What is a domain name? + 12 other domain name FAQs answered

20 min read
Will Stevens

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What is a domain name?

GoDaddy domain extensions

A domain name is what people type into a web browser to reach a particular website.

Examples of domain names include GoDaddy.com, Twitter.com (now called X) and BBC.co.uk. You might also hear them called a "website address", "web address", or the "name of a website".

From a technical side of things, a domain name makes it easier for us to browse the internet and open a 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 MarksAndSpencer.com is Can you imagine remembering that sequence every time you needed something? MarksAndSpencer.com is much simpler and easier to remember. You can even type in MandS.com and still get to the right place — even easier!

The structure of a domain name consist of two parts – the name and the domain extension. In our domain name examples, the names are “godaddy”, “twitter”, and “bbc” and the domain name extensions are .com and .co.uk.

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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).

Arrows pointing to the SLD and TLD within the GoDaddy web address

The 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 easy to remember. Many businesses use their business name as their SLD.

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.

Take .shop or .pub, for example. There's even a .london for businesses located in, or booking trips to, London. You can browse the entire list here.

Related: Which domain extension to use?

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The different types of domains

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 — and indeed all domain owners — must abide by ICANN policies.

Generic top-level domain (gTLD)

Generic top-level domains (gTLDs) are the most common type of domain extension used. 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).

Country-code top-level domain (ccTLD)

Those shopping for domains could opt for a ccTLD to indicate the country where their website is registered or where they do business.

Graphic showing extensions available for domain investing

For example, .uk is the ccTLD for the United Kingdom and .ie is the ccTLD for Ireland.

While a ccTLD is meant to signify the geographic ties of the domain owner, some ccTLDs, like Libya’s .ly and Tuvalu’s .tv, are chosen because of their branding value.

As an example, popular URL shortening services like ow.ly and bit.ly use .ly for their web addresses. Sites like Pluto.tv use Tuvalu's ccTLD to tell people at a glance they are all about streaming TV content.

Note that certain ccTLDs have limitations on who can register them — you might need a residential or business address in that country to get 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.

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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 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.

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How do domains work?

As we mentioned previously, every website has a unique, complex string of numbers known as an IP address that computers use to render a web address to an end user. While humans use words and letter to call up 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). The DNS 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:

  1. A user enters the domain they want to visit in the browser.
  2. The web browser sends a request to the DNS for the URL.
  3. 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.
  4. The DNS server with the website’s corresponding IP address returns that address to the user’s web browser.
  5. The user’s browser receives data about the site from the server hosting the domain.
  6. The received data is converted and rendered as the expected web page.
Graphic image showing the steps for how a domain name works

If we were asked to remember the IP addresses to our favouriste website, it would be overwhelming and cumbersome. It would be like trying to memorize all your contacts’ phone numbers and needing to type the entire number in your phone whenever you wanted to call or text that person.

However, thanks to DNS, we only need to remember the domain name. DNS resolution occurs in milliseconds — so we never even know the process is occurring.

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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.

Man in red apron leaning against a counter

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 that is related to your business or content of your website.
  • Avoid numbers, hyphens or uncommon words. These things just make it harder for people to remember and type in your domain correctly.
  • Use keywords. You can combine the name of your business with terms people use to search online for sites like yours.
  • 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 in bulk, multiple variations of the same domain with various extensions, like .info, .net or .org.

Stumped on what to name your website? Play with this domain name generator until you find something you like.

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:

  1. Go to a domain provider (like GoDaddy) and verify the registration fee for the domain you want.
  2. Create an account with the domain provider.
  3. Pay for the domain. This payment designates you as the owner of that domain for a set amount of time (usually one to 10 years).
  4. Add additional services, like a 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:

  • Look beyond .com — for example .pizza if you own a pizza restaurant or .me for a lifestyle blog. You'll find the full list of domain extensions here.
  • 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.
  • If you are not in a hurry, you can choose GoDaddy’s Domain Backorder Service and let us monitor the desired domain. As soon as it expires, you’re in line to get it.

This also works the other way around, so if you have a domain and you want to sell it you can do so with GoDaddy Auctions.

This guide explains how to buy a domain name in more detail.

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The importance of domain names to business

Digital marketing is no longer an option — it’s a necessity for any business to survive.

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 following.

Man looking at a restaurant website

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.

And as we’ve discussed already, you cannot have a website without a domain name.

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 they need to decide to stop by.
  • 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.

But your domain name is more than just a handy way for people to access your website; it’s a powerful opportunity for you to build a brand identity for your business.

A domain-based email address boosts credibility

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: The benefits of using a branded email address for business

It's your digital space, one no one else can claim

Once you register a domain name, no one else can use it for as long as it's registered to you.

