What Is a Website Domain Name?

Learn how domain names work so you can choose one for your business idea.

Updated August 28, 2019.

If you’re launching a company (or entertaining the idea), odds are good that you’re tossing around possible business names or that you already have one in mind. Choosing the right name for your business — one that’s easy to remember, easy to say, and original — is a tricky task. It’s a task made more difficult because the name you choose needs to represent your product or brand while distinguishing you from competitors in the marketplace. And there are more competitors out there than you might think. Why is that?

Making an online purchase.

We’re in the midst of an e-commerce boom (thanks, Amazon): A radical, mercantile exodus from brick-and-mortar retail locations to online vendors and sites. Can you remember a time before Amazon? They’ve revolutionized the way people shop, especially online. Once a humble bookseller, they’re now the world’s largest corporation. Their site is like a modern day Sears’ catalog, allowing customers to buy just about anything they can dream of and receive it within 48 hours. In the twenty-some-odd years since Amazon has been around, nearly every other online retailer has been scrambling to shadow their moves and compete; they’re forced to focus heavily on their online platform and sales or suffer a quick death.

Which would you choose?

According to Business Insider, “Approximately 70% of Americans (230 million) will make an online purchase in 2018, contributing $474 billion to total retail sales.” Wow! The study Business Insider pulls from indicates that e-commerce now accounts for roughly ten percent of all retail within the United States. And this number is bound to increase in future years. This economic outlook is a good indication of how vital a business’ online presence is for its future success.

Image of e-commerce website.

Your business name will help you stand out in a sea of online competitors. But landing on the right name, well, that takes time and energy. And one thing many people forget to consider when deciding on a business name is whether or not it’s available as a domain name for your website. If the name you want isn’t available as a domain, all that brainstorming can be for naught. Either that, or you may end up shilling out a pretty penny to the owner of the name you want and that’s only IF they’ll sell it to you. Preventing this situation and succeeding online is possible! Stick around as we explore domains, domain names, and domain name availability — these things will set you on the right track.

What is a domain?

Domains have many intricacies, but they’re not as confusing as they may at first appear. If you’ve never had a website, don’t consider yourself computer-savvy, or are at a loss when it comes to discussing these things with your web developers, you’re in good hands now.

Domains are our bread and butter, and we’ll lay it all out for you. Let’s start by discussing the difference between domains and websites.

The difference between a website and domain name.

Think of your website as a virtual, or digital, storefront. You need this storefront, this structure, for people to browse and purchase your wares. But how do these people find your digital store? This is where your domain name comes into play. Your domain name is unique — there isn’t another one just like it in all the internet (which is a very vast place, so we hear.) When someone types your domain name into their browser (think: Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Safari, etc.) it’s like an address that tells the computer where to go to find your website. It’s an awful lot like following a map (or GPS) — you need to know the name of your destination before you can punch it into your GPS to get there.

Person typing into a browser.

Back in the wild n’ wooly early days of the internet, domain names didn’t exist. Instead, computers relied on strings of numbers called IP Addresses to find one another. If you typed in the right IP address, you’d arrive at the site you wanted to visit. However, how many strings of numbers can you remember? We can hardly remember Pi (3.14 … and what was the rest?). It became apparent to the internet powers-that-be that using IP addresses wasn’t going to cut it. Humans have a hard time remembering long strings of numbers, but you know what we are good at remembering? Words, and specifically, names. And so the domain name system was born with two main purposes, the same purposes that IP addresses have:

  1. To identify and distinguish web addresses.
  2. To locate web addresses.

That domain names can also influence your brand and people’s perception of you is an added bonus!

Top Level Domains

The domain name system was created in 1985. At that time, there were only seven domain name options and they were called “top level domains.” These include:

  • .com – short for “commerce” this domain name is often referred to as the king of domain names. It’s certainly popular, there’s no doubt about that.
  • .edu – this domain name is restricted for use by educational institutions and universities.
  • .gov – Only government agencies, agents, and offices can use this domain name. For example, the White House’s official website is whitehouse.gov.
  • .int – This domain name stands for “international organization.”
  • .net – This domain name was created for network providers (think Cox Cable, whose website is cox.net) but it’s now open for broader use.
  • .org – This domain name was created for any organization, although at first it was intended for nonprofits.
  • .mil – This one is for all the millennials out there! Just kidding, it’s for the United States Military.

What’s the most popular domain extension, or name? Well, that would be .com and it’s followed by .net and .org. This could change, however, due to a recent array of new domain names in market. Why were new domain names created? The internet was getting a little crowded and a lot of domain names were no longer available. Also, having a domain name more catered to your business or goal is a great way to solidify your branding.

Domain names

What is any company’s goal when creating an online presence? We bet it’s tied to increasing the number of site visitors you receive and capitalizing on those visits (i.e. turning them into customers and making that money) in the smartest and most economical way possible. A good domain name can help you do that because a good domain name is memorable; people can find your site and do business with you when they remember your name. So nailing the right domain name is vital — it acts as a cornerstone of your business and brand identity, and reminds the public exactly who you are and what you do.

What exactly does a domain name look like?

