What’s in a Domain: The Complete Guide to Domain Names
Tight margins between profit and loss mean the domain name you register as a web address can make or break your online business.
Domain names are a challenge for any business because they are both a brand asset with personal and cultural associations and a practical tool for locating a website.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk you through all the steps to register the best domain name for your business.
What Is a Domain Name?
Compared to computers, humans have poor numerical recall; our strength is language recall.
Every human being has a unique DNA sequence. You, your mother, the person who sold you your coffee this morning, the last person to fall in love with you, your school bully, are all genetically unique. It is theoretically possible to refer to each other using our genomes, and a computer would experience no difficulty in doing so. However, we find it far, far easier to allocate a name such as “John” or “Jennifer.”
Similarly, every server on the internet has an Internet Protocol (IP) address. An IP address is a string of numbers separated by dots, for example, 135.412.822.12
We can, in most cases, access a website using its IP address. However, we find it far easier to allocate a domain name.
In simplistic terms, when you type a domain name into a browser, it sends a request to a DNS server, which translates the domain name into an IP address using a process called DNS resolution.
Anatomy of a Domain Name
For the purposes of registering a domain name, there are two parts to consider: TLDs and SLDs.
Top Level Domains
The first part is the domain extension, or Top Level Domain (TLD). In the case of this site, the TLD is .com.
TLDs are sometimes referred to as domain suffixes, or URL extensions.
There are many types of TLDs, and the one you choose will have a substantial impact on how your brand is perceived.
Second Level Domains
The second part is the SLD (Second Level Domain)—sometimes called the 2LD.
The SLD is an alpha-numerical phrase between 2 – 64 characters. (Analphabetic characters, including acutes and tildes, are forbidden, but you may use a hyphen.)
In the case of this site, the SLD is webzagger.
Subdomains prefix the SLD. For example, store.webzagger.com or help.webzagger.com. Or even www.webzagger.com.
Subdomains don’t need to be globally unique—countless domains employ a www subdomain, for example.
Because they aren’t unique, subdomains aren’t part of the equation when registering a domain; you can create them later in your hosting space.
How to Choose a Domain Extension
There are pros and cons to choosing a domain name before, after, or simultaneously with a business name.
If you are registering a domain name for an existing brand identity, then your options are considerably narrower. On the other hand, an established starting point can introduce much-needed clarity to the process.
The biggest obstacle when selecting the right domain name for your business is the availability of the domain name.
Most people think up a domain name and then check the available domain name extensions. A more effective approach is to begin by selecting the appropriate extension and then choosing an available domain name.
Always begin by selecting the right domain extension.
Do I Need to Register a .com?
Ideally, for a commercial company, register a .com; for a non-profit, register both a .org and the matching .com.
.com has become shorthand for websites, to the extent that many keyboards include a ‘.com’ button. The power of a good .com is such that it is far preferable to compromise the domain name than to register the perfect domain name with a weaker extension. Not least because a .com is easy to remember.
However, the web is running out of .coms and .orgs, and dozens of domain names may suit niche cases.
Should I Register a Regional Domain Extension?
Originally, TLDs were all gTLDs (Generic Top Level Domains). As part of the ongoing expansion of domain names, ccTLDs (Country Code Top Level Domains) were introduced.
ccTLDs are intended for use by a specific country or region. For example, in the domain name example.co.uk, the ‘co.uk’ is a ccTLD.
In some territories, regional domain extensions are more recognised than in others. For example, .de is widely recognised in Europe as a site that is likely to be published in German or be targeted explicitly at German speakers.
The downside to registering a ccTLD is that you are restricted to a single territory. A .co.uk, for example, will not aid your expansion into European markets.
Many territories, especially those with desirable extensions, place additional requirements on anyone registering a domain. For example, to register a .ie domain name, you need to prove you have a connection to the island of Ireland.
In most cases, regional domain extensions are best left to multi-nationals, who can register a dedicated domain for every territory they physically operate in.
Should I Register an Unusual Domain Extension?
Some hyper-specific domain extensions are excellent, provided you know how they might restrict your ambitions.
My web design site uses a .design extension. That communicates far more about the nature of the business than a .com would, and my customers tend to be more educated about the web than the average user.
However, remember that these domains, like regional domains, can paint you into a corner. For example, .luxury may appear to be the ideal domain extension for a fashion label, but .clothing is more flexible for an agile business.
Should I Register a .co or .biz Domain Extension?
