What Are Domain Names? Everything A Website Owner Need To Know [Updated 2020]
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There are many unique ways to get started online these days - through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, online marketplaces like eBay and Etsy, even on classified networks like Craigslist.
But eventually, any business that is serious about having a presence online is going to need their own website, and the first step to having a solid presence online is choosing the right domain name for your website.
Domain Name Basics
When you set up a new website, one of the most important decisions you have to make is what your new domain name is going to be.
This guide digs into the technical details on domain names and then focuses on issues such as selecting a good domain name and how registration works.
pssst: If you are looking to buy a domain name, see our guide to the best places to buy domain names. It's a less technical, more practical guide, and features our editor top picks and user reviews.
But, if you want all the nerdy bits, please read on.
What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Domain Names?
In a web address or URL, the domain name is everything between the protocol sign and the first slash (if there is one).
So, for example, in the URL:
The domain name is:
Domain names also are used for email addresses:
What Is a Domain Name?
Now that we know what we are talking about — what are we talking about?
Wikipedia provides a helpfully specific, but somewhat opaque definition:
A domain name is an identification string that defines a realm of administrative autonomy, authority or control within the Internet
What does this mean, exactly? Let's break it down a little.
A domain name is a human-readable identification string.
Identification strings, because they must unambiguously refer to exactly one thing, have to be unique. There can be no duplicate IDs.
For this reasons, ID numbers in computer systems are often very long, randomly generated numbers. But domain names aren't like that — they are human readable, but still unique.
Not only are they human readable, but they are human meaningful. That is, unlike your phone number — which is just a series of numbers, but short enough to be "human readable" on some level — a domain name is both readable and meaningful.
It doesn't just identify a domain to other computers, it identifies that domain to us.
Because of that meaningfulness, domain name choices have implications for branding and marketing, as well as for any programmatic analysis of meaning and content, such as Search Engine indexing.
Later in this section, we will look at how uniqueness is enforced in the domain name system, and how human meaning is mapped to computer meaning.
Administrative Autonomy, Authority, and Control Within the Internet
The "realm" we mentioned above is the domain in domain name. A domain is controlled by some specific person or corporate entity.
If you own a domain, this means that you control the content or routing within that domain. If you own
example.com, you determine what appears at
blog.example.com as well as at
You can also allow other people to determine those things. It is that ability to exert administrative authority that effectively defines a named domain on the internet.
The Domain Name System
The Domain Name System is a hierarchical identification system of domains and subdomains. All domains are, really, subdomains of another domain. At the top of the hierarchy is the (unnamed) Domain Name System itself.
The Domain Name System administers access to the Top Level Domains (TLDs). These are the "extensions" such as: -
Each TLD is administered by a different company or agency, which grants the ability to set up a subdomain:
In many TLD domains, the immediate subdomain is what is purchasable by consumers for use as a domain name. That isn't always the case, though. Country-code TLDs sometimes have a two-tier system:
Owners of these secondary domain names can, if they choose, create additional subdomains:
Unique Identifiers and IP Address Mapping
This hierarchical system is what ensures that all domain names are unique. The Domain Name System doesn't allow any two TLDs to be the same.
The administrators of each TLD then ensure that they don't allow duplicate subdomains. Owners of subdomains are responsible for ensuring they don't create duplicate secondary subdomains or duplicate-named resources.
Each administrative level is responsible only for its immediate subdomains — no single authority has to oversee the whole.
This is also how human-readable domain names are translated into computer-meaningful IP addresses.
The primary DNS servers have a directory that maps TLDs to specific IP addresses. Each TLD server has a similar directory for each subdomain.
These directories are distributed so that there isn't a ever a single point of failure. This distribution scheme is a bit complicated, but at its essence, the DNS system works this way:
- Your browser is trying to get to
- First it asks the primary DNS servers who administers the
- Then it asks the
.comadministrator who administers the
- Then it asks the
examplesubdomain who administers the
- Finally it asks the
blogsubdomain administrator for the resource at
This all happens very quickly and automatically. Also, the web browser remembers this info, so it doesn't go through the whole process every single time.
If you're wondering how the browser gets the original location of the Primary DNS servers: a list of addresses is packaged into web browsers.
This provides a starting point. As it gets new information from the DNS administration system, it saves new address it's been given. As long as at least one of its addresses is correct, it will be able to get all the other information it needs.
Domain Names and URLs
Rivers, ponds, lakes, and streams — they all have different names, but they all contain water.
— Muhammad Ali
This short section explains what a URL is and how it is different than a Domain Name.
What Are We Talking About?
A URL is the string of letters, numbers, and symbols in the address bar of your web browser. It is often used synonymously with "web address."
What Is a URL
A URL is a Uniform Resource Locator. It is a (mostly) human readable string that uniquely identifies a resource (asset, file, piece of content) on the internet.
Because a URL is a unique identifier, they are sometimes called a URI — Uniform Resource Identifier.
This is probably a more accurate name than URL, because a URL doesn't actually tell you where the resource is (its location), but only serves to identify it. Even though it is a more accurate term, URL remains more common.
URLs Include Domain Names
Every URL must include a domain name. The domain name is everything between the protocol (
https://) and the first slash.
In this URL:
https://placeholder.com/about-us.html, the domain name is:
Domain Names Are Not URLs
The domain name
placeholder.com is not, by itself a URL. It refers to a domain, not to a specific resource at that domain.
By pairing it with the protocol (
https://placeholder.com), it become a specific URL: the identifier of the main index at the
Girl, put your records on,
tell me your favorite song
You go ahead, let your hair down
— Corinne Bailey Rae
This section covers important information about the Domain Name System (DNS), what Name Servers are and how they work, which DNS records you need to worry about, and why you might need to edit yours.
What Are DNS Records?
DNS is the Domain Name System. It is a fairly complicated system, distributed across hundreds of servers worldwide and comprising several layers of interconnected technology.
Primarily, DNS is responsible for translating human-readable domain names into computer-usable IP Addresses. It is, in essence, a giant directory connecting names with numbers — the internet's phone book.
The addresses associated with a single domain are called DNS records. They specify where to send requests associated with that domain.
Where are these records kept? They are stored on your domain's Name Server.
Name Servers — the Distributed Address Book
No single computer can store all the information needed about every domain name in the world. That information is distributed, in a hierarchical fashion.
