A domain name

Previously on the CogitActive saga:
All it takes to create a self-hosted website are a domain name, a hosting provider and a platform.

Choosing a domain name is probably the most important decision when creating a website. Aside from being what people type to get to your website, a domain name is part of your branding. Obviously, you want it to be catchy! This is not an easy task. In fact, there is a lot to consider when choosing a good domain name and a little planning and forethought are necessary.

Understanding the basics

Domain names act similarly to street addresses.

As briefly touched upon in a previous post (A self-hosted website), a domain name is associated with a computer Internet Protocol (IP) address and thus points to a unique location on the web. That is why the domain name is included in the Uniform Resource Locator (URL; the web address you type into your browser to view a particular website). For instance, to reach the Google Search page, you type https://www.google.com/ into your browser’s address bar. In this example, the domain name is “google.com”.

If you want to delve into this topic, you can search online for Domain Name System (DNS) or, even better, read the “Understanding DNS” section of this post.

You don’t have to understand how this human-readable domain name is resolved into a computer-meaningful IP address to appreciate that it is definitively easier to remember google.com than the IP address assigned to it (e.g. 173.194.70.1131). On the other hand, it is important to grasp some of the domain name terminology. Be warned: this section will be quite technical.

To put these terms in context, I will start by explaining the structure and components of an URL using the previous example:

https://www.google.com/

The first component – https, which stand for HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure – is the protocol used to retrieve the resource, namely a web page. There are different protocols; for instance, you may be familiar with http (HyperText Transfer Protocol), but not aware of ftp (File Transfer Protocol). The good news is that you don’t have to comprehend this computer jargon. What matters, here, is what come next – everything in between :// (the colon and the two forward slashes) and the next forward slash / (if there is one):

https://www.google.com/

Source of confusion #1: most websites are built so that an empty hostname and the hostname www both point to the same location. This is not mandatory, though; you can configure [www] to go to a page other than the empty hostname2

This is the location of the server, whether by IP address or domain name. If I haven’t lost you already, you may wonder about the www. In the beginning, I asserted that, in this example, the domain name was google.com – not www.google.com. Actually, this left-most part is the name of the host or hostname; it is an actual server. It is required for the DNS to return the IP address of the exact server you need to connect to; if nothing is specified, the DNS will assume a default hostname of www2.

Source of confusion #2: often people are using the term hostname instead of FQDN.

Okay, so if in the aforementioned example the domain name is google.com, what is www.google.com? I have just told you that the left-most part (www) is the hostname and you already know that the rest (google.com) is the domain name. The hostname concatenated with the domain name is called the Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN).

I have just shown you that the FQDN is composed of three parts. Wait… Did I just say three? Hostname and domain name – that is two parts, not three! Don’t worry, there is a simple explanation. The domain name itself is composed of two parts:

  • the second-level domain
  • the top-level domain (TLD)

Thus, the second-level domain is google and the TLD is .com. As you may have figured out, the DNS, which is a hierarchical system, is actually reading the FQDN from right to left. In this specific example, the hostname (www) is de facto in third position.

Allow me to complicate things a bit with another example:

https://blog.cogitactive.com/website/domain-name/

Obviously, the domain name is different (cogitactive.com instead of google.com). However, without playing “spot the difference”, you may have identified some similarities with the previous URL, and more importantly some differences:

https://blog.cogitactive.com/website/domain-name/

Source of confusion #3: in a typical three-part FQDN, the hostname takes the position of the subdomain.

The absence of www should not bother you (otherwise, you can go back to my explanation about the hostname). Nevertheless, the component in third position – blog – may confuse you given that it is NOT a hostname. In fact, this is a third-level domain or subdomain.

What is a subdomain?

Subdomains are hierarchical extensions of your domain name; any domain name can actually be split into multiple subdomains2. As suggested by the prefix “sub-“, they are at a lower level in the DNS (third-level domain). However, a subdomain has his own URL and you can set up a separate fully functional website on it.

They are free to create – you don’t need to register them – and you can have as many as you want (if your hosting provider allows it). You can use them, for instance, to organize different sections of a website. Alternatively, you can create subdomains to tackle specific content that complements your website.

They allow you to have several different websites, all underneath one domain name. It is noteworthy that search engines treat subdomains as separate entities (from the main site).

 

To sum up, a FQDN consists of typically three – as illustrated with www.google.com – or more labels: the top-level domain (.com), the second-level domain (google or cogitactive), an optional subdomain (blog), and the hostname (www). Indeed, between the second-level domain and the hostname you can add additional labels for subdomains and have third-level domains, fourth-level domains, and so on.

Before to move on to the next topic, let me finish with the remaining part of my URL example (/website/domain-name/). Simply, everything after the TDL is the exact location of the resource in the directory (or folder) structure of the server; i.e. the path to reach the specific web page to be retrieved or a specific file – exactly as on your computer.

