All You Need To Know About Domain Names

Domain Names

It’s perhaps the most essential part of getting online, but obtaining a domain name can be a bit more complex than the novice user is accustomed to. The process is dominated by several large companies (for instances GoDaddy, Name Cheap, Name, and so on), known as domain registrars, and it’s littered with domain names that span the gamut form corporate to country-based, organizational to multinational. Choosing between these companies, and these domain names, is only the beginning. After the domain has been registered, customers will need to configure it to work with their web hosting plan, their email server, and other aspects of their online presence. All told, it can be a dizzying array of considerations and configurations that the amateur shopper simply can’t manage without a little information beforehand.

The good news is that most domain registrars have been working diligently in recent years to make the registration process far more user-friendly, especially as domain ownership and web hosting has gone from a mere niche to a mass consumer market. Combined with a little forethought and proper preparation, obtaining a domain name is exceedingly easy.

And, with the right knowledge, maintaining that domain name’s records and settings will be quite easy over the long-term for well-educated buyers.

The Domain Name Registration Process

Domain Name Registration

Registering a domain name is essentially like owning a small slice of internet real estate and, just like in the real estate market, consumers will be expected to cough up a good deal of information about themselves and pay for the privilege of claiming their corner of the internet’s public space. Domain registration guidelines are not set on a pre-registrar basis, but are instead determined by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. This governing body is essentially a global regulator of best practices for registrars, web hosts, and the clients who interact with them. Read more at ICANN FAQs.

According to the body’s standards, all customers registering a domain name must be prepared to furnish contact information for themselves, their organization, their business, and even their employer in some cases. For those customers who are seeking to register a country-specific domain name option (like “.us” or “.co.uk”), a good portion of the registration process will be dedicated to determining whether or not the customer is a resident of that country and therefore legally permitted to purchase one of its country-specific top level domains.

And that should hammer home a secondary point to consumers. While there are hundreds of available domain name suffixes (like “.com” or “.net), many of these domains have specific registration requirements. For example, only organizations can register a “.org” domain name, and only American citizens can register a domain name that ends in “.us.” Failing to meet the guidelines and requirements for each type of domain during the actual registration and payment process will result in the domain name being “released” back into the pool of available domain names; the customer will have to pick a top level domain for which they actually qualify, or cancel their purchase altogether.

During the signup process, it’s also important to have information directly from a web host, as this information will be need when filling in the DNS and MX record information during registration. These two records determine which web hosting server’s content is displayed when a user navigates to the domain, as well as how email is addressed, sent, and received using that hosting package and the associated domain name. In accurate information will result in errors and page-load failures.

DNS and MX Records

Every web hosting company enables domain names to connect to its servers and display user content through the use of DNS records, which stands for Domain Name System. To understand how this works, it’s best to think of a domain name as a sort of “mask” that the browser’s address bar wears in order to hide the very long and potentially confusing URL to a site’s content on a remote server. That longer URL would be full of numbers, periods, symbols, and folder names, which would make the website’s address nearly impossible to remember. Domain names are the way to bypass this confusingly long list of numbers and letters.

About Domain Name System

A domain name essentially overlays that long path of numbers and letters with an easy-to-remember phrase between the “www” and “.com” indicators. However, it still needs to know where the actual website’s path is located and how to display that information. This is what a DNS, or Domain Name System, record accomplishes. It instructs the domain where to look for a site’s file and it communicates the site structure to the domain name itself via the registrar and the web host’s servers.

This makes the DNS record one of the most important parts of domain registration and ongoing maintenance. Because DNS records necessarily vary on a per-host basis, they must be changed every time a new host is chosen and migrated to. Failure to do so will cause the domain to look in an old location for the site’s files; that most often results in a “404” error page or a page loading timeout error which will display no content at all.

When signing up for a new web host, pay special attention to any email which lists new domain server records for the new account. These DNS records often start with something like “NS1” prefixed before the web host’s domain. They’re often paired with an IP address and, in some cases, are only given as an IP address rather than as a special domain name. These must be changed immediately upon receipt, as the global domain cache is updated only every 12-24 hours. That means it can take a full business day for DNS record changes to take effect around the world.

About MX Record

A less-important, but still crucial, aspect of domain registration and ownership is the so-called “MX record” associated with the domain .This stands for “mail exchanger” record and it determines where and how email is sent and received when using the domain as the sender’s address (or example, sending mail as “you@domain.com”). Typically, the MX record mirrors the DNS record, allowing for POP-based and web-based email to be sent using a domain owner’s hosting package. But many people prefer to customize this so that they can use a different third-party service.

