What Is a Domain Name?

How domains help us navigate the internet

A domain name is a unique set of characters that identifies a specific website. In a lot of ways, a domain name has the same relationship to a website as a street address has to a house.

When you enter a domain name into a web browser, the browser accesses something called a domain name server (DNS) to find the location of the corresponding website on the internet, so that it can retrieve the website and display it to you. This is a little like looking someone up in a phone book to find out how to call them or get to their house.

How Do You Read a Domain Name?

Each domain name includes a top level domain (TLD) like .com or .net, and a subdomain of that top level domain. For example, take a look at the domain name for this website: Lifewire.com. The TLD is .com in this example, and lifewire is the subdomain.

Taken together, as a whole, Lifewire.com forms a fully qualified domain name that you can use to visit this website.

Domain names can also include additional subdomains. For example, en.wikipedia.org is a subdomain of wikipedia.org, and you can use it to visit the English language version of Wikipedia.

Explaining the Different Types of Top Level Domains

Most people are familiar with the .org, .net, and .com top level domains. These are known as generic top level domains. Other generic top level domains include .edu, .gov, .mil, and .int.

The .com, .org, and .net TLDs were originally intended for use by companies, organizations, and networks, but their use is totally unrestricted. That means you can use any of these TLDs for any use you like.

The .edu, .gov, and .mil TLDs were originally intended for use by educational institutes, governmental use, and military use. They are still restricted to those uses, but primarily used only by the United States.

More than 1,200 additional generic TLDs have been added to the original set, including .biz, .info, .club, and others.

In addition to the generic TLDs, most countries also have their own TLD. These are referred to as country code top level domains (ccTLD) and are often restricted to use by people and organizations within the country in question.

An example of a domain name with a ccTLD is BBC.co.uk. In this case, .uk is the ccTLD, .co.uk is a subdomain available only to businesses in the United Kingdom, and BBC.co.uk is the full domain name that you can use to visit the BBC's website.

How Do Domain Names Work?

Domains work by allowing people to access websites by remembering an easy set of words or other characters instead of a long string of numbers. Every website on the internet has an associated internet protocol (IP) address that consists of a long string of numbers, or a long string of both numbers and letters.

For example, here are some IP addresses associated with Google.com:

Google.com IPv4: 74.125.136.139
Google.com IPv6: 2607:f8b0:4002:c03::8a

You can technically type 74.125.136.139 into your web browser to visit Google, but do you really want to try to remember a number like that?

To make things easier, your web browser connects to a domain name server whenever you type a domain name into the address bar. Using the above example, it would discover that Google.com corresponds to the IP address 74.125.136.139 and then load the appropriate website.

How to Get a Domain

Domain names are the responsibility of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which grants domain registrars the authority to register domain names. If you want to get your own domain, you need to go through one of these registrars.

Most big web hosts also provide domain registration services, but you don't have to go through your web host. It's a little easier to go through one provider for everything, if you've never built a website before, but you don't have to.

Registering a domain name is a fairly easy process that involves selecting a subdomain and pairing it with a TLD. If the combination you want is taken, you can try a different subdomain, or try different TLDs until you find one that works.

Can You Actually Own a Domain Name?

The process of registering a domain is often referred to as buying a domain, but there's an important distinction to be made. Registering a domain is more like renting it than buying it.

When you register a domain, you get the rights to use it for the duration of your rental period. In most cases, the minimum registration is one year. If you don't renew your domain, you lose access to it.

It's also extremely important to make sure that your name, or your business, is actually on the domain registration. If you register your domain through a web designer, a web host, or any other third party, they may put their name on the registration instead of yours.

When that happens, the person whose name is actually on the registration owns the rights to the domain instead of you. They could theoretically point the domain at a different website, shut it down altogether, or even sell it.

When you register a domain, and your name is on the registration, you retain full rights to the domain for as long as you pay the recurring registration fee. Since your customers or readers rely on your domain to find your website, it's easy to see why this is so important.