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What Is a Domain and How Do Domain Names Work?

Illustration of several characters holding up elements of a website that make up core components of online shopping

Your domain name is so much more than just a URL. 

It represents a virtual storefront for online shoppers to find your store and discover your brand and products. A memorable domain name can help your brand stand out from the competition, and ultimately help keep you top of mind for customers looking for a solution for their needs. A quality domain name can drastically improve your online presence.

Think about it this way: retail store owners have to make their locations easy to find and appealing enough to entice customers to walk through the door when they do find them. Similarly, your domain name is that online destination—it needs to be easy to find and use. ​​​​

In this article we'll cover everything you need to know about domains, from what is a domain name, to understanding the how domains work. We'll also cover some frequently asked questions related to domains, hosting, and registering a new domain. 

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Table of contents

What is a domain?

A domain, or domain name, is essentially a web URL or address. You’ll see the domain name after the http:// or www. in a URL string, or after the @ symbol in an email address.

A domain name basically serves as a user-facing digital destination. It's the equivalent of the physical address of a store. When you type a domain into your web browser, you're giving your computer directions to a specific location on the web.

Sometimes, the domain name is simply the name of the brand. Shopify merchant Mikokos, for example, uses mikokos.com as its domain.

mikokos.png

Some brands add to their domain names— as their preferred domain name may already be taken or cost too much. Swimsuit brand Viera for example, adds the word “swim” to its domain name, using vieraswim.com as its URL.

vieraswim.png

Depending on your industry, and how competitive it is, you may have to get a little creative when deciding on your domain name. This may include using a different domain extension such as .org, .cc. or adding more words to include in your domain.

If you're selling cars for example, Cars.com is already taken. But you can experiment with cars [city name] and see if there is availability.

While it's likely not possible to land a short or popular domain name without spending a signifiant amount of capital, a little creativity goes a long way when choosing a domain name.

How do domain names work?

Domain names are unique digital addresses that are easy for people to remember and use.

When you enter a URL, your device sends a request to the global Domain Name System (DNS) network of web hosts. The DNS network then finds the unique IP address associated with the typed-in domain name and sends the device to that virtual destination, or website.

When someone enters your domain name into their browser, they will be directed to your web page.

A domain name is unique to each website, and no two websites or businesses share the same domain name. For example, http://website.com and http://website.org are two separate entities. That’s because they end in different top-level domains (TLDs)—more on that later.

The basic building blocks of a URL break down like this:

  • http://—protocol (not technically a part of the domain)

  • website.com or website.org—root domain

  • website—domain name

  • .com, .edu, .gov .org—top-level domain

    Personal care brand by Humankind’s root domain is byhumankind.com. So in this example, “byhumankind” is the domain name and “.com” is the TLD.

    byhumankind.png

    Note that some domains include www and others don’t. You might also see things like shop.website.com or blog.website.com. The words blog and shop are subdomains that act as separate entities and destinations from your main domain.

    When you want to build an ecommerce website with your own domain (we recommend this!), you’ll need to do so through a domain registrar. Fortunately, there are many domain name registrars to choose from, including here at Shopify.

    Registrars serve as domain hosts or domain providers for your website. They do all the work in the back end to make your URL accessible to any internet user in the world who visits it. Your domain registrar will assign your domain its unique IP (internet protocol) address.

    Furthermore, by purchasing a custom domain, you gain the ability to modify standard email addresses to include your domain in your email. So instead of Sally@gmail.com, you can use Sally@yourbusinessname.com


    Types of domains (TLD, SLD, Third-level domains)

    According to the latest data, there are nearly 350 million registered domain names registered world wide, and that number continues to climb as more and more businesses and individuals register domains.


    That being said, not all domains are created equal. Here are some of the most used types of domains used today.

    Top-level domains (TLDs)

    Top-level domains include some of the most common types of domains you've undoubtedly come across while browsing the web.

    When the internet first began to take off, .com was the standard. However as more businesses and individuals began registering domains, other options were introduced.

    Generic top-level domain (gTLD)

    Original top level domains include:

    .com : Roughly representing 50% of domains registered, .com's are by far the most popular domains used today. When possible, owning the .com of your brand name is preferable compared to other options.

    .org: Short for organization, .org's are also a popular form of top-level domains. .org is popular among non-profits and charities for example. Roughly the same cost as a .com top-level domain, it can be a possible alternative if your desired domain with .com is already taken.

    .net: While not as widely popular as they once were, many advertisers and network operators use the .net extension. Although snagging your domain with .net can be beneficial, it's not as well known as some of the other top-level domains available.

    Special top-level domain cases

    .edu: This top-level domain is used primarily for businesses and organizations involved in education. Unlike .com and .org which can be purchased by anyone, .edu top-level domains may only be registered by institutions and organizations that are institutionally accredited. Many university websites will use the .edu extension. The benefit of having an .edu domain is you're often seen as reputable given the qualifications needed to purchase.

    .gov: Used for government agencies and institutions, this top-level domain is largely reserved for government use only. Although there are technically ways to acquire such a domain, you won't be able to find .gov extensions to purchase on reputable domain registrars. it's highly recommended not to use .gov for business purposes and stick with other options listed above.

    There are of course other top-level domains that vary depending on your location around the world.

    Country code top-level domains (ccTLD)

    In addition to the top-level domains used by many websites around the world, many countries also use country code top-level domains which are based on a specific geographical location.

    Today, there are 255 country code top-level domains in use.

