If you tell someone to go to SW1A 1AA in London, they might check to see if you had a stroke. But if you tell them to go to “Buckingham Palace”, they’ll know exactly where you are directing them.
Both SW1A 1AA and Buckingham Palace refer to the same place. But while one is a street address that not everyone is going to be intuitively familiar with, the other is the building’s official name. Like real-world addresses, the internet uses both numerical addresses and addresses that are more like titles.
These are both used for websites, with the numerical addresses are known as “IP Addresses”, while the addresses that are like the titles are called “domain names”. But why are there two different kinds of addresses in the first place? And how do they work? And why do these questions matter?
We are going to answer each of these questions to help you get a better understanding of the internet.
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Why These Questions Matter
Imagine you are at a restaurant ordering food. You tell the waiter that you want pasta. He asks you what kind. If you can’t find a way to give him an answer to that question, you’re not getting any pasta.
If you’re starting a business, then getting a website built is the same way. You can’t just ask for a website. Even if you know your business inside and out, there are still things you need to know about how websites work that you need to know in order to give proper directions.
In fact, the better a business owner knows their discipline, the less likely they are to know the fine details of website building. It’s a simple matter of specialization. Asking questions about IP addresses and domain names is a critical process of breaking down that barrier.
But first you need to know what questions to ask.
What Does a Domain Name Do?
When you type “Amazon.co.uk” or “Google.co.uk” into your address bar, you are typing in a domain name. T A domain name makes it easy for people to find a website. Without a domain name, the only way to find a website is by entering its 32-number IP address.
IP addresses basically exist for the benefit of computers. There are many numerical systems, such as 5-star-scale reviews and quarterly reports that exist less because they are easy for people to understand, and more because they make information easy to search and process for computers.
A domain name does a similar job, but for people. Humans can only really remember up to nine numbers in a sequence. That means remembering a 32-digit IP address is just out of the question.
Domain names allow a person to find a website just by remembering the business it serves, the purpose it has, or the product it advertises. This makes domain names sound like the product of marketing, and that is somewhat true. Marketing is important to how to decide on a domain name.
How Do You Get a Domain Name?
And since we are on the topic, now is a good time to talk about the process of getting a domain name.
You can’t just make your domain name whatever you want. If you make your domain name “Amazon.co.uk”, then you better believe that the Amazon corporation is going to have something to say about that. Fortunately, you can’t even make the mistake of doing that. Why?
Simple: Domain names are registered with what are called “domain registrars”. And a domain registrar will not let you register a domain name that someone else has already registered.
Which brings us to the first (and sometimes last) step in getting a domain name: Purchasing it from a registrar. There are many domain name registrars, each with their own rules and rates. Though among all of these, the “no overlapping domain names” rule is absolute and universal.
Some traits of your domain name are not universal, however. For example, the suffix at the end of your domain name does not always have to be “.com”. And yes, you can have “.org” or “.net”. But those are domain suffixes of the past, with .com indicating a business, .org indicating a non-profit organization, and .net indicating an active network (now almost completely obsolete since everything is a network).
These days, you can have almost any suffix you want. The maximum length of a suffix is limited by the 63-character limit of all domain names. But the content doesn’t matter. If you want to name your website “clownmagic.business”, then there are domain registrars ready to serve you.
However, not all domain registrars let you choose such a thing. Some also charge more or charge a subscription fee. But the most common way to get a domain name is by getting it packaged with something else, like a website builder, a web host, or an email hosting service.
How Does a Domain Name Work?
Domain names are essential to facilitating the connection between computers to a specific website on the internet. Have you ever asked yourself, “How does a computer connect to a website?” Well, domain names play a big part of that process. But something you have to understand about the internet is that it is located both everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Much of the internet exists in the space in between computers. When you connect to a website, much of the website will download onto your computer to make loading it up easier. So, where does that download come from? There has to be a point of origin, no matter how much data is floating around.
The answer to that is a device called a “physical data centre”. These are towers of computer storage connected to networks, usually more than six feet high. A corporation will have a great many of these hosting the data of their website. Facebook, for example, keeps the data of billions of profiles on its data centres. And when you connect to that website, you are connecting to that data centre.
But how do you connect to that data centre? Usually, by a domain name. But you rarely go straight there. You see, when you type a domain name into your address bar and hit enter, your computer then sends a signal to a data centre. But that data centre is rarely going to be the final destination.
In all likelihood (unless you live right next door to the data centre you are connecting to) your computer will send a signal to the closest data centre to you. That data centre will read what domain name you are trying to connect to and direct your signal towards that destination. This process repeats until you have arrived. This process is easier and faster if you have been to the destination previously.
How Can a Domain Name Choice Impact You?
There are three different choices you will usually make when choosing your domain name. The first is related to marketing, as we mentioned earlier. If customers can recognize your domain name or recall it more easily, then there will be far fewer barriers between them and your website.
In a similar vein, you might think about picking a domain name that reflects a specific product rather than your company. A well-known example of this is Valve’s digital distribution platform, Steam. Their domain name is “steampowered.com”, omitting the company that makes it entirely.
Because so many secure their domain names through website makers and web hosting services, the next choice is where and how to host the domain. A domain name by itself does nothing. You need a website for it to matter. And to get a website, you need server space in a data centre. In short, choosing the right provider for the domain name can be important to how large and fast your site is.
The last choice you’ll have to make is what you are expecting to pay for it. A domain name by itself is cheap—usually between $10 and $50, depending on where you are getting it. That is a one-time fee too. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t rent a domain name. But that’s easier said than done.
The low, one-time cost of a domain name is what makes it so easy to package with website makers and web hosting services. These services have monthly subscriptions though. Be careful that you do not end up paying a subscription for a domain that should be less than $50 most times.
While understanding the purpose of a domain name is not always intuitive (to say nothing of how it works), getting a domain name is far easier. Just be sure to keep in mind what domain name is best for you and your business. And especially keep in mind that it should not cost too much.
Too many people have lost their domain name because the service that “lent” it to them suddenly decided to sell it to a higher bidder.