What is a domain name and why you need one for your business?

by | Nov 19, 2021 | WordPress, Email

Your domain name is your number 1 online asset. In this primer, we aim to explain what a domain name is, why you need (at least) one for your business. How to choose the perfect domain name and some important things to consider when purchasing a domain name.

In this article:

What is a domain name?

Most people encounter domain names when they visit a website or send an email. In simple terms, the domain name is the address people use to contact you or your business on the web. For example, our domain name is aento.com. People can use this domain name to visit our website at www.aento.com or send emails to us using sales@aento.com.

Your domain name is your online address.

More accurately maybe, your domain name is your “main location” on the internet. We can already see from the examples above that a basic domain name (e.g. aento.com) can be extended to allow multiple more specific addresses, i.e. www.aento.com is the address of our website, name@aento.com is the email address of a specific person at aento.

Your domain name becomes part of the global Domain Name System (DNS), effectively the global phonebook for the internet, allowing people to find you from anywhere in the world.

The science bit

The internet is a huge network of computers and devices. In essence, every device on the internet can connect and communicate with every other device. In order to facilitate this, every single device needs to have a unique address known as an IP address. An IP address is a series of up to 12 numbers that uniquely identifies a single device. For example, 77.259.67.1 would be a typical IP address. Actually this is known as an IPV4 (or IP version 4) address. It has long been understood that the internet will actually run out of unique IP (IP V4) addresses. IPV4 can provide a unique address for up to 4.3 billion devices, which seems like a lot but many experts believe the internet actually ran out of new IPV4 addresses in 2018! To address the relative lack of IPV4 addresses, IP Version 6 or IPV6 addressing was introduced. This provides a unique address of up to 32 characters (letters and numbers) and can provide a unique address for up to 340 trillion trillion individual devices!

Now just imagine you had to remember an IP address for each website or email address. An IPV4 address would be difficult but an IPV6 address would be impossible. That’s where the global Domain Name System comes in. The DNS “phonebook” translates individual domain names that are meaningful to humans into IP addresses that can be used by computers and other devices. The result being that you and I can use easy to remember, and sometimes descriptive, addresses to get to where we want to go on the internet.

So, coming back to our website as an example. You could actually get to our website by typing the IPV4 address 185.151.30.143 or using IPV6 address 2a07:7800::143 into your browser, but it’s much easier to use the rather snappy www.aento.com domain name instead.

Different types of domain name

Top level domains

A Top Level Domain or TLD represents the base level of organisation. TLDs are also often referred to as domain extensions. For example, the most well known and popular TLDs are .com, .org and .net.

These were the original TLDs and were meant to be used for:

  • Companies and businesses – .com
  • Non-profit and other organisations – .org
  • Networks – .net

Over the years, many more TLD or domain extensions have been introduced.

Regional based TLDs

Country and region specific TLDs have been introduced over time. For example, a UK based company can choose to use a domain extension of .uk (or .co.uk) rather than .com. A company in New Zealand could use .nz (or .co.nz). Some of these country or region specific TLDs are regulated quite strongly. For example, the regional domain extension .eu can only be used by businesses or individuals having an address in the European Union. Many UK based businesses had to give up their .eu domain names following BREXIT. Others are not well regulated and are pretty much open to anyone, anywhere to use. The Colombian domain extension of .co has been widely adopted by companies as an alternative to .com with people thinking .co means (company) rather than Colombia!

Other specialised TLDs

In recent years there has been an explosion in other, highly specialised, TLDs. Some are restricted such as .gov.uk or clearly intended to be used by organisations in a particular sector, e.g. .edu for educational establishments. However, if you’re in construction and want a domain name ending in .builder or a high end clothes store wanting to use .boutique, these and many other options are available to get your perfect domain name. To get an idea of the plethora of available Top Level Domains, you can visit our domain name page and take a look through the listed domain extensions.

Second level domains – your domain name

What most people refer to as a domain name is technically referred to as a “second level domain”. In other words, the main combination of chosen name and TLD that a company or individual uses. eg. aento.com, google.com, mygreatcompany.biz, etc. See section below on how to choose a great domain name.

