Technically speaking, the first thing you must do to build a website is to find a unique name for your site and register the name so that no one else can use it. This name is called a ‘Domain Name’.
The ‘Domain Name’ is what others will use to find your website. It’s what they will type in their browser address bar when they want to access your website.
Parts of a Domain Name
A Domain name is made up of several parts. It first has to have a ‘top level domain’. The most popular top level domain is ‘com’. There are many others such as ‘org’, ‘net’, ‘info’, and ‘me’. The name that you choose will go before that top level domain separated by a period such as ‘cullenwebservices.com’. This chosen name must consist of letters, numbers or a dash.
The name you choose and the top level domain are the only required parts of a domain name. You can choose to add a subdomain to the website name to break your site into different parts. This subdomain can be anything you want (as long as it’s characters, numbers or a dash) and goes before the domain name separated by a period, such as ‘support.cullenwebservices.com’ or ‘domains.cindycullen.com’.
In the domain name ‘www.cullenwebservices.com’, the www is a subdomain. When the internet started, the www was the section of the website that was available to the World Wide Web or to the public. Other parts of the website were private. Some websites still work this way, but most websites allow you to drop the www to access their main website.
You can create other sections of your website by using a different subdomain. These sections can be stand-alone websites that use the same domain name. Sometimes instead of using and registering two domain names, you can use the same domain name and create subdomains to mark the sections or separate websites. Sometimes websites will use support.example.com for their support website which is separate from their public sales website at example.com.
You may also want to use a subdomain temporarily while you build a site. Many designers and developers will buy one domain name for their test sites and then use a subdomain on that domain name for each test site.
How Domain Names Work
You can register your domain name at a domain name registrar. These registrars will first check to see if your desired domain name has already been registered with your chosen top level domain by someone else. If not, it will allow you to register the domain for one or more years at a time.
Once you've paid for the domain name, your contact information will be associated with the domain name and stored at the top level domain server so that computers hooked to the internet can look up the name. Once you have your website built, you can also let the registrar know where your website lives so that they can point anyone looking for your site in the right direction. Until then, your domain name will just point to a generic web page built for websites who aren’t pointing to a real website yet. This is called 'parking' the domain name. As in, the domain is 'parked'.
Once you’ve got your domain name pointing to your website, anytime someone types your website name in their address bar, their browser will send the name to their Internet Service Provider (ISP). The ISP will then search for that name on the top level domain name computers to find out where they should send that person to communicate with your site.
However, if they’ve accessed that site before, their browser will save (‘cache’) the location and the files so that it will be quicker to get to the site next time they want to go there. The ISP also has a cache so that if anyone in their system accesses a website, the information will be stored to make it quicker for the next person looking for the same site. This is why popular websites, such as Amazon and Facebook, sometimes seem to come up much more quickly than others.
This means that when you type an address in your browser address bar, your computer first looks to see if you’ve been there before and if so, it will often load the last files you received from that address from the browser cache. If it doesn’t find them (you haven’t been there before or you cleared your browser cache), then it will ask the ISP for the files. The ISP checks it’s cache for the files. If it doesn’t have them, it will go searching on the internet. There are several other caches throughout the internet, but if it’s not found on any of them, it will eventually end up at the top level domain server to find the domain name.
This is a simplified version of what really happens, but hopefully, it helps you understand:
- The power of your browser
- The way your browser cache works and why you may need to clear it after you've made changes
- Why you need to register your domain name
- Why you need to ‘point’ your domain name to the server where your computer will live
- Why it takes a little while for any changes to your domain name or website to take effect
The Importance of Your Domain Name
Your domain name is online real estate. If you have a popular domain name registered in your name, you could potentially sell it for a lot of money. By the same token, if you want a popular domain name that someone else has already thought of, it could cost you quite a bit to buy that domain name from them. There are some people who make businesses of buying and selling domain names. They are often quite profitable if they are good at choosing names.