In an attempt to satisfy the demand for domain names and the rapidly decreasing number of available .coms, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) approved the introduction of .co and .biz.
These domains, and others like them, are rarely worthwhile. Your chosen domain extension communicates a lot to your customers, and in the case of .co or .biz, what you’re communicating is that the .com was, for whatever reason, out of your grasp.
If the .com is unavailable, registering a .co or .biz as an alternative puts you into direct competition with a .com at an immediate disadvantage.
Should I Register a Pun Extension?
It is sometimes tempting to register a gimmicky name; some extensions naturally lend themselves to puns. In English, the most notorious are .it and .in, as in buy.it or buy.in—it’s largely thanks to these wits that Italy and India are running out of domain names sooner than anticipated.
You should never do this. Misusing regional domain extensions this way will play havoc with your local SEO because algorithms have no sense of humour.
The only exception to this rule is when a particular domain extension is widely recognised within an industry. For example, many software projects use .io—.io is actually the TLD for the British Indian Ocean Territory—because it looks like a 1 and a 0 (a reference to binary code). If you take this route, be sure all of your prospective audience is in on the joke.
Should I Buy All Domain Extensions?
Whether to register a single domain to register all the domain extensions you can is primarily a question of budget. If you have unlimited resources, then there is no technical downside to registering multiple domain extensions.
However, you’re unlikely to recoup the cost of registering all the domain extensions you can think of. If you have a substantial budget, you are far better off registering one good domain and then ploughing your remaining budget into promoting it.
Once you’ve chosen a domain extension, abide by your decision. The reason I advise clients to choose a domain extension first is that once you begin to search for names, the temptation to compromise is too great.
In most cases, the best domain extension to register is a .com (or a .com and .org)—even if it means the SLD is compromised—because it communicates a degree of credibility that other domains cannot match.
Which Domain Name Should I Register?
At this stage, it is crucial to accept that no domain name starts out as perfect.
Good website names acquire their value over time as a result of CX (Customer Experience).
Instead of trying to find the perfect domain name, register a domain that has the potential to become perfect.
Think of a domain name as a tattoo: you’ll see it every day, it will become part of your identity, and changing or removing it is both expensive and painful.
Should I Register a Domain Name With Keywords?
SEO should be one of the primary concerns of every site owner because it drives organic traffic (users that don’t come from paid advertising), delivering ongoing return on investment.
Despite changes in recent years, SEO still relies on keywords in your content. Consequently, you’ll find plenty of advice online that you should work keywords into your domain; there are several compelling reasons that you should discount that advice:
- Your keywords will inevitably change over time as you pivot your business to adapt to new markets and opportunities. Even if your business remains the same, your industry certainly will not.
- It is well-established that domain names containing keywords are considered generic budget options. Generic naming is less memorable because it matches a search term—users may recall the search, but they won’t remember your site in the results.
- Search engines are primed to begin penalising domain names that make excessive use of keywords. Just as EMDs (Exact Match Domains) are no longer beneficial to search rankings, the SEO value of keywords in a domain name is negligible.
Unless you’re registering a domain for a short-term project, domains containing keywords are both risky and ineffective.
Should I Buy a Premium Domain Name?
Premium domains are domain names that someone—commonly referred to as a domain squatter—has registered speculatively in the hope of reselling at a substantial markup.
Like all speculative investors, domain squatters have no way of knowing which domain names will be desirable, so they bulk-buy domains with common words and phrases in the hope of attracting a sale. The enormous wastage means domain squatters are forced to charge huge fees to realise a profit.
Buying a premium domain from a premium marketplace will cost between 1,000%–100,000% of the registration cost. (It’s a one-time fee, with reregistration being charged at a registrar’s standard rate.) No domain is so effective that the cost would not be better allocated to marketing or advertising.
Price aside, second-hand domains often come with legacy problems like a toxic domain authority score or a search engine black-listing.
There are virtually no circumstances under which I would ever advise a business to buy a premium domain.
Should I Register Misspellings of My Domain Name?
If there are obvious misspellings of your domain name, you should register them. The misspelt domains can forward traffic to your primary domain, so you don’t lose customers.
A common misspelling to register is the plural of your domain name because users often erroneously add an s to domains, typing examples.com instead of example.com.
It is a fact of global business that some people use alternative spelling. The most obvious example is American-English omitting u from colour. There are more speakers of American-English, so unless you are explicitly targeting speakers of British-English. However, if you’re avoiding keywords in your domain as you should be, this is less likely to be an issue.