- The root name servers contain a information about each top-level domain (TLD), and where records for each TLD should be found.
- TLD name servers provide information about where to find data about each secondary domain within that TLD.
- Domain name servers provide the final information about where to send requests for a certain domain.
This may be a little confusing, so let's imagine you are trying to look at a page at the URL:
- The browser would first contact one of the global root name servers to find out where to get information about
- Then it would ask the
.comname server where to get information about
- Then it would ask the
example.comname server where it should send requests for web pages.
- Then it would send the web server a request for the
Of course, your computer doesn't have to do this entire thing every single time because it remembers (caches) some of the more common addresses — like where to look for
.com domain details.
Authoritative Name Server
Every domain name has an Authoritative Name Server. This is the last link in the chain above — the server that specifies the final destination for requests associated with a particular domain name.
Who Controls DNS Records?
Well, the domain name owner controls them. In fact — this is precisely what you "own" when you own a domain name: you own the right to determine the Authoritative Name Server and the contents of the DNS records associated with the domain.
What Information Does the DNS Record Contain?
The DNS records for a domain contain dozens of individual types of Resource Records (RRs), but only a few of them are of general importance for most web hosting customers.
The most important RRs are:
- A — This is the primary record associated with a domain name. It contains the IP address that domain-specific requests should be sent to.
- CNAME — "Canonical name," this record maps the domain as an alias onto another domain. Can be used instead of HTTP redirects to send traffic from one domain to another.
- DNAME — "Delegation name," this record works like CNAME, but includes subdomains as well.
- MX — "Mail Exchange," specifies the IP address of the domain's mail server.
What Do I Do With DNS Records?
If you register your domain name through your hosting account, you may not need to do anything at all. Your hosting company, which is also your registrar, will take care of initial configuration, and you won't really need to worry about it.
However, there are a few instances where you may need to either edit your DNS records or change your name servers.
Hosting and Domain Registration Separate
If you use a domain registrar other than your hosting company, you will probably need to associate your domain name with your account by updating your domain name's Authoritative Name Servers.
Alternatively, you can sometimes edit the individual DNS Resource Records (RRs) yourself, but this can sometimes cause problems, especially with shared or cloud hosting, which might have dynamic IP addresses.
Using a Third-Party Mail App
If you use a domain-based email service, like Google Apps, you will likely need to change the MX record in order to point mail traffic to the service provider.
Content Delivery Networks
If you use a Content Delivery Network, you generally either update individual Resource Records to point to the CDN's edge servers, or you set the CDN's name servers as the Authoritative Name Server on the domain.
How to Update DNS Records and Name Server Information
In most hosting control panels, there is a domain management section that allows you to edit details of the domain, including nameservers and DNS records. Domain registrars will have a similar interface for updating this information.
Choosing a Good Domain Name
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
— William Shakespeare
This section covers some best practices concerning domain naming and some of the more common mistakes and misconceptions.
What Makes a Good Domain Name?
There are no rules with domain names — only general guidelines. And these are highly dependent on what you are trying to accomplish.
Generally speaking, domain names should be:
- As short as possible
- Easy to spell
- Easy to remember
- Keyword specific or well-branded
- Lacking any punctuation
- End in either
Branding and Keywords
From an SEO standpoint, it would be ideal for your brand name and your primary keywords to be the same.
For example, if you are a window cleaning company in Quincy, the ideal situation would be for your company name to be "Quincy Window Cleaning" and your domain name to be
This doesn't always work out, though.
There are branding concerns associated with brand names beyond search engine traffic. Perhaps you need a clever, made-up word kind of a name. Perhaps your company or organization has been around for a long time and already has a brand name.
In these cases, building a brand separate from Search Engines is critical, and the goal is to make people search for you specifically. Secondarily, you can work on SEO for particular words and phrases in articles and blog posts away from the home page (but that's a whole other topic).
If you aren't trying to build a brand name separate from your keywords — for example, if you really just want to optimize your entire business to monetize niche keyword traffic — then your domain name should simply be a version of the most common search query within your niche.
For example, a site dedicated to selling collectible postage stamps for bitcoins might be:
Sometimes the choice of phrase is obvious from a branding standpoint. If several options seem reasonable, you should use Google's Keyword Tool to determine which would garner the most traffic. (Another option is to register several of them.)
Hyphens in Domain Names
Some people believe that hyphens are a good idea in keyword-rich domain names because they make it easier for Google to parse he individual words. The thinking goes that:
Is better for SEO than:
This isn't really true. Google, and other Search Engines, have no trouble parsing out the words in the no-hyphen version.
Also, hyphenation might create a branding problem, for two reasons:
- Hyphenated domain names look and feel spammy, which will turn off some potential visitors.
- People trying to access your site directly will probably forget the hyphens.
This second point is particularly problematic for people who have selected the hyphenated domain because the non-hyphenated version is already taken.
This can cause loss of traffic and weakening of your online brand, because people will inevitably type the non-hyphenated version of your domain name and end up on someone else's website or parked domain.
So — hyphens are neither good nor bad for SEO, but may be bad for other reasons. It is probably best to avoid them when possible.
Domain Names and Spelling
Domain names should be as easy to spell as possible. Relying on puns, odd spellings, or a mix of letters and numerals can make it difficult for people to remember. It also makes it difficult to communicate the domain name verbally.
.COM and .ORG Top Level Domains
It is generally a good idea to register and use the
.com or the
.org TLDs for websites, because these are the most common and easy to remember.
The most common reason to use one of the alternate gTLDs —
.biz — is that the desired
.com domain name is not available. This is a terrible reason.
.com is so widespread and accepted that you will continually lose traffic from people accidentally navigating to the
.com version of your domain.
Additionally, these second-tier gTLDs are generally not trusted by the public. It can affect your credibility, which will make it much less likely that people will buy from you, link to you, or engage with your content.
Some web hosting companies, registrars, and SEO "experts" will claim that using a
.org domain is better for SEO. There is no evidence to suggest that any search engine considers
.org domains to be of higher quality than any others, or that it affects ranking directly.
However, there may be a small kernal of truth to this belief.
Search engine rankings are largely influenced by links into a site from other pages and social media. If a site's URL seems untrustworthy, then it is less likely that people will link to it or share a page from it to Facebook. This will have a significant impact on SEO.