For those who would like to use an email service that is hosted on remote servers, like the Google Apps suite of applications or Microsoft Exchange servers, the MX record will need to be modified; this will tell the domain to look at one server for web content and a second server for communications. Every registrar must permit their users to modify this record, as set out by the ICANN governing body, and changes take effect within the same 12-24 hour period that applies to DNS record changes.

Buying a Domain Without A Web Hosting Plan

While the vast majority of domain purchasers are buying a domain because they wish to host and share their own content, a large and growing contingent of web users are simply out to buy a domain name that directly mirrors their name, organization, or business name so that it cannot be used and abused by a third party. This is known as “identity protection” or “brand integrity buying” and it is done as a preventative measure to guard against fraud, counterfeit products, and damage to a brand’s good standing.

Domain Parking

This process is done without a web host; known as “domain parking,” it essentially uses the DNS servers of the registrar itself rather than relying on those supplied by a third-party web host. This allows the parked domain to display a brief and standard page indicating that it has been registered with a certain registrar, is not available for sale, and could be put into use at any time. It will send the thieves and agents of fraud elsewhere, it will protect a person’s or brand’s identity, and it will be a great way to get online only when the person or their business is ready to do so.

When signing up for a domain which is intended to be parked, be sure to indicate this preference on the registration form itself. This will allow the registrar to automatically popular the DNS record fields with their own information for parked domain servers and it will instantly configure the domain to company standards. The domain will go online with the placeholder page almost immediately and the process will be completed.

Alternatively, domain registration customers can indicate that the domain will be parked on their own servers, serving as a sort of redirect to existing content that is housed under a different domain name record. This form of parking is known as a “domain redirect” and it, too, can be setup during the registration process. Customers can simply tell the registrar to redirect all traffic to their primary domain name; or, they can setup a redirect using their hosting plan’s control panel software and give their new domain name the same DNS records as the one which is already in use. Either way, it’s a great way to protect an individual or corporate identity and ensure that the right content is displayed to new and existing customers.

Choosing the Right Domain Name In A Crowded Marketplace

There’s really no easy way to put this: Almost every great domain has already been registered. In fact, things have gotten so crowded online that the ICANN governing body itself is coming up with new “top level domain” suffixes on a near-yearly basis. Each time a new domain name is released, people line up to get the most semantically-sensible domain they can settle on before all of the good options are snatched up and gone for good.

What Is A Good Domain Name?

When choosing a domain name, it’s important to make semantic sense but to also be a little creative. Indeed, in a marketplace this crowded, only great creativity will yield an available, sensible domain name. Perhaps the most popular method of making sure a domain name is available is to include the actual domain name suffix as part of the brand’s name. This can best be seen in websites like “http://del.icio.us“. The person behind the domain name simply registered “icio.us” as a United States resident and then created the “del” subdomain. Semantically, their website appears as “delicious,” but it required creative thinking and registering to accomplish.

Securing a unique domain name which is easy to remember can be a difficult process, so those registering their first domain name are encouraged to set aside a few days or even a few weeks to crafting the perfect name for their new online address. Most registrars offer suggestions of an alternative domain name if a customer’s idea has already been taken, and these suggestions may also help to hasten the process of selecting and buying a new domain name for a business or individual pursuit.

No matter what, it’s important not to get discouraged when domain name after domain name comes up as “taken” or “unavailable.” Everyone goes through this and, eventually, everyone overcomes the writer’s block that accompanies the registration process. Be creative, be persistent, and allow plenty of time, and it’ll be easy to make a splash with a semantically-sound domain name registration.

If you need more help on this, check out Danielle’s Tips and Tools On Choosing The Right Domain Name and my recently updated domain tips.

Attention to Detail is the Key to Success

Domain Name Registration

When registering a domain name for individual or business use, the key consideration during the process is to be attentive to detail. Domain name registration requires a good deal of information, from personal addresses and phone numbers to information that specifically relates to the customer’s present web host and communication preferences. Getting all of these details right during the first attempt will lead to an easier registration process and a more immediate presence online. Remember that most changes to domain name records take up to a day to process, so any inaccuracies during registration can delay the debut of a customer’s online presence by several days.

With the right information on hand and a keen eye for detail, customers can set their information, DNS records, and MX records properly on the first attempt. They’ll be online in a few minutes with a domain name that is easy to understand, type, and remember — and that’s a big indication of but current and future online success.