You are starting a business or already have one and want a web address for it; you want a professional looking email address; you might want a website or start a blog as I have done, or maybe you just want one so nobody else registers the domain. Whatever the reason how do you decide what web address is best for you and how do you choose it?
What is a web address?
Before trying to understand how to choose and buy your own web address let us start by understanding what a web address, or a domain name, is and what it can be used for.
Every web site or Internet service (email, chat, etc) you might access is accessed by an address called an IP (Internet Protocol) address. This is a unique set of numbers separated by full stops and looks something like this: 192.168.0.1. However, if you want to go to your favourite website, say Google, you don’t type in a set of numbers to get to that website.
You type in a web address: in this case google.co.uk. The google.co.uk domain name or web address is configured to point to the IP address of where that website sits. When you type that web address in your Browser it sends off a query to a DNS (Domain Name Server), which is a bit like a big telephone directory, that looks the address up and returns the IP address for that domain name so we can access the website.
So, why I am telling you this? You may not need to know it, but it will help you understand later on how you may use a domain name and how you can set it up.
What can I use a web address for?
The two main things you can use a web address for is to set up a website and get an email address.
You can build your own website and it could be bespoke or you can use an off-the-shelf framework like WordPress, for example. It will all depend on what you are building, but that is a whole topic I could talk all day about. With this option, you would need to set up hosting and point your domain to your host. Again I won’t go into detail about that in this post.
My blog is a WordPress site and something I host myself and I will go into how I set this up in another post.
The other options you have for your web address is to use hosted platforms like Shopify, Blogger, Tumblr to name a few. You just sign up to the service and you are effectively given a bit of real estate on their platform. They help you learn how to point your web address to this bit of real estate and away you go.
The other use for your web address is email. And similar to a website you can host your own email setup or you can use a out-of-the-box provider.
I have set up both my own hosted email and used a provider for my email and I have to say that given the complexity around securing your email and feeling comfortable with where the data is stored and backed up I would tend to stick to a provider like Google or Microsoft as you know what you are going to get.
I will post another discussion about setting up email with Google and Microsoft in the future.
The parts of the domain
Before choosing what domain you would like let us quickly understand the different parts that make up the domain.
Top Level Domain (TLD)
Let’s use the web address www.amazon.com as an example. The “.com” is known as the domain extension or Top Level Domain (TLD) and usually indicates the country the domain is in or a generic industry.
Below is a list of some examples of country code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs):
- .uk – the country code for the United Kingdom.
- .us – the country code for the United States.
- .nz – the country code for New Zealand.
- .de – the country code for Germany.
- .cn – the country code for China.
Below is a list of some examples of generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs):
- .com – this was primarily for organisations in the United States but has now been adopted for global commercial entities.
- .org – used for non-profit or non-commercial organisations.
- .gov – the United States government.
- .net – used for network services.
- .xxx – used for adult-only sites.
Within a country, you may also then have sub-levels of the domain extension, for example:
- .ac.uk – used for educational institutions in the United Kingdom.
- .gov.uk – the United States government.
- .com.au – commercial organisations in Australia.
- .co.nz – commercial organisations in New Zealand.
In our example above, “amazon” is the domain name and is what we have fun choosing. It can only be made up of letters, numbers and hyphens. It cannot contain any special characters or spaces and it can’t start or end with a hyphen.
In our example above, “www.” is the subdomain to the domain name and is used as a way of providing multiple locations related to a domain name.
Once you own a domain name you have full control of what subdomains you have and you can set up as many subdomains as you want including multiple levels of subdomains.
Some examples you could use for subdomains are:
- www. – this could just be your main website and is what people will tend to start with when finding a website directly.
- shop. – if you have a website but want to set up an e-commerce side you could set this up and host this completely separately. You might host your main website yourself, but want to set up an e-commerce store on the Shopify platform and you could do this using a subdomain.
- mail. – if you host your own email away from your main website you will need to use a subdomain, so you can point your email to somewhere different.
- blog. – if you have a website and want to set up a separate blog you can use a subdomain to point to a framework like WordPress, Tumblr or any other blogging platform.
Where do we find a web address?
For each domain extension, there is a registry who is in charge of policing domain names registered under that extension. They are effectively the gatekeepers for the domains and keep the records on who owns what and handle any disputes.
To purchase a domain name you can check availability and register with a registrar. A registrar is an organisation that has been accredited by the registry to register domains for registrants that want to own a domain name.
There are many registrars out there that allow you to register a whole range of domains with different extensions. I have used the following registrars before and can recommend them:
Registrant, admin contact and technical contact
When you register a domain you need to provide details to the registrar of who the registrant is (the owner), the admin contact and the technical contact.
If you are using a 3rd party company to purchase your domain, this could be your web developer, agency or anyone that is helping set up your website, you need to consider who the legal owner (registrant) of the domain is. The legal owner should be either an individual or an organisation.
I say this because I know of many customers who have left this to their design agency to build the website and purchase the domain name on their behalf. In some instances, the legal registrant is set as the design agency meaning they officially own the domain when they should be the admin or technical contact, and you should be the registrant.
If the customer then falls out with the design agency it can be quite difficult and disruptive to claim the domain name especially if the relationship sours.
What if someone already owns the domain name I want?
When we want to look for a domain name the registrars will use a WHOIS query that searches the registry to check if a domain name is already owned and bring back some basic public details of who owns that domain.
A WHOIS lookup is also useful if you want to try and purchase a domain privately from someone who already owns it. If a domain has been purchased and not in use, known as a parked domain, then the WHOIS lookup will give you the contact details of the current domain name owner.
You can then contact the owner directly to negotiate a price to transfer ownership.
The other thing to consider is if you are looking for a domain name that represents a legally registered company or trademark. For example, if you have a limited company in the UK and someone has already registered the .uk domain name you can actually dispute the ownership directly with Nominet through their Dispute Resolution Service.
I have used this in the past to reclaim a domain that had lapsed and purchased by a competitor. It can cost around £200 for this service, but well worth it if your brand is being tainted or misrepresented.
Think about how your domain name looks!
At this point, I cannot stress how important it is that you think carefully about your domain name and how it looks.
To illustrate my point I think it is easier to show you some examples of some very bad domain name choices:
- www.penisland.net – Pen Island
- www.expertsexchange.com – Experts Exchange
- www.therapistfinder.com – Therapist Finder
- www.itscrap.com – IT Scrap
- www.whorepresents.com – Who Represents
If you find you have names that do not fit well together or look like something else when together you can simply separate them using a hyphen.
The main consideration for search engine optimisation in a domain used to be focussed around using keywords. For example, if you are advertising private piano lessons as a service you would want to use those keywords in the domain like privatepianolessons.com or private-piano-lessons.com.
While these days search engines like Google don’t tend to focus on the bias of keywords in the domain name it can still be useful in anchor text when other sites are linking to your domain name.
If it makes sense that keywords are in your domain name as part of your branding, then go for it, but remember sites like Amazon and Google, for example, don’t have any keywords in their domain name that represent what they do. They are very brand orientated and are known and searched for by their brand name.
The only other consideration I would make, that I have heard of, is to purchase a .com domain if you can as the .com still carries weight as a primary TLD.
I would also go with a .com as it is always the first domain extension visitors may try when they know your name or business name.
As much as hyphens can make a domain name more readable and as seen above avoid some unwanted looking domains I would try and avoid hyphens as much as you can as they are associated with spammy behaviour where mass sites with keyword rich domain names are used.