner wants to create a bidding war for the domain rights.
While there are several ways to acquire a domain, if you want to maintain ownership over that domain, you need to register it and maintain good standing with your domain name registrar.
From domain registry to registrant
Now that you understand the different roles in the domain registration process, let’s quickly demonstrate how those pieces interact.
1. Domain registry creates a new TLD
The first step in the process if for the domain registry to create a new TLD. For instance, the .world extension was created and distributed by the Donuts Registry.
2. Domain registrars acquire rights to sell the new TLD
After the domain registry creates the extension and sets the guidelines for using the TLD, they negotiate with registrars to sell that domain to the public. Donuts Registry worked with GoDaddy to make .world domain names available on GoDaddy’s platform.
3. Domain registrants find and register the domain name
Once domain names for the new TLDs become available via the domain registrars, people or organizations can find and registrar their domain name using that extension.
Each domain name using an extension can only be registered once, so it’s important to register your domain as soon as possible to avoid losing your domain name.
For instance, if you are a travel organization or travel blogger, you might want to register a domain like see.world.
4. Domain changes travel back up the chain
When the domain registrant makes changes to the domain settings such as updating the DNS records, it must be reported back to the domain registry which stores all the information about the domains using its extensions.
Domain registrars have a domain settings section that makes it easy for domain registrants to update any information, and then the registrar reports those changes to the registry automatically.
Intellectual property (IP) is a term that encompasses several legal issues like trademark dilution, copyright claims and patent infringement, among other things. With regards to your domain and website, there are intellectual property considerations to understand before moving forward with your site.
The last thing you want to do is invest time, money and other resources into registering a domain and building a website that infringes on another’s legal rights.
Moreover, when building out your business, you must be diligent about protecting your own assets — including your domain and website.
Editor’s note: This content should not be construed as legal advice. Always consult an attorney regarding your specific legal situation.
Understanding domains and trademarks
As you might imagine, many brands target their organization name as their domain name. For instance, GoDaddy uses GoDaddy.com, Pepsi uses Pepsi.com and McDonald’s uses McDonalds.com.
The value of a branded domain cannot be overstated, but are brands awarded these domains under trademark laws? Are domain owners awarded any protection over their domain names?
The relationship between domain names and trademarks is important to understand before you purchase a domain and start building a website and business. There are risks to purchasing a domain name without researching trademarks first.
Domain availability doesn’t protect from trademarks
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 (ex. 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.
Choosing a domain name requires more research than just availability — you need to make sure that you are not walking into any legal conflict by picking a domain name that is protected by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
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.
Protecting domain names with trademarks
When you do find a domain name for your business that isn’t protected by any trademarks, it may be wise to begin the U.S. trademark application process for your brand name.
There are three available trademark applications based on where your business is — already operational, intending to launch, or applicants outside the U.S. By earning trademark protection for your brand name, your domain will also be protected for 10 years.
While unique domain names that align with your brand can be protected, some domain names are not eligible for trademark protection. If your domain name uses broad and common terms that are associated with general topics or keywords in your industry, they are not distinctive enough to earn trademark protection.
For example, the domain name book.com or face.com are too broad and couldn’t receive trademark protection — even though the branded facebook.com does.
Domain name and trademark case study: Nissan.com
There’s an interesting case study about trademark infringement and domain ownership – Uzi Nissan vs. the automobile manufacturer, Nissan.
In 1994, Uzi Nissan purchased the domain name www.nissan.com for his small computer repair business in North Carolina. Fast-forward to 2019, and Uzi Nissan has been locked in an eight-year fight with the car-goliath, Nissan Motors, over whether his domain infringes on Nissan’s trademark.
Uzi Nissan received a phone call in 1999 from Nissan’s eBusiness corporate manager to discuss selling the domain name. He repeatedly refused to sell and was issued a lawsuit for $10 million in damages from cyber-squatting and trademark infringement — which Uzi Nissan fought and ultimately won.
Cyber-squatting is the illegal act of registering a domain name with the intent of selling the domain for profit to the owner of a trademark. Cyber-squatting is a form of extortion that is now heavily protected against under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA).
Uzi Nissan later lost a trademark infringement case because of automotive content he had on the website, and it took him a year of fighting to overturn that ruling with the stipulation that he couldn’t post any negative content on Nissan.com about the Nissan Motors or share any links to other websites that speak about Nissan North America negatively.
Uzi Nissan continued to fight and eventually reversed the ruling that limited his First Amendment rights. These legal battles lasted for eight years and cost Uzi Nissan almost $3 million in legal fees. He ultimately won the right to his domain name because Nissan couldn’t prove trademark dilution, but it cost him time, money and business.
This is a cautionary tale that illustrates the importance of being able to defend your domain name against trademark infringement challenges.
