How Domain Names Work

What is a domain name and how does it work?

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

Simply put, a domain name is a label attached to an IP address. 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.

Every domain name is made up of at least two parts – the actual domain name (which is typically your brand name), and the domain name extension. A domain extension comes at the end of the domain name. Common examples are .com, .co.nz, .org etc.

When a user types a domain name into 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 (DNS) associated with your particular domain name and forward the request to those name servers.

The DNS will forward the request to the 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 if you are hosting with a reliable company and follow the accepted best practices of website design.

How do I 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. Registering a domain name is easy, 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.

Generally, Generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) such as .COM, .ORG. and .NET are more trusted globally. If your customer base or site traffic is mostly from New Zealand, you are best using .co.nz or other Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs) that clearly indicate you are a New Zealand company.

A domain name can be registered 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.

When registering a domain name, the registrar will require 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.

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.

It’s important that registration of the domain name is correctly identifies the owner of the domain name. Domain names should be registered in the company name or the business owner’s name. As a domain ownership transfer requires the signature of the current and prospective owner, problems can arise in the future.

We have seen too many instances where a third party (such as a web designer) has registered the domain name using their name, meaning they are the registered owner of the domain name, not the business owner.

Or when a business has been sold but the domain name ownership has not been transferred, and by the time the ownership issue is discovered the current owner cannot be contacted.

How does a domain differ from web hosting?

Because you typically type in a domain name to access the content of a website, it’s a common misconception that hosting and domain names are the same thing

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 home address would represent your domain name
  • your house would represent your web host
  • the contents of your house represent the website files

Web hosting is the computer server where your website content is stored. While hosting and domain names are separate services, you need both of them to create a website.

You need a domain name to direct visitors to your website and web hosting to store the files that make up your website. 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 so that you have a single point of contact to resolve any issues that may arise.

Hopefully this has given you some insight into domain names and how they work.

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