For this reason, NEVER go look for domain names at registrar websites if you aren't serious about actually registering it. There are 'sniffers' (software programs that monitor what you search for) who will take the domain name if you don't. Then when you come back later to buy the domain, they've already bought it and would love to charge you a hefty price to buy it from them.
If you find a domain name that you think you might possibly be interested in, go ahead and buy it. At $10 - $15 per year, it's a small price to pay. If you don't snatch it for that price, you could end up paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for the same domain name later (if you think you just HAVE to have it).
Your domain name is one of the most important parts of your website. It is part of your branding. It is how the search engines find you. It is what your customers remember.
You should protect it at all costs. Choose a good domain name registrar. Some of the more popular registrars are costly and not very trustworthy. Be careful with your domain name!
Choosing Your Website Name
Choosing a Top Level Domain
If you are a business, you should use '.com'. If your are a church or non-profit organization, you can use '.org'. There are lots of other top level domains, but .com and/or .org are the ones that stick in people's minds the most. If you choose to use a different top level domain besides .com or .org because the .com or .org is already taken, please check out those sites that are already there to see to whom you may be sending your customers. The .com and/or .org will certainly get some of your traffic.
Most likely, you are building a website for the public, or for a specific group of people. It won't serve you if it can't be found. It won't serve you if people can't remember the name. Choose a memorable name. The .com will be the most memorable version.
Should I Use Dashes in My Domain Name?
Sometimes domain names with dashes are easier to read. cullen-web-services.com is easier to read than cullenwebservices.com. You can point two domains to the same website, so I used to buy both domain names and point them to my website so that I could put them in print and also say it on the phone easier. It's hard to say a name with dashes.
I wrote an article a while ago with more details about using dashes here.
But, with the popularity of the web, people are more used to seeing domain names without dashes. Unless your name could be misinterpreted as something else, then I would probably stick with the one domain name without dashes. Plus, you can always make it more readable using capital letters like this: CullenWebServices.com
But, please, think about your domain name. Don't make the same mistake that these guys made: http://www.boredpanda.com/worst-domain-names/
Choosing the Actual Domain Name
Now, comes the hardest part. We talked about the importance of your domain name earlier. Let me take a little of that pressure off.
Even though your domain name is important, you can always change it later. You can register a domain and point it to an empty site or you can point it to a site that already exists.
If you build a site and then change the domain later, it may require some changes to your website, but they should be fairly minimal. Since your branding and domain name are so important, the changes are really small in comparison.
All that to say, don’t spend too much time choosing a domain name. You need to have the domain before you can jump into building your website, but don’t let it hold your website development up. Choose a good name, but if this is truly holding you up, choose a temporary name for now. Domain names are inexpensive (as low as $9.99/year depending on the top level domain and registrar) and although the process to change the domain name can be quite technical, it’s really not that difficult (or you can pay someone to do it for you, if you choose).
Take the time to choose a good name knowing that it can change in the future if it must.
I don’t want to get too much into marketing here, but your name should give users a good indication of what your website will be about. You might get by with a cute name like Google, if you are as big as Google or have a good plan to get there, but most of us don’t. Your domain name will play a very small part in how search engines rate your site, so the more your domain name has keywords that describe what your site is really about, the better.
Don’t make the name too long or hard to remember, the shorter the better. Make sure to read the section on using dashes in the name, it can play an important role in the readability and usability of your site. All these factors should weigh in your decision. Make it a good one!
Choosing a Domain Registrar
Once you’ve decided on your domain name, you will need to find out if someone else has already registered it. If not, then you can register and use the domain name for yourself. If someone else has already registered the name, then you’ll have to find another.
Remember, if you look for a domain name and don’t go ahead and register it, it probably won’t be there the next time you come back! Many registrar websites and/or your browser may have bots (software programs that spy on you behind the scenes) that are watching to see what you want so they can buy them and charge you more later. So, don’t go looking until you are ready to really put some money down for the domain.