You shouldn’t feel the need to register every possible misspelling. For example, “macintosh.com” might justifiably register “mcintosh.com”, but registering “macingtosh.com” would be unnecessarily cautious.
Ideally, register a domain name that is not easily misspelt.
Domain Name Best Practices
At the time of writing, there are around 400 million registered domain names, and the total is growing.
Not all of those 400,000,000 addresses have been successful, but by examining those that have, web professionals have established a set of best practices for choosing domain names.
Make Your Domain Name Flexible
First and foremost, your chosen domain name must be flexible enough to encompass your ambition.
Don’t build keywords into your domain name, and don’t limit yourself to a specific market or niche.
Keep Your Domain Name Short
It is generally accepted that six to twelve characters and between two and four syllables (excluding the domain extension) is the sweet spot. Yes, webzagger.com hits the nail on the head.
Short means simple. Short domains are easier to remember and, because they require fewer keystrokes, are less likely to be mistyped—the latter is essential on mobile devices.
There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that some users infer greater quality from a short domain because the organisation is deemed to either have been an early digital adopter or have the buying power to secure a short domain.
Ensure Your Domain Name Is Memorable and Recognizable
The core function of a domain name is to act as a memorable alias for an IP address. The domain name itself should be memorable.
Speak your domain out loud. Does it trip off the tongue? Does it have a musical rhythm that aids memory?
Choose A Brandable Domain Name Over a Generic Domain Name
A brandable domain is a unique name, or at least unique to its market. Compare google.com (brandable) with search.com (generic).
There are many posited reasons for brandable domains outperforming generic names, but the most persuasive is tied to memory.
The human brain registers the unexpected and unusual with greater emphasis—you probably can’t remember yesterday’s breakfast, but you probably can remember your wedding breakfast.
When you search for a keyword, the keyword is already in your mind. Finding a domain containing the keyword is not unexpected, so while you may recall the search, you are less likely to remember the domain.
Avoid Slang Terms in Domain Names
One of the key qualities of a slang term is that it has a short life span.
Ageing is a victory, something that happens to us all if we’re lucky. But often, it’s a process we’re unaware of; most of us feel more in touch with our youth than we actually are.
The use of slang is rooted in a specific time and culture. Unless you want your domain name to be transitory, avoid slang.
Domain Names Should Be Easy to Communicate
Verbal referrals are still one of the most powerful ways of building a business. As such, domain names that are simple to pronounce and spelt phonetically are ideal. In the industry, this is known as the radio test; if your domain is name-checked on the radio—or, more likely, a podcast—is it easy to understand.
Domain names that are easy to pronounce are more impactful due to a mental principle called processing fluency; the less effort involved in understanding a domain name, the more likely we are to remember it.
Do Not Use Hyphens in Domain Names
For many years, hyphens were considered a legitimate character in a domain name. Although they are still officially supported — for backwards compatibility, they will probably always be supported — you should never register a domain name containing a hyphen.
There is no way to pronounce a hyphen other than “hyphen” or “dash”, which elongates and complicates your carefully selected domain name, impacting memorability.
Additionally, search engines are beginning to treat domain names with hyphens as potentially spammy and may penalise their ranking accordingly.
Do Not Use Numbers in Domain Names
Avoid including numbers in domain names unless you want to spend the rest of your working life saying, “The number, not the word.”
If you must register a domain with a number — if, for example, a number is part of your brand name — try to register the word variation as well. For example, cloud9.com should aim to also register cloudnine.com.
Avoid Blocks of Letters in Domain Names
Avoid domain names that group letters — doubled letters, or even tripled letters — together in a block. For example, dressstyle.com will likely have an s missed out and be entered as dresstyle.com, losing traffic in the process.
If your brand name groups letters in this way, try to register the misspellings.
Make Your Domain Name Mobile Friendly
In the past few years, many sites have discovered their traffic has migrated from desktop machines to mobile devices. On average, mobile traffic now exceeds desktop traffic. This introduces two consequences for domain names:
- On mobile, the hyphen character is hidden and more complicated to access, and longer names are more difficult to type.
- Users are more likely to have auto-correct enabled on mobile. If your domain is a slight misspelling of a common term, you may lose a lot of traffic.
Ignore Social Media
Don’t discount a domain name simply because the handle is unavailable on social media platforms.
The business value of social media varies from company to company, and even if social media is essential to your business model, there are marketing strategies that will solve username availability issues.
