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Most people simply understand a domain name as the web address of a website, but very few people actually understand how domain names work.

Every day, millions of people visit websites by typing a series of characters in the address bar of their browser. The technology behind the system does its magic and you get the website you requested without needing to know how it happens or why.

The purpose of this article is to present to you, in a clear and easy to understand format, the system of domain names and how they work.

What exactly is a domain name?

Simply put, a domain name is a label attached to an IP address connected to a server where a website is hosted. When you type this label, which usually ends with a domain extension such as .COM or .ORG, the technology identifies the IP address that is connected to the domain name, which, in turn, locates the server associated with the IP address, the website found at the other end of the line is then returned via your web browser.

In simpler terms, if your website was a house, your domain name would be the physical address people use to locate your home.

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Every domain name is made up of at least two parts: the actual domain name (which can be your name, a combination of your names, or your brand name), and the domain name extension or top-level domain (TLD). A domain extension or top-level domain (TLD) is the part of the domain name that comes at the end of the actual domain name. Examples of TLDs include: .COM, .INFO, .BIZ, .NET, .ORG, etc.

Domain names are usually controlled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), although there are hundreds of accredited domain registrars from where you can buy your preferred domain names.

Domain names were created to make it easier for visitors to access your website. With a domain name, your visitors don’t have to remember the string of numbers that usually make up an IP address.

Also, your domain name is just like your fingerprint and unique to you alone. There are no two identical domain names anywhere in the world, which means if someone types your domain name in their web browser, they will be directed to your website.

How domain names work

If you have been following so far, by now you will know what a domain name is and how it associates with your website. Moving forward, we will take a look at how domain names work so that you can understand a bit of what happens when you type a domain name in the address bar of your web browser.

We have already established that a domain name is a lingual interpretation of the string of numbers known as an IP address that is tied to your web server. For those who don’t know, a web server is a computer system connected to the internet in which all the files and folders of your website are stored.

When a user types your domain name in their web browser, the browser sends a request to a network of interconnected servers known as the Domain Name System. These servers will look up the domain name servers associated with your particular domain name and forward the request to those name servers.

Towards the end of the process line, the domain name servers (DNS) handling your domain name will forward the request to the computer or web server where your website is stored. The web server will then fetch the required pages and return them to your browser. This process takes a very short time to happen, in fact, if you are hosting with a reliable company and follow the accepted best practices of website design, your website can show up in the visitor’s browser in less than 5 seconds. Anything longer than that is deemed a slow website.

What is a DNS?

Every computer on the internet, including your web server, is given a unique string of numbers known as an IP address. Here is what a typical IP address looks like: 192.165.456.3

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of these numbers when we visit websites. Recalling and typing words are far easier and more convenient. This is where domain names come in. Domain names are an easy representation of the typical IP address associated with computers and web servers on the internet. What a DNS, or domain name server, does is to help convert the domain names into the numerical IP address characters that the computers can understand.

Domain name servers are essentially a part of the domain name system.

The domain name system itself is a set of special DNS servers that serve just one purpose, they serve as a central database of all the available domain names and their corresponding IP addresses, a form of directory or internet phone book.

When you type in a domain name, your computer needs to understand the IP address it has to contact to provide the website you require. What a domain name server does is to locate the IP address that corresponds to the domain name you typed in. From there, you are just a step closer to getting the website you requested.

Domain names are usually associated with at least two nameservers or DNS, information that can be gotten via WHOIS lookup.

Some providers give as much as four nameservers, but the least number of nameservers associated with a domain name is two. A typical nameserver looks like this:

  • NS1.NAMESERVERS.COM
  • NS2.NAMESERVERS.COM

NAMESERVERS represent the name of your nameserver. This can be anything from the name of your webhost to any generic name used by your web hosting provider.