If your business is successful, your domain names will be part of the business portfolio you could one day sell.

By registering the domain name that matches your business name and major product lines, you keep bad actors from registering them and using them to draw traffic away from your website.

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Next steps: What to do after picking your domain name

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 make you look professional and trustworthy.

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 windowKaleidico signage on a shop 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 of your business.

Remember that a good domain name is a part of your brand, adds credibility to your business and can help bring 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.

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Summing up

Domain names are the building blocks of the web as we know it. They're a useful starting point for anyone looking to get a business online. Choosing the right domain name is an important part of getting your first website and running, so put some thought into your decision. But remember, there's no such thing as the perfect domain name, so buying something you like even if it doesn't seem ideal can be a good idea.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much is a domain name?

Domain names usually cost between about £10-£20 per year. However, with special offers a domain name can cost less than this for the first year.

If you’re trying to buy a domain name that is already owned by someone else, then you may have to pay much more. Some domain names are classified as premium domain names and may also be more expensive. However, once you’ve bought the owned or premium domain, you will usually only pay the usual annual renewal fee.

How can I get a domain name for free?

Many domain name registrars offer free domain names when you buy one of their other products.

For example, you can get a domain name for free with a GoDaddy website builder and many of our web hosting packages.

Some owners of domain extensions, such as the .tk extension, allow people to register free domain names. However, doing so usually means complying with more restrictions than with paid-for domain registration.

Plus, in the case of .tk, domains that are registered for free remain the property of the company that owns the extension.

How can I transfer a domain name?

You can transfer a domain name between domain name registrars by contacting the registrar you want to transfer the domain name to. You will then be sent a form to confirm that you want to transfer the domain name. You can learn more about how to transfer your domain to GoDaddy here.

If you want to transfer a domain name to another person, you will need to contact the registrar your domain is currently with.

Can I buy domain names without hosting?

You can buy a domain name without hosting. However, you need some sort of hosting solution to set up a website. (Almost all domain name registrars offer hosting as well.)

It can be a good idea to buy a domain name without hosting if you want to grab a particular domain while its available, but you aren’t yet ready to create a website. Holding a domain name before you get your first website online will only cost you around £20 a year.

Can I buy trademarked domain names?

Buying a trademarked domain name is likely to land you in legal trouble.

At best, the trademark owner will raise a domain name dispute and take it from you. At worst, you could face legal action, fines and jail time for intellectual property crime.

Domain name registrars aren't responsible if you decide to by a trademarked domain, so do your homework first and make sure that you're not infringing anyone's intellectual property.

Can I change the domain name of my website?

Yes, you can change the domain name of your website. If your website is new, then changing its domain name should be quick and easy. Your hosting provider’s support section should contain instructions on how to do this.

However, if you want to change the domain name of a more established website, things get a bit more complicated. This is because changing a website’s domain name can have an impact on search engine optimisation.

This guide explains more about changing the domain name of an established site.

Can I use hyphens in domain names?

Yes, you can use a hyphen in a domain name. However, including a hyphen in a domain name makes it harder to remember. That means you may want to choose a domain name without a hyphen.

Do capital letters matter in domain names?

No, capital letters do not matter in domain names. Domain names are not case sensitive. That means example.com is the same as Example.com, eXample.com and even EXAMPLE.com.

How do I buy a domain name from someone?

If you want to buy a domain name that someone else already owns, you have to identify the owner using GoDaddy's WhoIs domain lookup tool and then make them an offer.

Once you’ve reached an agreement, you’ll pay them the money and they’ll transfer the domain to you via your chosen domain registrar.

If you want to keep the domain, you’ll still need to renew it via the domain registrar.

You can use a domain broker service like the one offered by GoDaddy to buy a domain that someone else owns.

How can I sell a domain name?

To sell a domain name you need to find someone willing to pay your asking price and, once everything is agreed, transfer the domain to their control.

If you want to sell a domain name you registered through GoDaddy, start with our domain appraisal tool which will give you an estimate of its value and then guide you through the selling process.

How do I permanently buy a domain name?

It’s not possible to permanently buy a domain name. Although we talk about "buying" domain names, it’s more like a leasing system.

That said, as long as you keep renewing the domain name it will remain yours. If you’re keen to keep a domain name, you can turn on auto renewal and/or renew it for the maximum time your registrar allows.

Can I create a website without a domain name?

Yes, you can create a website without a domain name, but only if you want your visitors to have to remember a random string of digits instead of your site’s name.

Even if you create a website using a free service like Blogger, you’ll still have domain name, albeit it will be one that you don’t own. For example, GreenKitchen.blogspot.com.

This article includes content originally published on the GoDaddy blog by the following authors: Genevieve Tuenge, Kelsey Pfeffer, Maxym Martineau and Mary Juetten. 

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