The social media landscape will likely change throughout your business’ life, and one service should not dictate your identity. Yes, Facebook is huge, but then so was the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Carry Out Due-Diligence
When you’re considering a domain name, research it thoroughly. Write it out. Write out the syllables. Show it to your partner, your friends, your parents, your children.
Search for the domain online. Run the syllables through a translation tool to check you aren’t registering something offensive in a foreign language—especially if there’s the slightest chance you’ll be operating in a territory that uses a language other than your own.
Occasionally, you will find a domain has been registered previously, used for a less-than-savoury purpose, and then dropped when it became toxic.
Check archive.org to see if the domain name has ever been registered. This will tell you what it was used for and if it has any baggage.
Check If Your Domain Name is Copyrighted or Trademarked
There is a common misconception that a company has an automatic right to a domain name simply because it holds a partially matching trademark or copyright. If there were any truth to that, domain extensions would be redundant because every SLD would be unique by necessity.
There are plenty of justifiable reasons for holding a domain that someone else makes a claim on, from prior art to operating in an unrelated industry, but do you really want to expend the legal costs involved in making that case?
Legal entanglements aside, it’s not wise to be competing on search engines with a more established company.
(Different jurisdictions make and apply laws differently. However, it is typically the case that if the SLD you are registering is not trademarked at the time of registration, any future trademark would be invalid for reasons of prior art.)
How Do I Register a Domain Name?
You cannot buy a domain name; you only ever rent it. You pay a fee to a registrar or an intermediary, who will register the domain on your behalf.
The fees vary from registrar to registrar based on the type of domain extension and the number of years you want to register for.
Once you reach the end of the registration period, you’ll need to renew by paying the fee again. As the registered domain holder, you’ll have first refusal on the registration when it comes time to renew.
Can I Register a Domain Name Myself?
You can and should register a domain name yourself. It is an essential business asset, and you should control it with the same iron grip normally reserved for your credit card.
Registering yourself means that you have responsibility for management, but also complete control of your domain name.
The process is simple; the only real risk is getting trigger-happy and blowing the annual budget on too many extensions.
How Long Should I Register a Domain Name For?
Typically, domains are registered annually for anything from one to ten years.
There’s no benefit to registering for a more extended period, except that some domain name registrars offer a discount for doing so.
Should I Buy Hosting Space With My Domain Name?
Only buy hosting space with your domain name if you have had extensive discussions with a qualified developer or you have sufficient technical knowledge yourself to identify a technology stack.
A decision about hosting is best made strategically, in consultation with your developer, who can precisely pinpoint the technologies, scale, and security measures required for your project.
Your domain does not need to be registered with the same company that provides your web hosting.
Should I Buy Domain Privacy With My Domain Name?
Domain privacy is a way of anonymising your details so that private information, such as your phone number, is not published online.
It is always a good idea to buy privacy protection when you register a domain. It is imperative if you have yet to acquire business premises and are using your home address for the registration.
I’ve Registered a Domain Name, What Should I Do Next?
Congratulations! Registering a domain name is the first step in a journey that will be rewarding and affirming.
Before you start thinking about building your website, there are a few things you should take care of to safeguard your domain name.
Should I Verify My Domain Registration?
The RAA (Registrar Accreditation Agreement) requires registrars to verify some information about you, most commonly your contact details.
This verification frequently comes as an email, usually a few days after a domain is registered. The email will contain a link to click to verify your identity.
It is never a good idea to click links in unsolicited emails, but in this case, you have no choice; if you do not follow the expected verification process, the registration will be deleted.
If you’re uneasy about the verification, reach out to your registrar, who will confirm whether the email is genuine.
Should I Lock My Domain Name?
Domain locking prevents a domain name from being transferred away to another provider and out of your control. Most registrars will automatically lock your domain as soon as it is registered so that it cannot be transferred away without your permission.
As a precaution, check your account or contact the registrar’s support team to verify your domain is locked.
Should I Auto-Renew My Domain Name?
Yes, unequivocally. At some point—be it a year, two years, or ten years—your domain name registration will expire. Ensure you set your domain name to auto-renew so it isn’t released back onto the market at the end of the registration period.
Your registrar will be happy to help you set this up—most enable it by default—after all, you’re promising them future business. Ensure you keep a valid credit card on file with them so you can be billed when the time comes.
As the renewal date approaches, you should get emails reminding you. Provided the auto-renewal is enabled and there’s an active payment method, your domain name will be re-registered for you.