While Uzi Nissan won his domain, he also lost a lot. While this is a rare situation, it still shows the importance of researching domain names and trademarks before registering a domain name.
Protecting yourself from trademark infringement
As you can see, choosing a domain name that infringes on a trademark can be an expensive and time-consuming claim to fight.
Consider picking several potential names that you like. Take that list and conduct a search for trademarks on the USPTO’s website and foreign databases to see similar companies using those names.
If you’re still unsure, you can hire a trademark attorney to consult before you make a purchase. Investing time and resources on the front-end can prevent future headaches and expenses.
Understanding websites and copyright
It’s not enough to register a domain name with trademark protection — you then need to build a website. As the owner of your website, a communication channel, you are legally liable for the content you publish on the website.
Republishing copyrighted content
One of the most common legal issues with websites is the unintentional or intentional use of copyrighted images and content.
For instance, if you want to add a nice image to your website to engage your visitors, you cannot simply copy an image you found via Google Image Search. Many of these images are protected, and the copyright holders can demand compensation for the material used without permission or proper attribution.
From images and videos to text-based content, you need to do your due diligence before you repost any content on your website.
Many artists have their licenses on their website — which can detail how other websites can legally republish their work. CreativeCommons.org provides detailed information about licensing agreements with digital creatives to help you avoid facing legal fines from publishing someone else’s work.
Protecting your own content
As an entrepreneur, your website is one of the most valuable assets you have. It’s a way for you to attract new clients, engage your current leads, retain business, and provide customer service.
If you put time into your web content, you wouldn’t like it if a competitor took it and used it as its own, would you? Protect your website by copyrighting it.
A website that is protected by copyright can defend itself against pirated content. To receive copyright protection, your website must publish original content, own the rights to that content, and be clearly described.
The U.S. Copyright Office protects website content like blog posts, articles, music, podcasts, illustrations, videos and other digital content formats.
Websites are inherently protected under copyright laws the moment something is published — but, it’s still wise to put an updated copyright notice on all your pages.
Digital marketing is no longer an option — it’s a necessity for any business to survive in 2019 and beyond. Unfortunately, research suggests that less than 64 percent of small businesses actually have a 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 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.
Well, 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.
Use your domain name to build your brand
Your domain name almost subconsciously plays a role in growing your brand. Think about it — how powerful would the GoDaddy brand be if it had a domain name like BuyWebsites.com?
Businesses should look at the domain name as an opportunity to cement their brand identity into visitors’ minds.
Not only is GoDaddy.com the perfect domain name to grow GoDaddy’s brand, but it’s easy for consumers to remember and type in their browser when they want to visit the website directly. Look for branded domain names whenever possible — especially if you can find an exact match brand name.
Domain names can communicate expectations
Sometimes you can’t find a great branded domain name — or your market is too competitive to earn business through brand recognition. In these cases, you can strategically use your domain name to set consumer expectations and increase click-through rates.
For instance, if you operate a lawn care service in a large city like Tampa, you might find it difficult to grow a brand identity due to the amount of competition. Rather than choosing a branded domain name that few people would recognize, you might get more value by picking a domain name like TampaLawnCare.com.
While you can’t trademark the name because it is a general term, it does help you clearly set expectations to your website visitors. Moreover, choosing targeted keywords in your market or industry can help you improve your local SEO.
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.
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 is an endless amount of reasons to create a website for your business. Here are a few of the top reasons to build a business website.
Consumers are researching you online
Your consumers are searching for information about your business online — even if you’re a brick-and-mortar business. It’s reported that 82 percent of consumers consult their smartphones before making an in-store purchase.
While you might not be able to control consumer reviews on Google My Business, Yelp or other review sites, you can dictate the message on your website. If you don’t have a website, you’re at the mercy of your consumer reviews— assuming they are leaving reviews.
Your website is open 24/7
There are many limitations to physical stores — most notably, the hours of operation. Websites don’t have the same problem.
Your website is available all the time and can continue to generate leads and business long after you’ve locked up for the night.
It’s another marketing channel
Marketing is an area that all businesses need. Without a clear marketing strategy, your business will have to rely on word-of-mouth advertising and repeat business.
Your website should be one of your marketing pillars.
It’s an asset that you own — which affords you the freedom to control the message and user experience, unlike other online platforms like social media.
Understanding domain names and the ancillary components are important steps when deciding on the perfect domain name.
It’s not enough to know what a domain name is — you need to understand why the domain name can help you grow your business and how to register that domain name.
The detailed guide above should provide the clarity you need to differentiate between the domain name and your website or URL.
In addition, you should now know the unique levels of a domain name and the meaning of various domain extensions.
Finally, you should have a better understanding of the domain name system (DNS), the differences between the registry, registrar and registrant, as well as the legal components associated with domains and websites, and the importance of domain names for businesses.
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.
- Get a professional email address that uses your domain (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Attach a website to your domain.