    For example, many websites based in Canada will use .ca instead of .com. In Australia, you'll commonly see a websites with .com.au. China domains are known to use .cn

    If your company primarily serves customers in a specific region of the world, country code top-level domains could be a useful investment but you want to be careful to not to limit yourself right off the bat. Additionally, depending on the type of country code top-level domain there are some restrictions. .eu for example, requires registrars to live or be located in European Union.

    Many larger organizations such as Amazon, will have multiple ccTLD's in which they can tailor content specific to that audience. Amazon.com will offer a different experience than say amazon.au (Australia.)

    Second-level domain (SLDs)

    The second-level domain is the string of text or string of numbers that come before the .com or .org (or any extension.)

    In Shopify's case, Shopify is our second-level domain, while .com is the TLD. Second-level domains aren't restricted to just letters. The World Wide Web Consortium uses the domain w3.org. While using numbers in your second-level domain can sometimes make sense, we suggest to avoid numbers and hyphens when possible. In general, second-level domains with without numbers are easier to remember and come off as having more authority.

    Additionally, for those visiting your domain on mobile, they won't have to switch their keyboard to add a number or hyphen.

    Third-level domains

    A third-level domain falls under second-level domains in the domain hierarchy. As mentioned above, www. is the most common third level domain, but you're likely to have seen others while browsing the web.

    Let's look at some examples. In the case of .co.uk, .uk would be the ccTLD, and .co would be the third-level domain.

    If you've ever browsed Wikipedia in North America, you've likely been redirected to en.wikipedia.org, in which en is the third-level domain. In this specific case, en. ensures the content you view will shown in English.

    Third-level domains are commonly used to designate a specific server of a website and be be useful for tailoring specific content based on geographical locations or other branding purposes. Hubspot, uses blog.hubspot to direct visitors to their blog content.

    Typically, third-level domains are often referred to as subdomains. Subdomains are used to organize your website's structure and ensure each experience to your website is specifically tailored to your audiences needs.

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    How to choose a domain name

    Naming your online store is an important and fun but daunting task. When you start an ecommerce business, it’s important to choose a domain name that represents your brand and is easy to remember but still unique so people don’t mix it up with other domain names.

    While it may be tempting to create a creative variation of a specific spelling, that can ultimately led to confusion and a potential missed conversion.

    On top of that, you need to find a domain name that’s available and within your budget. You won't come across a free domain name often.

    You can even leverage your domain name to boost credibility and trust in your brand. That’s exactly what Andrew Lissimore did when he launched his website selling headphones. He chose headphones.com as his domain name—it doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. He negotiated a price from the original domain name owner and was able to successfully grow his online business.

    headphones.png

    When choosing your domain name, aim for the following:

    • Availability. Do a domain name search to see if your idea is available. Whois is a great tool that can be helpful in finding out more information about a specific domain. If someone is actively using your domain name idea, you’ll likely need to find some new ones. If it’s unavailable and also not in use, you may be able to find out who owns the domain and negotiate a price.

    • Within budget. Available or not, domain names generally aren't free. While some hosting providers will include a free” domain name with the purchase of hosting, basic domain names cost around 10-15 USD a year. Common words and phrases—like headphones.com—are likely to be more expensive than less common words.

    • Easy to remember. Your domain name is what people enter into their browser to find your website. It’s important to make sure it’s easy not only to remember but also to spell—especially if yourbrand.com isn’t available.

    • On brand. Your domain name is a representation of your brand, especially if you’re selling online-only. Get your brand name somewhere in your domain name if possible. Fashion designer Tery D’Ciano maintains a website for her brand at terydc.com, for example. 

    terydc.png

     

    Find your perfect domain name

    Search for domain name ideas and instantly check domain availability.

    Learn more


    Launch your domain with Shopify

    If you’re setting up your own website, you need a domain registrar, a server to host your domain, a website design, and email and customer support functionality, among other ecommerce software features. That’s why it’s important to choose tools that simplify and centralize business management as much as possible.

    When you register your domain with Shopify, it immediately connects to your online store—so you don’t have to worry about third-party apps or complex setup processes. Everything is ready to go so you can focus on what matters most. No additional website builder needed.

    Ready to create your first business? Start your free 14-day trial of Shopify—no credit card required.


    What is a domain name FAQ

    When it comes to domain names, it's easy to feel overwhelmed. Domain name registration in particular can be challenging for those without a technical background.

    Here are some of the most frequently asked questions to help you decide on the best domain for you.

    What exactly is a domain?

    A domain is a URL people enter into their browser to access a specific website. A domain connects a user’s device to the DNS, which matches it with the IP address and gains access to the website through a web server. It can be helpful to think of a domain as a web address that's used to give your computer directions to your desired location.

    What is a domain used for?

    A domain is used as a user-friendly address to access a specific virtual destination or website. Domains are also used for credibility and SEO and can be typed into your browser or found via a search engine.

    Who manages domain names? 

    From a technical standpoint, domain names are managed by The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, better known as ICANN. There are hundreds of domain registries that can help facilitate a sale of a domain, such as GoDaddy or us here at Shopify.

    Once a domain is purchased, it typically falls under a technical member of your team to setup the DNS servers, and SSL certificate which are critical for any online business. Members of a marketing team can also use the domain as a vessel to build out a content marketing strategy as well.

    How is domain name different from a website and web hosting?

    A domain name and web hosting are two completely separate things. Once purchased, domain owners will need to have web hosting to upload content and build out a proper website. Web hosts is responsible for your web files, while the domain is simply the location in which to find those files.

    While there are many hosting services to choose from, they aren't all created equal. It's important you choose a web hosting provider that is able to deliver on your traffic and performance needs.
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