Besides the Generic TLDs —
.info, etc. — there are two additional groups of TLDs:
- Country-code TLDs —
- "Extended" generic TLDs —
Many country-code TLDs are used as if they were actually extended generic TLDs, like
.io. The issues involved using any of them is the same.
Generally speaking, it is a bad idea to use the extended TLDs.
- they are usually much more expensive
- not all web hosting companies will support them
- not all web browsers will support them
- there is no guarantee that the domain registry authorities will last
- they are easily forgotten or mistyped
This last point is probably the most important issue. If you have your website set up at
http://johnsmith.lawyer, it is very likely that some of the people attempting to visit your site will end up visiting
Again — the
.com ending is common and so automatic to so many people that you will certainly lose traffic.
A special case of extended TLD use is so-called "domain hacks," which is where the TLD suffix is used along with the second-level domain name to form a word or phrase. The most common example of this is
bit.ly. Another example is using the
.me TLD to spell domains like
If you're a tech startup launching a cool new SaaS app, this might be a good idea. But for most businesses, organizations, and individual bloggers, it isn't a good idea. It is very likely that the name will get misspelled, or entered into a browser with
.com appended to the end of it.
Even the super-cool start-ups that do this tend to make sure they have the
.com version: you can access
Location Based Domain Names
If you are service provider or retail store with a specific geographic location — like a plumber, caterer, or landscaper — it may be a good idea to include the name of your city or town into your domain name, especially if you are trying for a keyword-rich domain name.
This is because people tend to search for certain types of services, stores, and restaurants by including the city or neighborhood name in their search.
Also, if you are (for example) a plumber, you don't need everyone searching for a plumber to land on your site — just the people looking for a plumber near you.
Breaking the Rules
There are compelling business reasons to break any or all of the rules above.
For example, using
.tv for a video site or
.info for documentation might make perfect sense in your context.
You might be one of those hot new startups with a funny name and a goofy domain ending. You may be so focused on keyword matching that hyphens are better than having to pick another domain name.
However, most people are not exceptions to general rules like these — and many more people think they are special than truly are.
Be sure to carefully consider all of these factors before deciding on a domain name. Your decision will have an ongoing impact on the value of your website.
Simple Things to Remember
While it is possible to buy multiple domain names at the same time, or redirect websites onto different domain names over time, it's much easier and more beneficial to your blog or business if you choose the right domain name the first time.
Think about the websites that you use on a daily basis. What characteristics do their domain names have? Are they simple or complex? Try to find the same for your blog or online business.
Here are a couple other things to consider when choosing your domain name:
Anyone should be able to pronounce it.
There are a lot of creative ways to spell domain names, but few people have the budget for television ads or other mass media marketing campaigns that can help the public pronounce a hard to spell domain.
When you are choosing your domain, try doing a "radio test" with some friends and family.
To do this, tell them the domain name of your prospective website. Can they spell it correctly? If yes, then you're probably on the right track.
Will it relate to your readers and potential customers?
Domain names need to create trust with potential site visitors and customers quickly.
Can the domain name you choose create trust? Is it short and catchy?
People should be able to remember the name of your site and be able to refer it to friends by word of mouth. Otherwise, it is likely too complex.
Potential visitors should also be able to have a reasonable expectation of what your website includes before they click to it.
Choosing the right domain name can impact your website on many levels.
All that is gold does not glitter,
not all those who wander are lost;
the old that is strong does not wither,
deep roots are not reached by the frost.
This section covers everything you need to know about buying previously registered domains in the domain name aftermarket. It covers valuation, pricing, research, and how to find the domain you are looking for. It also touches on why aftermarket domains can be such a great investment.
The Domain You Want Is Taken!
Often, the most difficult thing about finding a domain name is that all the obvious choices are taken.
It happens to everyone at some point. You get an idea for a new website, business, or app. You've got the perfect name picked out, too. You rush to your computer and enter the name into the little box on your favorite domain name registrar — not available.
You try your second choice. Not available. You start trying variations. All the good ones are taken. You start to consider
.biz. You wonder if adding "best" to the front of the domain is a bad idea.
Worst of all — you check out the website at your domain and there's nothing there. It's been registered for months or years — and they're not even using it!
If you are trying to make up a new word, or the name of your new website is otherwise not constrained by an existing business name, you might decide to just keep searching and trying names until you find one that is available as a
But another option is to try to buy the domain from its current owner.
The Domain Aftermarket
There is a whole industry of people who buy up domain names and re-sell them. Most of these domains include valuable keywords, common phrases, or names relevant to popular culture.
If the domain name you want is currently in use, it is highly unlikely it will be for sale. However, if the domain is not in use, or is "parked," there is a good chance that someone bought it hoping to resell it later.
Don't Get Scared
As is the case in all industries and areas of life, the outliers get noticed. So, when looking at domain name sales, its easy to focus on the big money transactions. And there have been plenty:
insure.com— $16 million in 2009
sex.com— $13 million in 2010
fund.com— $10 million in 2008
Even apart from the ridiculous amounts like those, high-profile domain resales regularly fetch prices in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But that's just it — high profile sales. The majority of domain sales are at the level of a few thousand dollars, and many good domains are available for just a few hundred.
Domain name investors are all hoping to land that one big sale, but the reality is that they make their money in the aggregate — trying to get a little bit of profit from each sale.
Where to Buy Existing Domain Names
It is sometimes possible to find out who owns a domain by looking up the WHOIS information. If it's available, you could then contact them directly about purchasing the domain.
This may be the only real option if a domain is actually in use and the owner isn't already looking to sell. Of course, that's going to require a much higher price tag than a parked domain.
Most people who are trying to sell domains are already listing them with one of several domain reseller marketplaces. This is usually the best route, if available. Domain resale marketplaces include:
If the domain name you are looking for is not already listed in one of those marketplaces, you might also try acquiring it through a domain broker. Several of the companies listed above provide domain brokerage services.
Searching for Good Ideas
Maybe you don't have a specific domain name in mind, but you want a good name that has been around for a while.
This might be because you have a vague idea for a business, and want to find a good fit with an established domain name. Alternatively, you might just be looking for a good business idea.
You can browse the domain reseller marketplaces listed above, looking for interesting domain names and good prices. You can also find interesting domain names as they are expiring using JustDropped, and use SnapNames to make sure you grab it right when it becomes available.
Reasons to Buy an Existing Domain Name
The biggest reason is that you already have a plan for that domain name and you need it.
