A domain name is your personal or business home on the Internet, it’s a piece of online real estate that you control completely—as long as you own the rights to that name. Domain names can be fanciful or transparently descriptive, used for everything from a personal blog to a multinational company’s public site, and having one or more is essential for being visible in a crowded online world. Knowing how domain names work, and why they’re needed, can help you choose the right name for your business or personal site.

What’s a Domain? And Why Does It Need a Name?

The kings of old ruled with absolute authority over their domains—territories carved out by war or treaty. That idea also captures the spirit of today’s Internet domains, which allow anyone to claim a cyberspace “territory”—a website—that’s exclusively their own. The way to secure that online domain is to simply create a unique name and register it—or to buy an existing domain name from a domain marketplace or private seller. That makes it possible to create a website that establishes a user’s online presence for a variety of personal or business reasons.

Every domain must have a unique name that distinguishes it from all others and points only to a single website. That’s why anyone who wants to buy and register a domain name needs to carefully research the desired name to find out if it’s already in use. If so, it’s off limits, unless the owner is willing to sell it.

If a domain name is available, any Internet user can buy it—which really means paying a fee for exclusive rights to that name for a period of time that can range from one year to more than a decade. Once purchased, a domain name becomes its owner’s public address on the Internet, and the gateway to accessing the website attached to the name. But a domain name is only a proxy for the real locator—the IP address.

Domain Names and IP Addresses

Domain names use a set of words, letters, or numbers—or a combination of some or all of these—to describe a unique individual or enterprise in a way that’s easy to remember and type into a web browser’s address bar or a search engine. But, a domain name simply represents a site’s “real” address—the Internet Protocol, or IP address.

Unlike a short, catchy domain name, the IP address is a string of unique numbers that allows computers to communicate with each other over the shared Internet network. But these identifying number sequences are long and difficult to remember, let alone type correctly, so domain names act as a public alias for the actual IP address that servers use to point to a specific site. In a protocol called the Domain Name System, the domain name serves as a link to the IP address, which is the one that’s used by the world’s webservers to locate and access the website a user is searching for.

Decoding a Domain Name

A fully qualified domain name is made up of a top-level domain and a subdomain. Top level domains (TLDs) are indicated by letters found on the right of the “dot” in every domain name, such as .com, .net, or .info, as well as country codes like .ca or .au. Originally, only 6 top-level domains were available, but now many new ones are being added, such as .church or .photo. These new top level domain extensions allow for more flexibility in describing what a site is about, and they can be purchased at varying prices through both domain registrars and web hosting services.

The domain name itself is called a subdomain or mid level domain. This is the name chosen by its owner, and it appears to the left of the TLD extension. In the common placeholder website name, www.example.com, “example” is the sample domain name, and .com is the TLD. And the “www?” Originally it was a machine designation that stood for World Wide Web. Today it’s largely optional, and many domain names omit it altogether.

URLs and Domain Names

URLs, or Universal Resource Locators, are different from domain names, although a domain name is at the center of a URL. A URL is a unique “address” belonging to an individual file available on the Internet, and this string of numbers, characters, and letters tells a web browser where to go to get that unique piece.

The domain name indicates where a search should point, and the often-complex combination of characters after the TLD extension specifies exactly which of many available files is the right one. For example, the URL https://www.si.edu/learn-explore takes a user not only to the site for the Smithsonian Institution, but to the specific page titled “Learn & Explore.” And that, in turn, leads to other related pages, each with its own URL.

Buying a Domain Name

Anyone can buy a domain name, as long as it isn’t currently in use by someone else. Most new users create a unique domain name that reflects their identity or business brand, and many resources are available to help with finding the right domain name and checking for its availability against various TLD extensions. For example, a name might not be available as a .com, but users could purchase the same name with extensions like .edu or .biz.

It’s also possible to purchase an existing domain name. Users buy rights to names for terms of one to several years, and a name is only “owned” as long as it’s continually renewed. Expired names can be purchased through domain marketplaces or brokerages, and it’s even possible to buy a domain name directly from its owner. Whether a domain name is new or bought secondhand, it must be registered with a domain name registrar or through a web host in order to be active on the web.

domain name is a unique online address that not only captures a brand’s message and style, but also makes it accessible to searchers worldwide. Whether catchy and clever or plain and practical, domain names put a human face on the numerical locators that keep traffic flowing on the web.

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