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Domainology: The Beginners Guide to Domain Names
The importance of domain names cannot be overlooked—it's unlikely people would be able to find your website without them.
Every computer on the net has an Internet Protocol (IP) address, a unique string of four numbers divided by periods that identify them (e.g., 178.376.1.8). Imagine trying to remember the IPs of all your favorite websites! Thanks to the domain name system, which allows you to assign a unique name to the IP address of your site, you don't have to.
But domain names are more than a technical shortcut. A short, memorable domain name could be the difference between your business becoming a known internet brand or being lost in cyberspace.
Registering domains requires thought and technical know-how, which can be overwhelming when you're starting out. But it doesn't have to be. Read this foolproof guide to learn the most important things you need to know about registering, switching, and adding new domains.
There are many things to consider when buying domain names. Below are the core steps you need to take.
1. Choose Your Domain Name
Before buying a domain name, you need to think of one. There are two main ways of doing this:
- Create a Branded Domain: This is simply using your businesses name as the domain name. Most of the worlds biggest brands do this.
- Use Keywords for Your Domain: This involves thinking of words that relate to your brand, then experimenting with combinations until you find something catchy (and potentially SEO-friendly). For example, home improvement store B&Q owns the domain diy.com.
While doing this, you'll also want to consider what top-level domain extension you want your domain to have. This is what comes after the dot in your web address. Common ones are .com and .org, but you can also get country-code top-level domains (ccTLD) and generic top-level domains (gTLD). ccTLDs are great if you want to signify you're a local organization, while gTLDs (especially more descriptive ones like .pro, .lgbt, or .organic) are great for being memorable or showing off a little more about your company. You can, of course, always buy a range and have them redirect to the same site. You can find a current list of every TLD that is live on the internet by visiting the IANA website.
Whatever you decided, make sure it's short and memorable. All the best domains are. Also, say your domain out loud. This can reveal problems you'd not previously considered. Does it sound ok? Is it difficult to spell if someone says it to you? Could it be hiding an embarrassing mispronunciation?
2. Check Your Domain Name
Now you've decided what you want, there are a series of checks you'll need to go through before buying your domain name:
- Make Sure It's Available: Before you can own it, you need to know if the domain available for purchase and from who. Someone may already own it, or you may only be able to purchase it from certain domain registrars. You can easily find domain registrars or figure out if gTLD domains are available by visiting their required NIC site at nic.TLD (for example nic.pro).
- Search Other Domain Names: If you're buying a .pro extension, does anyone else already own the same second level name with a different TLD, like .com or .org? If so, this could create confusion for your customers. If not, now is a good time to purchase additional extensions. Even if you don't need them now, this prevents cybersquatting and allows for you to redirect users navigating to other extensions.
- Search for Trademarks: Avoid troubles down the line by checking that your domain doesn't contain trademarks. It's easy to search for trademarks online.
- Check Its Past Reputation: Someone may have used your domain before. If they haven't treated it very well, this can affect your ability to appear in search engines, or send your emails directly into the spam folder. Check your future domain's history using The Internet Archive to uncover any possible issues.
3. Check the Registrar You're Buying From
Now you're ready to register the domain, you'll need to choose the domain name registrar you're going to purchase it from. A domain name registrar is a company that manages the registration of internet domain names. They must be accredited by a gTLD or ccTLD registry and act in accordance with the guidelines of said registries. Here are some key things to consider when choosing a registrar:
- Check That You Can Renew Automatically: This is fairly standard, but ensure you can automatically renew your domain name. Forgetting to do so could cause your website to go offline once the registration expires, or allow a competitor to jump in and purchase your domain.
- Make Sure There is Flexibility: You may not immediately have the skills, but make sure you have the power to control your DNS settings. This will enable you to use domain services such as web hosting and email from other suppliers.
- See What Support is Included: Especially if you're not tech savvy, choosing a supplier with good support can save you a headache down the line—even if it costs a little more.
- Make Sure the Domain is Registered in Your Name: Particularly if you are using an outside web design agency; ensure your supplier registers you as the domain owner and you have access to the registrar account. If it's registered in their name, they can seize control of it at any time and hold your business to ransom.
Whether you've decided to buy a descriptive new TLD that better represents your business, or are completely re-branding, the process of switching domains takes a lot of planning and thought as it can significantly impact your search rankings (for better or worse). That being said, hundreds of thousands of brands have done this successfully, and there are tons of great guides and experts out there to support you in this journey.
As the majority of your search traffic typically comes via Google, following their guide for site migration is a good place to start. Alongside this, here are some key guidance points:
- Consult an SEO Expert: Moving a site means thinking seriously about search engine optimization (SEO). There are loads of great freelance SEO experts and agencies who can help guide you through this process. You can also ask questions of Google Webmasters in their forum or live during Webmaster Central office hours, and there are loads of great guides, like these from Moz and Branded3.
- Time Your Domain Switch With Lower Traffic: You should expect changes in traffic when switching your site while search engines reassess your new domain. Moving your site during traffic lulls can reduce the impact. You can also consider splitting your move up, switching small sections at a time over and experimenting with how this impacts traffic and indexing.
- Set Up 301 Redirects: When moving to a new domain, you will need to 301 redirect all old URLs to the new domain. You should be able to find all of your URLs in the sitemap.
- Submit a Change of Address: Your old and new domains should be registered on both the Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster tools. When you're ready to move, you'll need to submit a change of address with both Google and Bing.
Adding New Domains
As your business grows and new top level domains are launched, you may be presented with the prospect of adding new domains. Maybe you want your existing domain name with a ccTLD to appeal to a more local crowd, or you want to buy a common misspelling of your domain to forward to your site. Doing this is pretty straightforward:
- Register Your New Domain With the Same Registrar: Buying domain names with multiple registrars can be hard to keep track of. If the domain you want is with a registrar different than your existing one, you can always purchase it and transfer your domain to a different registrar.
- Forward the Entire Domain: Slightly different than 301 redirects, forwarding an entire domain is a service that many registrars offers that makes it super easy to send all traffic from one web address to your main website. While the outcome is the same, each registrar will typically have their own set of steps. Here are some guides from popular registrars: GoDaddy, Names, 123Reg.