There are many places to get domains, but I started my own registry because I didn’t trust some of the registrars out there. I had a bad experience with GoDaddy and lost several domains. The only way I could provide good quality service and security for my clients was to start selling domains myself.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the ‘governing’ body of domain names. They set the rules and the base prices. Those of us who sell domains have little control over a lot of things when it comes to selling the domain names. We can’t guarantee anything, so it’s best to always keep your domains up to date with contact information and payments to keep from losing them.
Prices for domain names vary. They vary by TLD and by registrar. The ICANN sets a base price and your registrar adds their profit on top of that. GoDaddy (or other domain registrar) Resellers will add a profit on top of that. You can usually find .com domain names for around $10 the first year. They usually go up for following years to keep the domain name. This is purely a sales technique. Some registrars will lower the first year REALLY low just to get you to sign up with them, which means they are really losing money on the domain name because their price is lower than the base price. But, they will make it up some other way - either through up-selling you with another service or by raising the price considerably when you renew the domain name.
For that reason, make sure to see how much the domain name will cost you next year before you buy it at their awesome price this year. Also make note of who your registrar is and your username and password. Don’t fall for scams that send you email or snail mail about renewing your domain. Many domains are either stolen or price-gouged this way. Be careful to whom you give your domain name information. But, never give it based on a direct mail or email from a registrar you don’t know. As I’ve mentioned before, your domain name is a valuable piece of online real estate. Most registrars have an option to 'lock' your domain name so others can't steal it. Use it!
Choose a registrar you trust, pay attention to next year’s price, and make note of everything (such as the address of the registrar website, your username and password) so you don’t lose your domain. If you use my service, I will be able to help you more quickly and more efficiently when you have problems.
Searching For Domain Availability
To find your domain name, go to your preferred registrar site. To make this easier, I’ll give instructions for our services. Other services should be comparable.
- Go to domains.cindycullen.com
- In the box that says, “Find your ideal domain name..”, enter your desired domain name. You don’t need to enter the ‘.com’ or other TLD you might want. Then click ‘Search’.
- It will show you if the domain name is available or not. It will also show you other alternatives.
- If you see one you want, click ‘Select’. It will be added to your cart.
Choosing Other Options for Your Domain Name
Many registrars will try to up-sell you on a lot of other domain name add-ons such as hosting, security, privacy, etc. Our suggestion is to skip them for now, unless you know that you want them. You can always add them later. Most people don’t understand why they would need them and the sales hype makes it sound like something you will need. Most of the time you don’t need anything extra, especially not at this point in the web development cycle.
I usually advise my clients to NOT use the privacy option unless they have a specific, valid reason to do so, especially if the website is used for commercial or business purposes. Here are my reasons for NOT using privacy options for businesses:
- You can't use an SSL on the domain name. This means that you can't take credit card payments or personal information, such as social security numbers, from your visitors.
- If your customers can't see who to contact about the website where they are potentially purchasing goods and services, they may not trust the website.
- It costs more for privacy and gives you less control (in some cases) of your domain name. Depending on where you register your domain name, you may lose control of that domain name.
I have another article about domain privacy here.
Registering Your Domain Name
I’m assuming you’ve found all the domain names that you want to register. To make them yours, do the following:
- Click on ‘Checkout’ towards the bottom right of the screen or the cart icon at the top right.
- You may be offered extra security packages or other options for your domain name. Choose the ones you know you will need them, but keep in mind, these options can always be added later. If you don’t want the options, just click on the ‘No Thanks’ link.
- You may also be offered ‘privacy’ for your domain name. See the section on making our ‘domain name private’ for more information
- Review your cart and make any changes necessary.
- Add an account or login to your existing account. Make note of your username and password. (If you lose them, let us know and we can reset them for you.)
- Follow the prompts for payment.
- That’s it! Congratulations! You are the proud owner of your own piece of real estate in cyberspace!