Sub-domains

Once you own a domain name, you can add as many sub-domains as you like to it to cover various business needs. The most common sub-domain is probably www. In other words, www.aento.com is a sub-domain of aento.com. If you use professional email, your email provider will probably setup your email servers to use sub-domains such as mail.aento.com or smtp.aento.com. If you use online services such as Microsoft 365 you will be required to create other sub-domains to integrate your domain name with that service. As a final example, at aento we use a specific sub-domain for our online technical support which is support.aento.com.

In short, sub-domains are used to organise the various aspects of your business presence online. Sub-domains are used to create an “address book” for your organisation online. As such, if you’re a big business you may well have hundreds of sub-domains pointing to different departments or different online services or multiple websites. But it doesn’t really matter if you are a big business or small business, the concept is the same. Your base level domain name can grow with your business via the use of sub-domains and allow you to properly organise all of your online assets.

We mentioned above that your domain name becomes part of the global DNS of the internet. This is true but more accurately, by adding sub-domains and other records to your own domain name address book, you first create your own personal DNS for your own domain. That personal DNS then becomes part of the global DNS phonebook.

How to buy a domain name – domain name registration

A domain name is purchased through an authorised domain name registrar or domain name registrar reseller. This process is known as domain name registration. There are quite a few registrars available and even more resellers. Not every registrar is able to sell every top level domain however, so if you are looking to use a more exotic TLD such as .boutique, you may find a more limited number of registrars able to provide that TLD. Most registrars will provide common TLDs such as .com, .co.uk, .org, etc.

For full disclosure, aento is a domain name registrar reseller. You can see our offerings for domain names here.

Actually, acquiring a domain name is more analogous to leasing or renting as you register the ownership of the domain name for 1 or more years. If you do not renew your domain at the end of the selected period, your domain name registration may eventually lapse and be made available for other businesses to select.

How much does a domain name cost?

Domain names for common TLDs are pretty cheap. At the time of writing, we are offering common TLDs for the following prices:

  • .co.uk – £5.99 per year
  • .com – £10.49 per year
  • .org – £11.30 per year

Some specialised TLDs are much more expensive:

  • .boutique – £25.99 per year
  • .associates – £25.99 per year
  • .dental – £42.99 per year

However, even the most expensive domain names are not out of reach and a specialised TLD may well be a worthwhile investment for your business if it allows you to create a memorable address for your business online. For example, if you run a dentists practice and your company name was “Monmouth Dental“, it might be quite beneficial to register a domain name of monmouth.dental.

Domain name hosting

We mentioned above that your domain name and sub-domains are basically used to create an online phonebook for your business and its various online assets. In order for this to work your domain name and associated “phonebook” has to be hosted somewhere accessible on the internet. This is referred to as domain hosting.

Most domain name registrars and resellers will automatically host your domain name for your as soon as it is registered. Your domain name will be hosted on specialised computer server known as a nameserver. The price of domain hosting is usually included in the price you pay to register your domain name. For example, a .co.uk domain hosted via aento will cost £5.99 per year including registration. You may also get some additional goodies thrown in with your domain hosting. Again, for example, the £5.99 per year aento charges for .co.uk domain hosting includes basic email and up to 100 mailboxes using the .co.uk domain.

Domain hosting is not web hosting

It is easy to confuse domain hosting with web hosting (which we’ll cover in a future article). It’s important to remember that domain hosting is not web hosting. The two are related of course, but a web hosting server is another specialised type of computer server. It is true that most web hosting packages available, including those available from aento, may include domain hosting as part of the fee. There is nothing to stop you using different companies for domain hosting and web hosting. You can also change your web hosting at any time but leave your domain hosting untouched and vice versa.

Choosing a domain host

The first thing to say is that every domain registrar handling a particular top level domain will have the same range of domain names available to register. So, for example, let’s say you decide you want to use a .co.uk domain and you want to register a domain name of accountants.co.uk. If you find that domain name is already registered and unavailable on one domain registrar, it will not be available on another.