But there are other reasons to seek out already-registered domain names.
- Almost all short words, abbreviations, and common phrases are already taken. If you want them, you're going to have to look to the aftermarket.
- Age. It is commonly believed that the age of a domain is a factor in Search Engine rankings. Google has stated that this is a little true, but fairly insignificant.
- Existing backlinks. A domain name that has existed for a long time, especially one that was in use at any point in its history, may have backlinks to it, which gives you a head start on SEO efforts.
- Exact match search traffic. Because most common phrases are already taken, it is hard to find a domain name that is an exact match to words or phrases frequently typed into search and address bars.
What Is a Domain Name Worth?
Experts in the domain name industry have been searching for over two decades to figure out some logical way to approach domain name valuations. So far, they haven't come up with any fool-proof formulas.
There are some data points to consider when deciding on the relative value of domain names:
- Length. Shorter domain names are more valuable.
- Exact match search traffic. How many people are already searching for the word in the domain?
- Age. Older domains are usually considered more valuable.
- Industry value. It isn't just the volume of search traffic that determines the value of traffic, but the profit margins and business models associated with the phrases.
- Existing traffic and backlinks. A domain name that has been developed, with content and backlinks, is going to be worth more than one that is blank or just has a generic domain parking home page.
- Domain ending.
.comwill continue to carry a hefty premium over other TLDs.
- How common is the word or phrase? This is highly related to exact match search traffic. A common word or phrase, with a
.comextension, will almost never be available for less that $10,000. The more common the word or phrase, the more valuable the domain name.
Pay attention to other prices for similar words and phrases, as well as other domain names relevant to the industry or commercial niche you are trying to pursue.
Remember, though — neither price nor value are absolute truths. The only value that a domain name has to you is the value it will help you create, and ultimately the only price that matters is the one that you can negotiate with a seller.
Domain Due Diligence
Before dropping a few hundred or a few thousand (or a few hundred thousand) on an existing domain name, you should look into the domain name's history.
A few places to start looking into a domain name's past:
- Google site search (search for:
site:example.com). This will bring up every page indexed for your domain. If none are available, there may be a problem with the domain having been banned.
- Google search the domain name itself (search for:
"example.com"). This will help you track down what is being said about your domain.
- A backlink checking tool. There are several, such as Backlink Watch. This will help you determine who is linking in, and whether those links are good or not.
- Use the Wayback Machine at Archive.org to see what content was previously available from the Domain Name.
- Look into past ownership details using HosterStats or the Who.Is Archive.
Even if there are problems, that doesn't mean you shouldn't buy it. But it may help in negotiating. Moreover, you want to know what you are getting into.
If a domain name has a troubled past, you want to be able to deal with it right away. For example, if you discover that some of your existing backlinks are coming from linkfarms or other spammy SEO practices, you can use Google's webmaster tools to disavow backlinks.
Domain Name Financing
If you are looking to purchase a hot domain name, and need financing, that is also a possibility. Several lenders specialize in financing domain name purchases. Domain Capital is the most well-known provider.
Domain WHOIS and WHOIS Privacy
Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?
— The Who
This section covers the public directory of contact information on every registered domain, the WHOIS system. You'll learn how to find WHOIS data on any website, and how to keep your own contact information private.
What Is WHO IS
Setting aside any technical description of how the system works for a moment, let's focus on what WHO IS does, from the perspective of the non-technical public.
WHOIS is, essentially, a public directory of domain registration information, including contact information about the person and company that registered the domain.
Information included in a WHOIS entry includes:
- Contact information for the domain owner, the domain administrator, and the domain technical contact:
- Full Name
- Company Name
- Phone number
- Physical address
- Email address
- Original registration date
- Most recent renewal date
- Expiration date
- Domain status
Accessing WHOIS Information
You might think that getting this kind of contact information — especially the age of SPAM and identity theft would be fairly difficult.
You would be wrong.
If you are running a Mac or Linux/Unix machine, you have access to a WHOIS lookup tool right on your command line:
> whois example.com
The information you get back from a WHOIS query is fairly detailed. For example, here is a portion of the data you'd get if you looked up our domain,
> whois whoishostingthis.com Domain Name: WHOISHOSTINGTHIS.COM Registry Domain ID: 1037446726_DOMAIN_COM-VRSN Registrar WHOIS Server: whois.uniregistrar.net Registrar URL: http://uniregistry.com Updated Date: 2015-02-02-T16:55:34Z Creation Date: 2007-06-19-T13:08:43Z Registrar Registration Expiration Date: 2018-06-19-T13:08:43Z Registrar: UNIREGISTRAR CORP Registrar IANA ID: 1659 Registrar Abuse Contact Email: [email protected] Registrar Abuse Contact Phone: +1.9494785380 Domain Status: clientTransferProhibited Domain Status: clientDeleteProhibited Domain Status: clientRenewProhibited Registry Registrant ID: UNIREGPXZ4WHPEU Registrant Name: RICHARD KERSHAW Registrant Organization: QUALITY NONSENSE LTD Registrant Street: 27 MORTIMER STREET Registrant City: LONDON Registrant State/Province: LONDON Registrant Postal Code: W1T 3BL Registrant Country: GB
All of this personal contact information is available publicly.
How the WHOIS System Works
The WHOIS system works a lot like the DNS system — it is a distributed database.
Each TLD (top level domain —
.org, etc.) has a primary registrar, an organization that is in charge of that domain.
The primary registrar keeps just enough information about each domain name that it knows where to look up details. The contact information is stored with individual domain registrars.
So, for example, if you registered
example.com at Namecheap.com, then Namecheap would store your complete contact information, and Verisign (the company that manages
.com) would have an entry in their database that (in essence) says: "Go ask Namecheap for this information."
Why Is This Information Available?
In the early days of the internet, it seemed like a really good idea to store the necessary contact information for registrants.
At the time, there weren't all that many domains or registrants, and the process was fairly informal. Because the DNS system has to be publicly available for domain queries to work at all, the parallel WHOIS system remains completely public as well.
As the internet grew, the protocol never really changed all that much. The distributed system described above was implemented (originally a single database stored everything), but other than that — things simply continued.
Because of growing concerns over privacy, there have been several proposals and attempts to change how the WHOIS system works, or what information is included, or who can gain access to it, going all the way back to a proposal in 2004 to restrict access to only certain uses.