Many web hosting companies offer a free domain name as an incentive to new customers, but you can also opt to buy your preferred domain name separate from your web hosting. You can either buy both from the same provider or choose to buy each one from a separate company. However, it is important to point out that buying web hosting and a domain name from the same provider will free you of the technicalities of merging both accounts. If you end up buying web hosting and your domain name from separate providers, you will have to update your nameservers before your domain name to work with your new website.

How domain names differ from web hosting

Because you typically type in a domain name to access the content of a website, it is understandable that a lot of people assume both to be the same thing. However, the two are different in many ways.

If a domain name is the address that leads to your website, web hosting is the place where your website lives. Using a physical house as an example, your address represents your domain name while the contents of your home represent the website files inside your web host which is represented by your house.

Web hosting is the actual computer where the contents of your website are stored. Web hosting is usually offered by web hosting providers for a fee, although some of them also offer a free domain name as an incentive. While these two are separate services, you need both of them to create a website. You need web hosting to store the files and folders that make up your website and you need a domain name to direct visitors to your website. As we have established earlier, you can use the same company for both services or opt to buy web hosting and a domain name from separate providers. However, it is a good idea to get both your web hosting and domain name from the same company. This way, you can easily manage both under the same account.

How to register a domain name

Before you can use a domain name with your website, you will need to first register it with an ICANN-accredited domain registrar. Buying and registering a domain name is easy, requires no special skill and doesn’t take time. However, it is important that you choose the right domain name from the beginning, as using the wrong domain name can affect your brand identity and the success of your website.

While generally,  gTLDs such as .COM, .ORG. and .NET are are more trusted globally, using a .TECH domain extension for a tech based blog or a ccTLD (Country Code Top Level Domains) could be a better choice in certain circumstances. For example, if your customer base or site traffic is mostly from New Zealand, you may try going for .CO.NZ domain name extension like https://www.discountdomains.co.nz/domain-names.

There are hundreds of ICANN-accredited domain name registrars to choose from, but as we have already advised, it is a good idea to go for the same company that provides web hosting services.

A domain name is usually registered for a specific period of time. This can run from one year to ten years. At the expiration of the term, the domain name is placed back on the market and is open for registration by another person or business. When a domain name is getting close to its expiration, the domain name registrar will normally send an email to the email address on record, letting the registrant know that the domain name will soon expire. This email typically gets sent about a month before the renewal date, with regular reminders in between.

It is important to note that some domain names have intellectual property rights attached, so you need to do proper research before choosing a domain name, this way, you don’t end up registering a word or phrase that is copyrighted or trademarked and can avoid any potential legal issues in future.

When registering a domain name, the registrar will demand certain information from you. This information is placed in what is known as a WHOIS database. This database is open to the public and contains personal information for every individual or business with a domain name. Some of the information contained in the WHOIS record include: registrant name, email address, phone number, physical address and expiry date. Because of the nature of the internet, where personal information can be stolen and used for fraud, it is possible to hide these details from the public, so that when someone searches WHOIS records for your domain name, they will be shown proxy information, usually about the domain name provider. The process of hiding this information is known as domain privacy.

Domain name privacy

If you would rather prevent people from getting the information associated to your domain names, you can opt for domain privacy. This optional add-on is provided by all reliable domain providers and allows you to keep your personal information confidential.

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Of course, you will still need to provide the needed information when registering for a domain name, and this information will be forwarded to the domain registrar and ICANN, however, it will be hidden from public view on WHOIS records.

Adding domain privacy to your domain name is usually inexpensive and does not involve any sort of technical process. You simply add it to your purchase when buying the domain name, or add it to your services from inside your account. Once you have paid for it, your details will be automatically hidden.

Wrapping up

As at 2017, the number of domain names in existence grew to more than 330 million. This underscores how important domain names are to the internet. Having one for yourself or your business helps you own a slice of the internet real estate, which could be highly profitable for you in the long run.

It is our hope that this article has given you a better understanding of domain names and how they work. Now that you know what you know, why not get your own domain name and start your journey into online success?