Can you imagine using your mobile phone if someone deleted the names of all your contacts? All of the numbers are still there in your phone, but that’s all they are: numbers. No names to tell you who will pick up if you dialed them.
Scrolling through all that? Trying to remember which number belonged to which person? Agony.
OK, enough of that. Stop sweating and let’s shift our attention from phones to computers as we work to gain a better understanding of domain names. Hang with us for a few minutes as we break down what they are, how they’re related to the contacts in your phone and why they make our lives much, much easier.
What is a domain name?
We hate jargon, so we’re starting by giving you the best broad definition we can – guaranteed free from tech-y terms.
Our Simple DefinitionA domain name is a pointer to a website or other online presence.
... Or You Could Also Say
A domain name is what you type into the little white bar at the top of your internet screen when you want to visit a website
Tracking with us so far? Awesome! Let’s break things down a bit.
As an example, we’ll start with a domain everyone knows: google.com. It’s where we all go to learn about everything from vacation activities to mysterious ailments – and everything in between. But what if you had to open up a web browser and type in 22.214.171.124 each time you had a weird pain in your toe? Go ahead – try it. We’ll chill here.
Crazy, huh? It pulls up google.com! There’s a great reason for that: their meaning is identical to your computer. Much like tapping on a friend’s name in our phone triggers a call to their number, every domain name is actually tied to a little number with 4 dots in it called an IP address. And every website, from Google to DigitaLemonade, is actually identified by its IP address.
We’re going to spare you the nerdy details of why these little dotted numbers exist and move right along to talk about more relevant topics. Let’s start with how to read a domain name.
Although we will always read domain names from left to right as we would any text in the English language, we’ll actually want to start from the right side when deciphering what they mean. The letters following the last “.” in a domain name (often “com”) might not tell us much the site’s content, or they could indicate that the website belongs to an educational institution (edu), a non-profit organization (org), or a company located in a specific country (ca, de, fr, mx, us, etc.). These rightmost letters are called top-level domains, and make up a very broad grouping of websites based on various factors. Each domain belongs to one of these.
Note: the top-level domain world has recently been rocked when a whole host of new options were released for website owners – no longer are you limited to having a .com, .org or .us! If you’ve always dreamed of owning a website with the address icecubes.delivery, now is your time. Make it happen.
Moving from right to left, we land on what is probably the most important part of the domain – technically known as the second-level domain. This is the “google” in google.com. It’s the “instagram” in instagram.com. It’s what tells the world what they’ll see on the website and/or which entity built that site. And, in case you’re interested, some of these are worth more than your house.
When we jump one more slot to the left, we reach the area that denotes a subdomain. Sticking with our main example, this would be “mail” in mail.google.com. These subdomains effectively portion out chunks of a website for specific purpose, which helps users know where they’re going and helps search engines separate pieces of relevant content.
Know what else qualifies as a sub-domain? www.
Although most websites translate www.domain.com the same as they translate domain.com, they could technically be two different websites – thus www.domain.com is actually a sub-domain of domain.com. Our prediction: you’ll see less and less of the “www” at the beginning of web addresses in the future. It doesn’t add much meaning to a website’s address, and simpler seems to be better as we all grow increasingly weary of complexity.
Other examples of subdomains include: oldnavy.gap.com (Old Navy is a division of parent company Gap), nhc.noaa.gov (the “.gov” denotes the US government, while the “.noaa” tells us it’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration division of the government and “nhc” is their National Hurricane Center – we keep a close eye on this in Houston) and smallbusiness.chron.com (the subdomain for the section of the Houston Chronicle where they cover all things related to small business).
And, if we lost you somewhere in all those dots, just remember that you interpret domain names from right to left as they go from broad to specific. Go ahead and add that to your list of fun facts to start conversations at a social gathering.
Who is in charge of domain names?
We know you’re expecting us to say “GoDaddy and all their bikini people.” Bless their hearts. And yours for thinking that.
Not the case (mostly). The real Big Boss of domain names is an organization you’ve probably never heard of: ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). They spend their days doing a lot of things that are so technical you would fall straight to sleep if we mentioned even one – but let’s just say we need them to keep the internet running. They’re not associated with any particular government – just a separate non-profit internet-governing body.
ICANN delegates power to registries, who are put in charge of one or more entire top-level domains (remember those? .com, .org, .mil…) and keep track of which domain names point to which number within those. The registries then allow access to registrars (enter: GoDaddy), who actually sell the domain name to consumers and then update the registry pointer (and probably pass a few bucks along to the registry and ICANN while they’re at it).
If you own a domain name and receive a bill for $30 or so every year, that’s why. It covers your small portion of the overhead required to keep the internet (and, consequently, your website) running. Money well spent, friends.
When starting a business, checking to see if a business name is registered with your local Secretary of State doesn’t guarantee the domain name is available (and vice versa). You’ll want to find a business name that isn’t already being used in your industry and area (check your Secretary of State website), and then subsequently find a domain name that’s a good fit for your business (check with a domain name registrar).
What can I do with a domain name?
Listen, we know that domain names aren’t exactly the hot tech gift this year. But it’s entirely possible that owning a business, getting married or starting a blog will cause you to purchase one of these little guys at some point in your life. Here’s what you can do with it:
Point it to a website. This is why most people initially purchase a domain name.
Create subdomains. These aren’t incredibly important for most small businesses, but if you’re into power trips let that stroke your ego a bit.
- Use it to create email addresses. Through the magic of domain name settings, you can create an email address with firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: this is a great, cheap way to make your business seem a little more legit than it would if you’re just using your Gmail/Yahoo!/AOL address.
Point it to an app your business is using. There are some websites, apps or services which allow you to personalize them (and level-up your professional appearance) by using your domain name. The two we run across the most? G Suite and Office 365 – but the list of their companions is extensive.
And that, friends, is a quick breakdown of domain names. Go out and be a more informed surfer, business owner and googler for all your remaining years.
Have domain questions we missed? Send us a note – we’ll do our best to answer them in the future!