ICANN (the organization that manages the domain name and WHOIS systems) is currently in the process of "re-inventing" the WHOIS system, but it is unclear what their timeline is, or what the new system will look like.
Who Uses WHOIS?
The two most common legitimate uses for WHOIS lookup are:
- domain name research — finding out if a domain name is registered and, if so, to whom. This may be used by people trying to buy a domain.
- journalism — finding out who owns a site, in order to know who is behind its content.
Unfortunately, the WHOIS system is also used by spammers and marketers to harvest email addresses and other contact information.
Since the contact information from WHOIS represents people with something in common — they all own a domain name — WHOIS data harvesting is especially lucrative for people who sell any kind of domain-related tool.
If you've ever gotten unsolicited offers for "Search Engine Registration," there's a good chance this came from someone who got your domain name and contact information from a WHOIS lookup.
Providing Accurate Information
Unfortunately for people who dislike unsolicited offers for useless domain services, providing inaccurate or misleading information in the WHOIS system is problematic.
In some countries — notably Canada — you can actually lose your domain name registration if you are found to have provided bad information.
In the U.S., it isn't exactly illegal to provide false WHOIS info. However, if you are found guilty of trademark or copyright infringement, or certain types of fraud, you can be additionally penalized for falsifying your WHOIS information as part of the attempt to cover up those crimes.
Domain Name Privacy
Thankfully, many registrars provide domain name privacy.
With domain name privacy, the registrar substitutes their own contact information for yours. Anyone querying the WHOIS system for information about the domain gets fairly unhelpful information.
Here is the Registrant Contact information for one particular domain that has domain name privacy enabled by the registrar:
Registrant Name: Domain Administrator Registrant Organization: See PrivacyGuardian.org Registrant Street: 1928 E. Highland Ave. Ste F104 PMB# 255 Registrant City: Phoenix Registrant State/Province: AZ Registrant Postal Code: 85016 Registrant Country: US Registrant Phone: +1.3478717726 Registrant Phone Ext: Registrant Fax: Registrant Fax Ext: Registrant Email: [email protected]
Domain name privacy can be a very helpful feature. It cuts down on spam and unwanted marketing. If you wish to remain semi-anonymous because of the content you are publishing, it is an absolute must.
Some registrar companies charge for domain name privacy, which can easily double your domain registration cost. However, many registrars provide it for free.
If you have several domain names, the cost of privacy can be a real problem. This is one of the biggest reasons to use a registrar separate from your hosting company — most cheap hosting companies charge extra for privacy, while most standalone discount registrars do not.
Consider Domain Privacy
The domain name system includes a public directory of contact information for every registered domain, called the WHOIS system.
WHOIS data for any domain name is available easily and for free. Naturally, this is abused by marketers.
Anyone wishing to retain privacy or avoid marketers should use a domain privacy service. Most registrars provide such a service, and many of them provide it for free.
They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.
— Joni Mitchell
This short section covers the practice of domain parking, why it's not particularly beneficial, and suggestion for an alternative.
What Is Domain Parking?
Domain parking is the common practice of putting a revenue-generating, single-page site at a domain that you are not currently using for any other site or project.
Usually the ads are at least moderately related to the domain name. Most of the time, they are simply Google Adsense ads, or ads from another easy-to-implement automated ad network.
Benefits of Domain Name Parking
In theory, there are two primary potential benefits to domain parking.
- Having content on a page is better than not having content on a page, as it allows Google and other search engines to start indexing the site. This helps improve SEO later on.
- The site may generate revenue through ad clicks.
If the domain name was purchased for speculation (that is, you are hoping to sell it), there may also be a benefit in having sales information about the domain.
Also, for the reasons mentioned above, some people consider a long-parked domain to be more valuable in the aftermarket than recently-registered blank domains.
The problem with that is that it is usually very unlikely for any of this to be true.
Google, and the other search engines, don't especially like ad-filled websites with little content. Simply being in the index longer doesn't seem to confer any special benefit, and being seen as a spam site is possibly damaging.
Because Google is unlikely to send visitors to a page with little or no content, it is also unlikely that an ad-filled domain-parking page is going to attract enough people to generate any revenue at all.
When Does Domain Parking Work?
There are a few exceptions to the general rule that ad-filled parking pages don't generate enough traffic and clicks to be worth anything.
- An existing domain, with established traffic and keyword search results. This might be converted to a parked site for revenue if the site has been shut down. Residual traffic and search results will continue for some period of time, but will eventually trail off and mostly fade away.
- A domain name that is a commonly search-for word, followed by
.com. Domains like this get a lot of "type-in traffic." Unfortunately, there are almost no common-single word
.comdomains available anymore.
- A misspelling of a popular domain name. This, however, can result in lawsuits and charges of trademark infringement. Don't do it — any site with enough traffic to make it worthwhile also has enough resources to sue.
Interim Domain Parking
The vast majority of parked domains are not parked "on purpose," but are simply parked because most hosting companies automatically put up an ad-filled parking page when a domain name is registered.
Any revenue created by these ads usually is earned by the registrar or hosting company, not the domain owner.
This situation hardly matters, though, because the domains are only parked for a short period of time between registration and building a new site or launching a project.
Some hosting companies offer "Free Parking" services, which allow you to provide your own ad code or affiliate account details, letting you earn money without having to set up your own parking.
If a hosting company you have already decided on happens to offer this features, there's no real harm in taking advantage of it. However, it is decidedly not a worthwhile feature to look for when choosing a hosting plan.
The Decline of Parking
When the internet was newer, and there were a lot of fewer sites, and search engines were less sophisticated, domain parking with popular keywords was not a terrible way to earn a few dollars.
For some people, it was a legitimate business strategy, along with attempting to resell domain names — and the revenue generated by the domain parking added value of the domain, increasing its price.
For the most part, this is no longer the case anymore.
Very few people put any energy into domain parking, and the only ones who really make any money are the domain registrars and hosting companies, as they have hundreds of thousands or millions of parable domain names being paid for by customers.
Some domain speculators who may own many domains at any time may continue to include domain parking as part of their overall business activity, and they might make a few dollars from it. But almost no one is using monetized domain parking as a primary business driver.
