Domain names 101: Tips for choosing an online home for your small business

NameCategory
15 min read
Erin Hutchison

The average person does not give a lot of thought to domain names. If you’re like me (well, before I started working in the domain name industry), you might have noticed when a website has a clever domain name. You might know that .com is the most common domain extension and that .ca = a Canadian website.

You may also know that if you’re starting your own business, you’ll need to create a website and get a domain name for that website.

The good news is, you don’t need to be a technical expert with experience in HTML or CSS to build a slick website anymore. Now there are handy tools like Website Builder and Online Store.

And with a basic understanding of domain names, you’ll be able to choose a terrific one you'll be proud to share for years to come.

Let’s take a look at Domain Names 101.

What is a domain name and who needs one?

A domain name is the unique name that each website has. For example, TimHortons.com is a domain name — so is Rona.ca.

Graphic with 5 well-known domain names

If you think of your website as a building, then the domain name is its street address. Your domain tells people where to find your site, and each domain is completely unique.

From a technical side of things, a domain name makes it easier for us to browse the internet and open a specific website. Instead of having to type in an IP address, we type in domain names to find our favourite sites.

For example, the IP address for TimHortons.com is 174.137.209.89. Can you imagine remembering that sequence every time you wanted to pre-order a Double Double? TimHortons.com is much simpler and easier to remember.

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.

Back to top

The 2 main parts of a domain name

There are two primary parts of a domain name, which means there are two decisions you’ll need to make when you go to register one. I’ll use PeaceByChocolate.ca as an example to show you what the two components are.

Second-level domain: PeaceByChocolate

Peach by Chocolate website

For what appears to the “left of the dot” – technically called the second-level domain – your options are pretty much limitless.

You can use a domain name generator to check what domain names are available. Additionally, there are a number of good practices when choosing the second-level domain for your business that you should consider. A good second-level domain is:

  • Memorable
  • Matches your business personality
  • Easy to spell
  • Descriptive

By following these guidelines, you’ll make it easy for your customers to find your website.

If you’ve already locked down a name for your business itself, obviously your business name is an ideal choice for the domain name as well.

But if you haven’t yet, some small businesses take a different approach and base their business name on an available domain name that they like.

Domain Names 101 TLD Example

Top-level domain: .ca

The “right of the dot” is also known as the top-level domain (TLD) or domain name extension. The top-level domain can be further broken down into country code top-level domains (Canada’s is .ca) or a generic TLD like .com.

Some country code TLDs (also called ccTLDs) might have presence requirements for the location they represent. That means you must either live or do business in that country in order to use the ccTLD.

Additionally, your choice of a domain TLD has implications on your site's search engine optimization.

Your domain name should align with your brand and appeal to the people most likely to buy from you.

Yes, there are a number of decisions to make! You’ll be pleased to know that there’s at least one thing that makes this step easier: you don’t have to get stuck by picking just one perfect domain name.

Back to top

Who's in charge of all this?

ICANN logo

An organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) controls who can sell domain names. ICANN also controls the process leading up to the release of new domain extensions such as .foo.

ICANN's duties also include:

  • Assigning IP addresses
  • Running accreditation systems
  • Maintaining a centralized database of all domain names and their corresponding IP addresses

In order for a business to manage domain name registration, they must be accredited by ICANN. All registrars must abide by ICANN policies.

Back to top

How domain names work

Each property on the internet has a unique address or domain name. Just as you won’t find two 65 Ottawa St Ns in Hamilton Ontario, L8J 3Y9, you won’t find two identical domain names on the internet.

In the real world, there are land titles authorities in charge of registering and recording street names and real estate plots.

In the online world, there's ICANN to keep track of the millions of domain names on the internet.

Graphic image showing the steps for how a domain name works

The main registry in Canada is the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), and it maintains the record of all domain names that end with .ca. There are many other registries around the world, each with slightly different rules and regulations.

Then there are registrars

When you want to choose and register a domain name, you need to use a registrar.

GoDaddy is one of the domain registrars officially certified by CIRA.

This means GoDaddy is officially compliant with CIRA, so you can trust that they look after your private information.

And then there’s you. You are called the domain name registrant (just in case you haven’t had enough jargon yet).

Back to top

Domain name 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 name interchangeably — even though there are differences.

What is the URL?

A URL is a unique string of characters that identifies each item that exists on the internet. If you were to type or paste that string into the search bar on your phone, it would take you to that item.

Every element on the internet — for example, each image we use in 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 includes the domain name and allows servers to pinpoint and serve up 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.

Screenshot of GoDaddy's domains help article-2

Within the URL of this page 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 main address for a website and takes you to the site's home page.

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:

Diagram of the URL structure

The protocol

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).

Closeup of Browser Bar Showing Google Not Secure Label

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. Visitors are hyper-aware of their personal data online, and many online shoppers will actively avoid an unsecure website.

What's more, Google now labels any website that doesn't have SSL encryption as Not Secure.

The subdomain

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 come before the domain name.

Websites might use subdomains to test or stage web development (test.example.com), to indicate a specific geographic location (ca.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:

  • User1.tumblr.com
  • User2.tumblr.com

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

After the protocol and subdomain is the domain name, which we discussed previously. In our example, the domain name is GoDaddy.com.

The path

The URL path comes after the top-level domain, and it pinpoints the 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.

Back to top

Creating a domain portfolio for a business

Domain names generally aren’t that expensive and you thankfully don’t have to build a website for every one you register. You can easily forward multiple other domains to your main domain.

Your businesses’ domain name portfolio might include your product names and any common misspellings of your main domain name.

This lets you control the content that appears on those domain names, and having a portfolio of domains can increase traffic to your website. It can also help protect your brand, as copycats will not be able to register them.

Another smart addition to a business domain portfolio is memorable and catchy campaign domain names. In this case, you'd get a unique domain for an event or special promotion.

This tactic often involves setting up a new website with a specific purpose for that particular campaign or event (people in the business often call this a "microsite.") A microsite keeps things clean and simple with a focused message for your customers, and doesn't clutter your main domain with content that is only going to be relevant for a period of time.

Back to top

Next steps

So you have a good domain name and have started building a portfolio. Now what?

Most obviously, you can now start building your website. Getting your website is a serious step in legitimizing your business. Congrats!

With a domain name you can also set up custom email addresses that look professional and add credibility as your business grows.

You should also reap the benefits of picking out a great domain name by getting the word out there. Make sure to put your domain name on:

  • Your storefront window
  • In your email signature
  • All your social media profiles
  • Any print materials like menus, business cards or brochures

Your domain name is the gateway to the online representation to your business.

In wrapping up Domain Names 101, remember that a good domain name is a part of your brand, adds credibility to your business, and helps brinkg more people to your website.

With a basic understanding of what a good domain name can do for your business, you can make the right decision in finding your home online.

Back to top

Frequently Asked Questions

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 other websites. The storage space, and the features that come with it, determines how much your hosting plan costs.

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 TLDs, and distribute the rights to sell those domains to registrars. Some registries include Identity Digital (formerly Donuts), Verisign, 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.
  • 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: Derek Miller, Genevieve Tuenge, Kelsey Pfeffer, Maxym Martineau and Mary Juetten. 

Back to top

Products Used

GoDaddy Domain Name landing page
DomainsLearn more