Once you’ve decided to build a website, you must make an important decision, even before you consult our list of the best web hosting services: What’s your domain name going to be? You know, it’s the [yoursitename.extension] web address by which all your (hopefully) many visitors find you. Your domain name is, in effect, the name of your website, so you want to make sure you get a good one.
Purchasing a name is a relatively simple process, but finding one that isn’t already taken can be a challenge. In addition, you should make sure that you understand the contract between you and the domain name registrar. If this is starting to sound a bit complicated, don’t worry: We’re here to help you get started.
What Is a Domain Name?
Domain names put a friendly face on hard-to-remember numeric internet addresses. Every computer on the internet has a unique internet protocol (IP) number. A domain name represents this IP number. For example, the IP number for the domain name whitehouse.gov is 184.108.40.206. The purpose of a domain name is to give users an easy-to-remember handle so that when sending an e-mail to, let’s say, the President of the United States, you can type [email protected] instead of the more unwieldy [email protected]
Where Is the Best Place to Buy a Domain Name?
Anyone can buy a domain name. The most straightforward way to do so is to visit a domain name registrar, such as A2, GoDaddy, Google Domains, or Namecheap, key in the domain you want to buy, and pay a fee. The first two mentioned companies are web hosting services (more on that in a bit), while the last two are dedicated domain sellers.
You can’t buy just any domain, of course—only one that isn’t already registered by another person or business and that bears a valid domain suffix. In general, you’ll want to buy something that is catchy and short so that it’s both easy for people to remember, and easy for them to type in—like “PCMag,” for example. This is good for search engine optimization (SEO) and it’s also common sense. You might also want to do some research on key terms for your business. If you can get a good one into your site’s name, that’s all the better, from an SEO perspective.
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You might find that many of the shortest, catchiest names are taken already, especially if you’re entering a space that is already well represented on the web. To make matters worse, cyber-squatters often scoop up these attractive names as an investment with an eye to reselling them later to legitimate would-be site owners—more on this later.
If you’re having trouble finding a domain name (because of crowding or cyber-squatters), check for a help facility on each registrar’s site. Domain registrars typically house search engines that return a listing of available names similar to the one you want. When you search for a domain name at Namecheap, for example, you get both the status of that name and a list of suffixes available for that name. Maybe [Sitename].com isn’t available, but [Sitename].biz or .org is.
The suffix identifies the name as belonging to a specific top-level domain (TLD). There are numerous TLDs available for general purchase, including .com, .edu, .game, .green, .hiphop, .net, and .org. The most popular of these by far is .com, which is supposed to indicate commercial sites, but in reality has come to include almost everything.
How Much Does It Cost to Register a Domain Name?
You can expect to pay anywhere from $1 per year to Scrooge McDuck bucks, depending on the domain name and suffix. In fact, if you’re in search of a highly desired domain with a popular suffix, you may have to open your wallet in a big way, because chances are someone else already has it registered. Carinsurance.com, for example, sold for nearly $50 million(Opens in a new window)! As mentioned, there’s also a thriving industry of squatters who look to flip domains (even those that are less obviously important than carinsurance.com) for profit. Some of them ask you to make an offer, suggesting that anything less than $500 will be ignored.
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Can You Buy a Domain Name From a Web Host?
You don’t always need to go to a dedicated registration service to buy a domain name, though this is the most direct approach. Many top-tier web hosting services, such as DreamHost, HostGator, and Hostwinds routinely offer a free domain name when you sign up for a web hosting package.
Keep in mind, however, that free domain names are usually free only for one or two years, after which the registrar bills you for the annual or biennial fee. In other words, the web host only pays for the first billing from the registrar. Also take note of whether or not the web host charges a fee for setting up a domain name. Most services offer to transfer an existing domain name to their servers at no cost, but sometimes you’ll find a setup fee over and above the registrar’s fee.
Please note that not all web hosts give you the option to register a domain name. Cloudways, for example, is a dependable web host that requires you to purchase a domain name from elsewhere.
Registrars offer a wide variety of registration durations—one year, three, five, and even ten. Be careful about registering for more than a year, though. First, there might be restrictions on your ability to transfer the domain name should the registrar give poor service. Second, the registrar could go out of business, leaving your domain name without a host. Closely check the policies.
What’s in a Domain Name Contract?
We’d all like to think that, once bought, a domain name is ours forever and under all circumstances. This is not necessarily the case. Be absolutely certain to research what you’re getting before you pay. The contract you sign with the registrar could affect you in a number of ways.
Many registrars reserve the right to revoke your domain name for specific reasons, typically if you use the domain for illegal purposes or purposes deemed unacceptable (such as spamming). Many contracts contain a clause letting the registrar delete your domain name for no apparent reason. The implication, of course, is that the domain name is the registrar’s, not yours.
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Furthermore, practically all registrars reserve the right to make changes to the registration agreement whenever they wish and without letting you know. The takeaway here is that every registrar needs to be checked out carefully.
How Soon Can You Use a Domain Name?
You may not be able to use the domain name for several hours, or even a few days, after you register and pay for it. The domain must propagate, meaning that the official domain name registry must be updated with your website’s Domain Name System information. That’s something that occurs on the backend without any need of input from you.
Some registrars promise to have the name up nearly immediately, but the delay could be as long as seven days. Typically, however, you should expect to see the domain name up and running on the web within 48 hours.
Note that you can also transfer your domain name from one registration service to another. You’ll want to do this if you’re not satisfied with your current domain hosting service, if you find a better deal when your current registration is coming due, or, most likely, if you’ve signed up with a web hosting service that will also transfer your name to its site. Expect to get the transfer for free, but if that isn’t offered, search for another domain hosting service.
Under no circumstances should you pay more to transfer a name than to get a new one. Check what the transfer requires. Does the new service handle the task completely? Or do you have to go into your current registrar’s site and change the technical details manually? Finally, check the transfer policy of the registrar before registering your domain name.
As a general rule, you can’t transfer a name during the first 60 days after registration, but the period could be much longer. Don’t expect any registrar to refund money you’ve paid for months of service you won’t use, either.
For more on the basics of getting your website up and running, check out How to Build a Website, 7 Things You Need to Know When Building an E-Commerce Website, and How to Get Started With WordPress.
Neil Randall contributed to this story.
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