An Alternative to Conventional Automated Parking
If you are looking to monetize a domain that you own, either because you want to eventually sell it and haven't yet found a buyer, or you are planning to build a website later but it will be a while before you get to it, you might want to consider something a few steps up the effectiveness ladder as compared with conventional ad-saturated parking pages.
With Content Management Systems like WordPress and Drupal, you can quickly set up a well-designed website. With a few minutes of adding plugins, you can have set up automated content creation, ad display, and a nicely designed theme. You can even set up an email subscription form and whatever type of messaging you want — whether "Coming Soon" or "Domain For Sale."
This is basically advanced Domain Parking, and it isn't a great business plan as a goal unto itself. But it may generate some actual traffic, which is more likely to lead to clicks, revenue, improved SEO, and increased resale value.
Don't gamble; take all your savings and buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it.
If it don't go up, don't buy it.
— Will Rogers
This section covers the ins and outs of buying and selling domain names for profit, including how to figure out a good price for your domains, where to sell them, and how to increase their value.
What Is Domain Speculation?
Domain speculation is the business of buying domain name names — either directly as new registers, or in the aftermarket — and selling them later for profit.
That's the idea, anyway. Many people make a lot of money speculating on domain names. But many other people — perhaps more people — end up wasting a lot of money on domain names. Speculating is inherently risky — the rewards are high, but they are by no means guaranteed.
Why Would Someone Speculate on Domain Names
As they say, "Everybody has to earn a living."
Some people came into domain speculation by chance in the early days of the internet, when it was still possible to buy short, single-word
.com names. They bought a few, found out other people wanted to buy them, and they were off and running.
Others came into it later, driven by some amount of tech-savvy and a promise of relatively easy riches. Some of these people have made it work, and others have simply wasted a lot of money.
Many people are not full time speculators, but tend to buy or sell a few domains — or a lot of them — as a hobby or even a side effect of their primary business activity.
Perhaps they buy domains when they think of a new business idea, and then sell them rather than starting the new business. Perhaps they are a niche newshound, and know what people are looking for in a particular industry.
Domain speculators are all sorts of people, and they each have their own reasons for being involved in the industry.
The Allure of Big Rewards
Mentioning a few of the bigger domain name sales is enough to get anyone salivating over easy domain profits.
toys.com— $5.1 million
fund.com— $9.9 million
sex.com— $13 million
Hundreds of other domains have sold for over a million dollars over the years, and many thousands have been sold for sums in the five and six digit numbers.
But the vast majority of domain sales are not anywhere near that price point. In 2014, sedo.com (the largest domain marketplace) reported that the median price for domain name sales was just $616.
Since a new domain name can be registered for under $10, there is still profit to be made here. But the big sales are few and far between, and it takes a lot of $600 sales to make a living.
Buying New Domains for Speculation
Anyone can register a new domain name, and it doesn't really cost very much —
.com domains are about $8 or $9, sometimes a little less.
So, if want to speculate on new domain names, hoping you'll come up with something that other people will end up wanting, the price for new domains shouldn't be a barrier.
The trick is to find domain names — usually keyword phrases — which represent things people may be looking for soon, but which not enough people are looking for that anyone has bothered to register yet.
You have to be a little ahead of the trend, predicting what types of domain names people are about to start looking for.
Sometimes this is accomplished with great foresight — thinking of things a long time before others do. Sometimes it is accomplished with creativity — reordering words or combining phrases in an interesting and valuable way.
Sometimes it just takes speed — registering words and phrases that appear in the news or social media as quickly as possible.
Most of the people who engage in this activity en masse have specialized tools for doing it — like automated computer scripts that look for statistically significant phrases in the news and then automatically purchase them as domain names if they are available.
Others, especially hobbyists, aren't quite so sophisticated, and simply purchase new domain names when they think of them — often domain names related to their particular industry or area of expertise.
If you are going to be registering a lot of new domain names, you want to make sure you get a good price on them. Look for domain name registrars with consistently low prices — not sale-driven prices. Sale driven prices, or discounts for first-year registrations, are inevitably paid for by increased renewal prices.
You don't want to have to move your domains around, and you don't really want them spread out across several different registrars. Your best bet is to find a domain name registrar with consistent low prices and decent service and then stick with them for all of your domain purchases. Some even offer a bulk discount.
Buying Existing Domains for Speculation
Buying existing domains for speculation is a little bit trickier, and certainly more expensive, than buying new registrations.
The problem with buying existing domains is that anyone who might want to buy the domain has as much chance of running across it as you.
You obviously weren't the first person to think of the domain name, but you also can't be the last. And, since your buy-price is going to be significantly higher than for a new registration, your profit margin (or your margin for error) will be much lower.
One way to find underpriced, high-value domain names that have already been registered is to look at expiring domain names. These are names that the owner is letting drop, for whatever reason. These are domains that at least one person thought were going to be really good ideas, and they are available at a relatively low aftermarket price.
Be sure to read the section on buying aftermarket domains for more information on how to purchase domains that have already been registered. You can also check out our infographic on buying registered domains
Developing a Domain
A domain name can be valuable simply for its name, but it can also be valuable because of its Google Page Rank and backlink profile.
Some people who make money buying and selling domain names don't just trade in names — they actually improve the domain, adding value to it, so that they can fetch a higher price.
Domain improvement comes through adding high-quality content to a domain, and through generating backlinks. Same-name accounts on Social Media can also add to the value of a domain name.
Selling Your Domain Names
The easiest — and for most people, most profitable — way to sell domain names is to list them on a domain name marketplace. Probably the two best options in that market are:
Other popular options include:
These sites provide a wide range of services, from simple listing to full-service brokerage.
As with domain name registration, your best bet is to find one that works for you and work with it exclusively. Trying to switch back and forth between several domain marketplaces will cause you unneeded complication and probably greater expense.
Setting a Good Price
Valuing a domain name is basically a shot in the dark. Ultimately, a domain name is worth what someone is willing to pay for it.
Like all things — you don't want to set the price too low and leave money on the table, but you don't want to set the price too high and lose a sale.
The best you can do is to compare your domain to others that are as similar to it as possible.
Similarity can be looked at from several perspectives:
- industry or niche — For example,
rxbymail.comare similar because they are related to the same industry. You could likely find dozens, maybe hundreds, of other domains either for sale, or recently sold, within this industry.
