Understanding Domains and DNS Part I

Choosing a good domain name is an important part of the process of getting a new website. Actually picking out the name of the domain is fairly easy, but when it comes to choosing which of the seemingly millions of registrars to use and what to do with the domain after you’ve purchased it, things can get a little complicated. Before you get lost in A Records and Name Servers, let’s take a look at the basics of domains and Domain Name System (DNS).

Understanding Domains and DNS

What is a Domain:

Information online is found using an IP Address, a set of four numbers separated by periods (e.g. These work great for machines, but are incredibly difficult for people to remember. This is where DNS comes into play. DNS makes a human-readable name, such as google.com, and translates it into the appropriate IP address: You can type either google.com or into your browser’s address bar and both with send you to Google.

Not only does DNS make things significantly more convenient, but they also give a website a permanent name. If the website moves to a new server with a different IP address or adds additional servers/IP addresses, that information is simply updated on the back-end and the domain continues to work seamlessly.

The domain itself is made up of two primary parts, the domain itself, and the extension or suffix. Keeping with the Google example, “google” is our domain, and “.com” is our extension. There are a lot of extensions out there, like .com, .net, .info, etc. The reason we have different extensions is to help give us a clue about what the site is about: .com extensions are for commercial sites, while .org extensions are for non-profits.

Most extensions can easily be purchased, so the lines between a commercial and non-profit website aren’t as cleanly delimited as it might seem. Other extensions, like .gov (government), .edu (education), and .mil (military) are not commonly available. There are also geographically-specific extensions. A .ca extension is used exclusively for Canadian websites (some counties are very protective of these suffixes, while others can be registered by non-residents).

It’s important to note that the same domain with a different extension will not lead to the same website unless both domains are purchased and pointed to the same place. For example: website.com, website.net, and website.biz could go to three separate sites. If you want to maintain your brand online, it might be prudent to pick up additional domains, especially if you have a common name that could be used for something else.

Finding and Purchasing a Domain:

The first thing you’ll need to do to purchase a domain is to choose a registrar. A domain name registrar is a company that is approved by ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, responsible for controlling IP Addresses and domain names) to register domain names. There are countless domain registrars out there, and they’re not all created equal. Be wary of choosing a registrar based solely on price, as they might lack or charge extra for services like domain forwarding and advanced DNS (covered in the next article). Another important factor is the availability of customer service; I would not recommend a registrar that doesn’t offer technical support by phone, as you could be left waiting hours or even days for an answer via email.

It is often easier to use the same company to both host your website and purchase your domain, since they generally do most of the legwork of getting the domain working for you. If you’ve already chosen a hosting company it may be prudent to register your domains with them. Just be wary of services that make transferring or redirecting the domain difficult down the road, as you never know when you’ll outgrow your current hosting company.

If you’re not sure where to start looking for a registrar, here’s a nice article from Lifehacker listing their top five registrars and explaining why they were chosen.

Once you’ve selected your registrar, you need to see if the domain you’re looking for is available for purchase. Since domain registrars  want to make sales, they make checking availability pretty easy. Simply browse to a registrar’s homepage and use the search box:

Search your domain to see if it's available

If the domain you searched for is available, you can continue through to purchasing. If it is already taken, you’ll get a list of other possibilities, like the below:

The domain you want is unavailable, but here are some alternatives

It might take a bit of trial and error to find a domain that is both available and fits with your website, but it’s important to take the time and make the best decision. Some basic rules of thumb to follow are:

  • The domain should be relatively short and easy to remember
  • If possible the domain should match both the name of your business/organization and the name of your website
  • The domain should be descriptive and contain words or phrases people looking for your business/organization might use when searching for you

When purchasing a domain, considering picking it up for longer than the minimum one year. Not only will you often get a discount for registering for multiple years at once, you’ll also get a little bump in search engine placement as the length of time the domain is registered is one of the many factors used by Google and other search engines when evaluating your site.

When you make your purchase, the registrar is probably going to pitch a variety of different add-ons, such as hosting and email service to private registration. It’s best to ignore these for the time being.

Once the domain is registered, make sure to check that it is locked (that is, not available to be transferred) and set to automatically renew upon expiration. Most registrars lock and auto-renew their domains by default, but you should double-check to be safe. Forgetting to renew your domain can end up costing you hundreds or even thousands of dollars reclaim, and sometimes it might be lost forever.

Please check back soon for Part II, where we’ll explore configuring your domain to work with your website and email.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>