Let’s use domain.com as the example. “www.domain.com” is what people would generally refer to as a domain name, but is that technically correct?

Eh, sort of.

In the image above you can see that we’ve underlined the different parts of www.domain.com, separated, and numbered the different parts separated by the dots. Your domain name is, technically, the part that comes after the www. (or in the case of email addresses, it’s what follows the @ sign) so it’s comprised of parts 2 & 3. Part 1, the www, turns your domain name into a complete web address, or URL (Universal Resource Locator.) In essence, every URL has a domain name in it, but URLs aren’t domain names. (Similar to how every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square. And if you didn’t know that, now you do.)

Did you know that the two parts that make up your domain name, 1 & 2, actually have their own names? Part 3, what comes after the dot, is called the Top Level Domain, or TLD. Part 2, the beginning of your domain name, is called the Second Level Domain, or SLD.

So when someone asks, “How do I get to your site?” what they’re really asking for is your domain name.

Who makes up the rules for domain names?

Domain names aren’t a free for all, so somewhere there have to exist rules or regulations that govern them. One of those things is called the DNS, or Domain Name System. The DNS lays out the rules, procedures, and guidelines for domain names and their registration; however, the actual registering of domain names is typically handled by domain name registrars (like Domain.com). Second level domain names must be reserved by the end user (that’d be you, or anyone else who purchases a domain name), registered, and then they’re considered official domain names by the DNS and can’t be used by anyone else.

Should my domain name match my business name?

You’re not required to buy a domain name that matches your business name, but you can bet that it’s a good idea. Especially when it comes to SEO, search engine optimization, it’s a wise idea to match your domain name to your business name — it helps to build your reputation. You can even use your domain name for your business email address for consistency and the most professional look. But keep in mind, if your business name is very long and hard to pronounce, will your customers know how to type it out? If not, consider abbreviations or close alternatives. Pro tip: your domain name should pass the “radio test” — if people only heard your domain name on the radio and never saw it written out, could they spell it correctly and get to your site?

Domain names and pricing.

Domain name costs can vary greatly depending on different factors. Some of these could be the TLD you select (part 3 in the image above if you’d like to refer to it), length, and whether or not it’s a premium domain name.  Think of a good domain name as prime Main Street real estate: You’ll pay a little more, but the traffic generated from the better location is worth it. You can hold on to your domain name like you would an investment.

Your domain name isn’t the same thing as your website, but without a domain name, you can’t have a website. So if you’re ready to take your business online, go ahead and register that domain name. You can even look into copyrighting your name to protect it from any future infringement. That’s exactly what Mark Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, did over a decade prior to their move from Oakland to Vegas. He thought ahead and registered LasVegasRaiders.com and VegasRaiders.com; had he waited, someone else may have registered those names and then Mark would have been forced to buy them at a premium rate … if the owner was willing to sell them. Investments in domain names are common, especially with high-value domains.

High-value domains

A lot of marketable and generic domain names have already been registered, you can consider them taken. Some of these names, like clothes.com or carinsurance.com, are valued in the millions. These names, as they are very descriptive and closely linked to the actual services or goods provided, are known as high-value domains. They may cost a little more to purchase, but they are worth it. Here’s why:

  • Brand Protection and Authority – Owning a high-value, premium domain name gives you a little protection from the competition. They can make you appear like the best answer to someone’s needs (and let’s face it, we’re sure you are). At first glance, which would you trust more: expertscientists.com or scientiststhatknowitall.xyz? Get the premium name and make your brand look as best it can.
  • Increase Website Traffic and SEO – Premium, or high-value domain names, receive more web traffic as a result of direct type-in or Google referral traffic. Think about it: when people search for websites or products online they often use keywords. If your domain name is keyword heavy (so, likely a premium domain name) then it will surface in more results. Type-in traffic refers to a customer who is searching for a product directly in their browser’s URL bar without using a search engine. For example, someone looking for a new bike might type bikes.com into their browser knowing that they’d likely land on a site specializing in the sale of bikes. This is the kind of web traffic business owners dream of because it means you got a website visitor, a potential customer, without having to spend money on advertising. They naturally found you using keywords, so they’re also more likely to be invested vs. be an online window shopper.  
  • Improved Visibility – High-value domain names are typically short, to the point, and catchy. They’re intuitive and easy to recall. By having a domain name like that, you position yourself for success. If people remember your domain name they can easily find you again and refer others to it.

Domain names are crucial to the way the internet works and to your online success

Domains and domain names play a critical role in signaling to what kind of goods or services you offer. If this is all that a potential customer or website visitor sees, it’s got to say the right thing to get their attention. Selecting the perfect, creative domain name that is both relevant and available requires brainstorming and strategizing. However, not only is an investment in a good domain name necessary, it’s essential to the future online success of your business.

Natalie Brownell
Natalie Brownell

Domain.com Marketing Manager. She believes in the power of words and loves a good story. She resides in MA and spends her days behind the keyboard with her two feline coworkers. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Natalie Brownell
Natalie Brownell

Domain.com Marketing Manager. She believes in the power of words and loves a good story. She resides in MA and spends her days behind the keyboard with her two feline coworkers. Connect with her on LinkedIn.