- keywords — Even more closely related that just the same industry, domains that share keywords are even more similar. For example,
discountpills.comis very similar to both
- number of words — Generally (but not always), when other things are equal, domains with fewer words are more valuable. You can compare your domain with domains both in the same industry/niche or others based on the number of words
Other factors affecting value:
- age of domain — There is no direct evidence that Google, or any other search engine, takes the age of a domain into account for search results. However, there is a very strong belief in the SEO and Domain Speculation world that they do, and that older domains are better.
- gTLD — Even with all the new extensions available,
.comis the most valuable TLD, with
.orglagging behind in second place.
- backlink profile / SEO — If you have done anything to improve the SEO of a domain, this will increase the domain's value.
- additional assets — Some people like to get matching pairs of
.comdomains, so being able to sell a matched set increases their value. Additionally, because social media like Facebook and Twitter are so important today, accounts or pages with matching names can increase the value of a domain name.
- existing traffic or revenue — If a domain is currently generating revenue, or even reasonable traffic, that can greatly increase the value of the domain name. But then we're starting to talk about selling not just a domain name, but a whole business.
The Boring Truth About Domain Name Speculation
While tales of multi-million dollar sales make for great stories, they aren't the normal state of affairs for domain speculators. Even the less impressive five- or six-figure sale is pretty rare.
Moreover, if this guide is your introduction to domain name speculation, there's a good chance you won't be able to catch up to the well-established insiders who dominate that level of the business.
However, there's no good reason you couldn't make a few hundred dollars on a single domain name. The majority of sales are less than a thousand dollars. It isn't enough to make you rich, but its a fine business if you can close enough small deals.
Domain Name Defense
We have to distrust each other. It is our only defense against betrayal.
— Tennessee Williams
This section covers defensive domain registration, strategies for protecting the reputation of your domain name and ensuring that everyone who wants to reach your domain does so successfully without inadvertently being lured onto a competitor's site.
Additionally, it covers issues of domain name security.
The Need to Defend Your Domain Name
There are a number of reasons to be protective of your domain name. It represents your brand, and you don't want the activities of others to damage your image or reputation.
Additionally, you don't want to accidentally lose traffic — especially not to a competitor or someone trying to profit from your reputation.
If you register a new domain name, it is usually best to register both the
.com and the
.org version of the domain name.
Similarly, if you use an exotic TLD like
.club, you should probably invest in the
.com version, including the domain suffix.
.org together ensure that no one will register the other one and use it to capture traffic, profiting from your reputation.
Misspellings and Alternate spellings
One of the most highly visited sites on the internet is the virus-infested spam site at
http://goggle.com (seriously — don't go there).
The reason it gets so much traffic is not because people want to buy goggles, but simply because it is one letter away from one of the most important domain names on the internet:
When your own domain name is close to a real word, it may be difficult to do anything about it. But if you can register obvious or common misspellings of your domain name, you should.
Likewise, if you are registering a keyword-phrase domain name, it might make sense to register alternate word orders as well as the hyphenated version of your primary domain name.
What to Do About Additional Domains
If your primary domain name is
keywordrichdomainexample.com, you might think about registering:
Obviously this can become an issue of expense, so you need to think about whether it is worth it.
Whatever domain names you decide to register aside from your primary one, there are two ways to handle it: - Edit the CNAME on the DNS record to point the additional domains to your primary domain. - Setup a
301 Moved Permanentlyy redirect on the server to point the additional domains to the primary domain.
Trademark and Domain Name Infringement
You cannot register every possible permutation on your domain name.
So you should pay attention to the potential use of domain name variations, especially if your primary domain becomes popular. It may be that other people will register similar domain names in order to profit from your reputation.
This might be done by people registering the same domain name under a different Top Level Domain, registering a misspelling or alternate spelling, or by registering a deliberately spoofed spelling.
Spoof spellings can occur when letters are replaced by numbers (
paypa1.com) or when letters from one alphabet are replaced with identical letters from another alphabet.
Cyrillic (the alphabet used in Russia) has a number of characters that look exactly like letters in the Latin alphabet (used in English), and these can be used to spoof the spelling of a domain name.
One of the easiest ways to automate the search for possible domain name infringement is with the service DomainTools.
Use Your Domain
Registering a domain name doesn't grant you an exclusive right to use the name or related names — unlike copyright, trademark is not at all automatic.
The most important consideration in proving that a particular use infringes on a business name is that the name is publicly identifiable with the business itself. You can't just register a name and shelve it — trademark protection is predicated on actual use.
So — one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself is to actually use your domain and to build a reputation online.
It also helps to create a distinctive brand — a look, style, voice, color palette, and typography. This will help reinforce your identity. It also provides a more immediate benefit: anyone who is familiar with your brand will notice if they end up on the wrong website.
Keeping Your Domain Name Secure
Did you know that people can actually steal domain names? It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.
In 2014 there was a major theft of domain names from Moniker.com, a large domain name registrar.
Hackers gained access to Moniker's domain management system and began systematically transferring high-value domain names to other domain name registrars.
This was a high-profile operation, but by no means was it the only time this has happened. What can you do to make sure that a similar theft doesn't happen to you?
Two-factor authentication is a login security protocol that requires an additional authentication besides the typical username and password. USually, two-factor authentication involves a confirmation of a login or other event via phone call or text message.
This is, no doubt, a bit annoying. But it is one of the best things you can do to ensure that no one logs in to your account with your permission.
Keep Your Password Secure
This is good advice for all of your online life.
- Do not email your password. — Email itself gets hacked from time to time, and sending your password via email means that a single security breach can turn into two.
- Do not use the same password on more than one service. — Similarly, reusing passwords can turn a single breach into a hundred breaches. In an age when we all have dozens, or even hundreds, of password-protected accounts, using the password over and over can seriously compromise your security and identity.
- Do not store your password in plaintext on your computer. — If someone gains access to your computer, they then can also gain access to everything else. This includes your web browser's "Remember Your Password" feature.
- Use a mathematically secure password. Most user-generated passwords have a very low amount of entropy. They can be guessed by a computer algorithm without too much trouble. Use either a randomly generated password, or a long passphrase, to increase security.
- Use an encrypted password manager. — Its hard to care much about strong passwords if you're going to have to remember them. Most people can't remember long strings of random characters, and certainly can't remember dozens of them. A secure password manager makes it a lot easier to actually implement password security.