If you are clear you want to use a particular common name or phrase as part of your domain name, like “accountants”, its most likely that this will be unavailable for all common TLDs. In this case, you might want to go to a domain registrar that offers a wide range of specialised TLDs.

You might want to look at the management systems offered by the domain registrar (see Domain Name System (DNS) Management below) to check that it is easy to use and has the features you need. You might also want to check on the domain registrar’s policy on transferring domain names away from that registrar in future to make sure there are no hidden costs lurking should you choose to move your domain in future (see Transferring domain names between domain registrars below)

Other than that it probably comes down to cost. There is quite a wide range of pricing for the same TLDS, so its worthwhile shopping around to check that you’re not overpaying for your domain.

Transferring domain names between domain registrars

Domain names are portable and can be transferred between domain registrars. Most domain registrars, including aento’s, make it easy to transfer domain names into or out of their system. However, some do make it complicated, or charge an extra fee to unlock your domain to allow it to be transferred.

Domain Name System (DNS) Management

Your domain host will provide you with some kind of online tool to allow you to manage your domain name and associated address records. This is usually referred to as Managing your DNS. Make sure you know how to login to your DNS management tool and that you keep those details safe. If you don’t currently have the login details, maybe your domain name was setup by your web designer for example, make sure you get hold of those details and check that you can login as soon as possible.

image

The screenshot above shows the DNS management screen available to aento customers and a simple set of DNS records, or phonebook, for a domain owned by aento. You can see that a variety of different types of record are used.

For most TLDs, you domain host should also provide you with a way to check the registration and contact details held for your domain name. Check that these are up to date.

Common DNS Record Types

We mentioned above that DNS allows domain names and sub-domains to be translated to IP addresses. This is actually just one type of record that can be created in a DNS address book. As you sign up to different online services you may be asked by that service to create various other types of record in your DNS. Some common types of record you may encounter are:

A record

An A record or Address record directly maps a domain name or sub-domain to a specific IP address. For example, in our DNS, we have an A record that maps sub-domain www.aento.com to the IP address of our website, 185.151.30.143. For completeness, an A record is used to map to the old IPV4 address. AAA records are used to map to the newer IPV6 records.

CNAME

Canonical Name record. A CNAME record establishes one domain or sub-domain as an alias of another. In other words a CNAME address in your DNS is not a real destination, rather it is a pointer to the final destination. All traffic routed to your address is forwarded on to the final target address. For example a CNAME record of mail.aento.com mapping to mail.stackmail.com would route all traffic sent to mail.aento.com to mail.stackmail.com.

MX record

Mail Exchange record. These records are used to re-direct email for a domain to the email server hosting the domain’s email accounts.

TXT record

Text record. These allow arbitrary text values to be added into the DNS. TXT records are often used as an option to validate ownership of a domain when signing up for an online service. e.g. if you sign up for an online service where that service has access to read data from your website, you may be asked to add a TXT record to your DNS as part of the sign-up process to prove you own the website and the domain.

How to choose the perfect domain name

The first thing to consider is that, as a business or individual, you’re not restricted to registering just one domain name. You can register as many different domain names as you need to properly organise and market your business. You can also register domain names that you never use, just to prevent other people using them, but you will have to keep paying for all of those domains.

Choice of TLD

In the first instance, depending on your business or organisation, we would recommend trying to find a suitable domain name using one of the common TLDs such as .com, .co.uk, .org, etc. These TLDs are well known and recognised amongst the wider public so immediately provide a certain level of trust. As well as being much more expensive, more specialised TLDs are much less well known. Although there is nothing wrong with registering a domain name of personalinjury.claims, a certain element of your potential customer base may view the unfamiliar .claims TLD with some suspicion. That being said, specialised TLDs can be used to create some very memorable domain names that can really boost brand recognition with the proper marketing.