That is it for my domain name terminology explanations. You may now rest your brain a bit.

Choosing a good domain name

Now that you understand what a domain name is, you realize that you have two things – the second-level domain and the TLD – to take into account when choosing a domain name. Before you express all your creativity, you may want to consider checking the following recommendations.

Guidelines for a (good) second-level domain

The length is not important, but keep it short.

Of course, a domain name needs to be memorable; it is how people find you. For this reason, it is generally better to keep it short and easy to remember. However, the length of the domain is not as important as its memorability3. If you end up with a long name (e.g. myreallygoodname), capitalizing words in print (e.g. MyReallyGoodName) can help visitors; besides, URLs are case sensitive only after the TLD4.

Similarly, it is better to opt for a name easy to spell. Keeping with the possibility of spelling errors, avoid punctuation (no hyphen) or numbers. You should be able to share your domain as easily when speaking as when writing; a mix of letters and numerals can make . . . it difficult to communicate the domain name verbally5. The same goes for complicated or uncommon words, as well as words that can be spelled different ways.

A word of caution: avoid trademarked names or being too close of another brand.

Some people say a domain name should be meaningful. If you have an existing offline name, you may want your domain name to be the same (or very close to it)3. If you don’t, it may be a good idea to theme your domain name around your core keyword as it will give visitors an immediate idea of what your website is about. On the other hand, you should not be afraid to make up a word.

Finally, yet importantly, the domain name can differ from the site’s name. For example, I called this blog Beyond, which has nothing to do with blog.cogitactive.com. On the other hand, you don’t want to confuse people too much.

Which top-level domain (TLD)?

The most popular TLD is .com. It is also the most memorable. Actually, it is so automatic, that many users will default to typing in it. Of course, there is more variety to choose from (see below), but it is so widespread and accepted5, that you should get a .com whenever it is possible.

Nevertheless, your choice should be informed by the purpose of your site. Certain TLDs are indeed used to describe the characteristics of the website – .edu for education, .biz for businesses, .org for public organization, for example. You may also want to consider the country code TLDs – .us for United States, .fr for France, .ca for Canada, and so on. Keep in mind, however, that many of these TLDs have specific registration requirements.

What about the other possibilities? There are many options to choose from; some being informative (e.g. .audio; as of the time of writing, .podcast was not available yet6), some having a clear potential (e.g. .active; see below) and some … I don’t know how to qualify them (e.g. .ninja – I did not make this one up). You can also play around using the TLD along with the second-level domain name to form a word or phrase5. For instance, instead of going for “CogitActive.com”, I could have chosen “cogit.active” instead. Sounds fun, right? Actually, this approach is generally not recommended because these TLD are usually much more expensive5 and not always well supported. Moreover, .com is so ingrained in today’s culture that people may end up visiting the wrong site (e.g. cogit.active.com instead of cogit.active).

How many domain names?

I am not talking about alternatives if the one you really want is not available; it is a good idea to have some back up domain names, though. Instead, I am referring to additional domain names pointing to the same site. Why would you do such a thing? There are all sort of reasons:

  • Given the popularity of .com, if you opt for a different TLD, it is usually best to register both the .com and the [other] version of the domain name5.
  • Similarly, if you opt for a non-conventional TLD (e.g. .active), given the potential issue described earlier (e.g. cogit.active.com), you should probably invest in the .com version5 as well.
  • Even if you follow the previously described guidelines, it may still be a good idea to register obvious or common misspellings of your domain name5, as well as any variations (e.g. its hyphenated version).
  • You might also want to block competing domains3, i.e. to prevent people to register the same domain as yours with a different TLD (by registering it first).

The list can go on … and the cost can add up! For this reason, it is important to consider carefully all of the aforementioned suggestions before deciding on a domain name.

 

To sum up, choosing a good domain name is not going to be an easy task. You have to find a catchy, yet meaningful, second level domain, complement it with the appropriate TLD, and hope that the resulting domain name is available. Your decision will have an ongoing impact on the value of your website; it is not something that should be taken lightly.

Coming next: my own brainstorming…

 


1 Google uses multiple servers and therefore multiple IP addresses. According to this article, some IP addresses work better than others depending on your locale and only certain addresses work at any given time. Thus, this example may not work for you. Anyway, you get the idea. ^
2 Peter Pollock (2013) Web Hosting For Dummies. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ^
3 George Plumley (2011) Website Design & Development: 100 Questions to Ask before Building a Website. Indianapolis, Indiana: Wiley Publishing. ^
4 For example, https://www.myreallygoodname.com and https://www.MyReallyGoodName.com are the same. In the contrary, https://www.google.com/about (valid) and https://www.google.com/About (not valid) are not. ^
5 Who Is Hosting This (2018) Beginners Guide To Domain Names. ^
6 If you ask yourself why I am referring to podcast, you may consider checking the first episode of The CogitActive Saga. ^

 

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