Use Safe, Secure Registrars
Keep your domain names with Registrars that have a long history of solid and secure service. Avoid registrars (such as Moniker) that have a documented reputation of poor security practices.
Pay Attention to Domain Alerts and Notices
We all get a lot of email from the various companies and websites we do business with, so it can be easy to ignore them. But, you really need to pay attention to notices from your domain name registrar.
If there is a security breach, you want to know about it as soon as possible and be able to deal with it.
The Moniker breach that occurred in 2014 was made worse by the fact that many customers ignored the security notices coming from the registrar, thinking they were some kind of phishing scam.
(Moniker is partly to blame for this — they could have designed their email to appear more legitimate — but customers also should have taken the notice more seriously, or at least looked into it more.)
Security Is Essential
Keeping your domain protected involves defense on two fronts — making sure your domain's reputation remains solid, and making sure your domain remains yours.
Many people take domain name security and protection for granted, failing to employ even the most basic protections, until it is too late.
But domain name security is critically important to your online business. Make sure you take security concerns into account from the very beginning.
Domain Name Registration and Registrars
Wherever anything lives, there is, open somewhere, a register in which time is being inscribed.
— Henri Bergson
This section provides information about how to register and manage your domain names, special services offered by domain name registrars, and the benefits of keeping your domain name registration separate from your web hosting account.
How to Register a New Domain Name
Registering a new domain name is pretty simple. You need to find a decent registrar, which is a company that provides domain name registration services.
What to Look for in a Domain Name Registrar
There are a lot of things to consider when choosing a registrar. Price is certain a very important consideration, but there's much more to think about than that.
Domain name registration is, much more than hosting, a commodity service. The TLD registration authorities set specific registration fees, and everything above that is just profit margin for the retail registrar company. There's usually very little reason to pay more than you need to.
The main Generic Top Level Domains (GTLDs —
.net) will usually be around $5/yr or so. Other "exotic" TLDs (
.ninja) or country code TLDs (
.tv) will often be more — some even as high as $50.
The TLD You Are Looking For
Not all registrars have access to all available TLDs. If you want one of the common GTLDs, you should have plenty of options to choose from.
Only some registrars are selling the extended TLDs (
.church, etc.), and most of the country-specific TLDs are only sold by a single registrar service.
Free WHOIS Privacy
WHOIS privacy is a feature provided by many domain name registrars. The registrar substitutes their own contact information for yours in the Domain WHOIS record, which keeps your own personal contact information private.
This can be helpful for reducing SPAM and other unwanted communication.
Some domain name registrars charge the entire cost of registration over again for domain name WHOIS privacy. There's really no need to pay that much for this because some domain registrars offer it as a free service.
Domain Name Management Services
Any domain name registrar is going to make it reasonably easy for you to edit your DNS records. At heart, that's really the only thing that needs to be done with a domain name to make sure it is connected with the correct web server and other services.
However, some domain name registrars go a step further and make it even easier to connect a domain name with a third party service, like Google Apps.
They do this by providing a menu of common services that require connection with a domain name — Google Apps, bit.ly, GitHub — and then automatically handle the DNS record editing for you. In cases where user-specific information is needed from, they provide an interface for entering it.
This can make it much simpler to integrate your domain name into other services, web servers, and application hosts.
If you prefer to use a PayPal account, Bitcoin, or anything other than a major credit card (which everyone takes), make sure you look into that before you get too far into a name search and checkout process.
There are plenty of domain registrars that will take your preferred payment method.
Account Management API
If you only have one or two domain names, this isn't a big deal.
But if you need to manage a large number of domain names, you might need to be able to handle registration, renewal, and DNS editing programmatically, via API. Not all registrars offer this type of service, but some do, so make sure you check into it before making a decision.
Don't Use Your Hosting Company
Most web hosting companies offer domain registration services, and many even offer a free domain name along with their hosting package.
You should usually avoid taking advantage of this option.
Web Host Domain Registration Is Too Expensive
Domain registration — especially for the common GTLDs (
.org, etc.) — should be fairly inexpensive. The basic registration fee is set by the domain registering authority, and is the same for everyone. Anything more than that is just overhead and profit margin.
When you register a domain name with a separate registrar, the prices are usually as low as they can make them — they are competing with other registrars on price.
But when you register through your hosting company, they treat you like a captive audience and raise the price as much as they think they can get away with. Many web hosting companies charge twice as much for domain name registration as an independent domain name registrar will.
It Makes It Difficult to Move Later
Most people will eventually move their website from one hosting company to another at some point. This is especially true of your first website and hosting company — your needs are likely to change over time and you may discover that your hosting company isn't the best option for you.
If your hosting company is also your domain name registrar, moving from that web host to another is going to be twice as difficult as it would be otherwise.
If your domain name is registered elsewhere, the process for moving web hosts is pretty straightforward: - build a new website on another host - when it's ready, change the DNS records on your domain to point to the new website
What to Do With That Free Domain
When you are developing your website, you'll want to be able to visit it live on the web. This requires a domain name. But you don't want your branded domain name to become associated with a half-baked website.
If your web hosting company offers a free domain along with purchasing a web hosting account, choose something you won't want for public consumption, and use that as your development and/or testing domain name.
If you ever move away from your web hosting company, you won't have to go through the trouble and expense of moving a domain name that you have spent time and money developing brand awareness and backlinks for. You can simply let it expire when you leave.
How to Point Your Domain Name to Your Hosting Company
Almost all web hosting companies make this pretty easy and you can get more specific instructions from your hosting company's help pages. But — the process is similar for all of them.
You'll need to update the DNS records for your domain name servers to indicate the Name Servers for your hosting company. Then you'll need to associate the domain name with your account, which you'll usually be able to do from within the domain management tools of your hosting control panel.
Keep Registration and Hosting Apart
Domain name registrars provide a relatively cheap way to register and manage domain names separately from your hosting account. Keep domain registration apart from your web hosting company will usually save you money and make domain name management easier.
Clearly, there is a lot to choosing, acquiring, and maintaining a good domain name. With the information in this guide, you should be well on your way. So what's stopping you?
Here are few resources that you may find useful:
- How to Buy a Domain Name That's Already Registered - Found the perfect domain name, but someone already owns it? Read our tips on how to track down the perfect domain.
- Illustrated Guide to Web Hosting - If a domain is like a street address, then web hosting is like the building - where your digital business is stored. Read how web hosting works here.