One note of caution would be to avoid geographic TLDs that cover regions and countries where you are not located. We mentioned above that a lot of companies jumped on the .co TLD when it was available, viewing it as an alternative to .com. If you’re a UK company using a .co TLD you may experience no problems but some people may recognise the .co TLD correctly and assume you’re based in Colombia! The other consideration is that although a particular geographic TLD may not be well regulated at the moment, it may be in the future and you may be forced to give up your domain name. Although a slightly different situation, as mentioned above, British companies using the .eu domain related to the European Union were required to give up their domains following BREXIT unless they still maintained an office address inside the EU.

Domain names based on your business name

Most businesses would want to try and find a domain name that matches quite closely their company name. This is where you may encounter your first problem. There are probably a whole lot of businesses in your country with the same or similar names. In this case, you may well find that your preferred domain name is already registered to another business.

If you’re just starting a business and still in process of choosing a company name, we would recommend searching for a domain name be part of your decision making process. In other words, find a great domain name and base your company name on that, rather than the other way around. Online domain name search tools such as ours make it easy to quickly search for available and alternative domain names across multiple TLDs.

If you already have an established business and really need to use your existing company name, you have two options.

First expand your domain name search to include a description of your product or service. Let’s say for example there is another company called aento that is an accounting firm. That company would not be able to register aento.com but they may be able to register aentoaccounting.com, aentoaccountants.com, aento-accounting.com or aento-accountants.com. The only caveat here being if you are in this position and find that aentoaccountants.com is already registered, it’s probably not a good idea to register aento-accountants.com for yourself. The two domain names are too similar and would almost certainly lead to confusion and people contacting the wrong business.

The second option is to use a more specialised TLD. Referring to the above example, aento accountants could choose to use the .accountants TLD and find the domain name of aento.accountants is available, albeit at significantly increased cost.

Domain names based on your product or service

If you’re not worried about your domain name reflecting your business name, a lot of value can be had from choosing a domain name that reflects your product or service. So, again, referring to an accounting business called aento, let’s say that business is based in Cardiff. There’s nothing to stop that business registering a domain name of bestbusinessaccountantsincardiff.com, assuming the domain is available. As domain names are generally case insensitive, the business could stylise this as BestBusinessAccountantsInCardiff.com to make it more readable.

If that business was actively trying to find new customers, a service based domain name could actually be more beneficial to them than a company name based domain name. Search engines include domain names in their search index. As such, having a domain name that closely matches what people are likely to search for can improve your SEO and rankings. A potential new customer searching on google for an accounting business in Cardiff is more likely to type “Best business accountants in Cardiff” into the search engine than the name of a business they’ve never heard of.

Coming back to a point made above, there’s nothing to stop you registering and using multiple domain names. There’s nothing to stop you registering a company name based domain name that you use for your email and main web site that might be used by existing customers. At the same time you could register one or more product or service based domain names to use with separate websites or landing pages used to attract new customers to your business.

Important considerations for businesses

Every business, no matter how small, must have it’s own domain name. A domain name is the foundation for your online presence and can grow with you as your business grows. Don’t put off choosing a domain name. Choose and register your first domain name as early in your business’ life as possible.

If you don’t do anything else after reading this article, please, please, please ensure that your domain is registered in your own businesses name and that you have full access to the DNS management for the domain. We still find a disappointingly large number of unscrupulous web designers/consultants who register client’s domain names as their own and don’t provide management access to their clients. Often in these cases, clients are being charged over the odds for the domain name. Worse still, when a client chooses to move away from that particular web designer/consultant they find they are held hostage over the domain name, sometimes being charged thousands of pounds to have the domain name transferred into their own name.

Most domain hosting also incudes basic business email. For less than £10 per year your business can have its own email addresses using your own domain name rather than using generic gmail or hotmail accounts. This immediately allows you to look more professional and established.

If you’re starting a new business, make sure you include domain name research and selection of a suitable domain name as part of your planning and business setup. Be creative and flexible. You’re not restricted to a domain name based on your business name and you’re not restricted to having just one domain name.

Make sure you know when your domain registration requires renewal and make sure your domain registrar has up to date contact and billing information to ensure that you don’t run the risk of your domain name registration lapsing. Also make sure that the domain name registration details and contact information is kept up to date.

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