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Have you ever given any thought to what happens when you enter an website address into the “address bar” of your browser?
The string of text you submit is known as the Uniform Resource Locator (URL), and it contains several important parts that help you find what you’re looking for, including:
- the protocol (e.g., hypertext transfer protocol, or http://)
- the domain name (e.g., yoursite.com.au)
- specific file information (e.g., sub-directories, file names, etc.)
Of the three, the domain name is what most people think of when they hear the words “Web address.” A domain name is a human-friendly way to render the Internet Protocol (IP) address, or the numeric location assigned to a specific computer, resource, or website on the Internet.
Anatomy of a Domain Name Registration
As a key part of the DNS hierarchy, domain names are broken into three (or more) parts, with the network scope increasing as you move from left to right.
Domain names do not include the protocol listed in the URL (e.g., “https://”, “ftp://”, or “www.”).
For example, if the domain name for your website is “yoursite.com.au“, then:
- The first part of the domain name is the domain itself (“yoursite”, in our example).
- The second part of the domain name (“.com.au”) is the Top Level Domain (TLD) suffix, and identifies the type of entity represented by the domain name.
- Some of the most common examples of TLD suffixes include:
- .com (commercial websites)
- .com.au (Australian websites)
- .gov (government websites)
- .edu (educational websites, including those for universities)
- .org (mostly non-profit organization websites)
- .mil (military websites)
- .net (network websites)
- .ca (Canadian websites), .de (German websites), .uk (United Kingdom websites) and other country-specific extensions.
- Some of the most common examples of TLD suffixes include:
- The third part of the domain name is the period at the end of the domain name (usually invisible to, and almost never entered by, users). In our example, this would be the (again, invisible) period that follows “.com”. This is the “root” domain, and it is the marker used by your browser and your computer’s operating system to initiate the domain resolution process.
All domain names (and the content that may be contained within the sites to which they’re registered) are rely on the Domain Name System for proper organization and processing.
A note on hostnames: As a rule, domain names encompass hostnames. A hostname is a domain name that has at least one IP address associated with it.
So, in our example, both “yoursite.com.au” and “blog.yoursite.com.au” are valid domain names and valid hostnames, because they have specific IP addresses associated with them.
However, the TLD (“.com” in our example), is not a valid hostname, because it has no specific IP address assigned to it, and is used to create other domain names in the hierarchy.
How Domain Name Work
When you type the name of a website or file into our address bar, both our computer and the vast collection of servers making up the Internet quickly translate it into a more computer-friendly numerical format in order to track down and serve up the content we’ve requested.
The reason? While the human beings who created and maintain the Internet think in words and phrases, the computers we’ve built to contain it think purely in numbers.
Enter the Domain Name System, or DNS. Created in 1983 by Dr. Paul Mockapetris, DNS is one of the original Internet Standards set down by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The IETF was created in 1986, with its stated mission “to make the Internet work better by producing high quality, relevant technical documents that influence the way people design, use, and manage the Internet.”
Take a closer look at how the DNS system works to retrieve content:
In keeping with its role as an IETF standard, DNS makes life on the Internet a little easier by functioning as a translation service. The text you enter is submitted to a series of servers, which trace the query and ultimately return the numeric IP address of the content you’ve requested, which is then displayed by your browser.
And because the DNS system is optimized for efficiency, your domain name is traced, translated, and sent back to your browser as numerical data almost instantly (often in less than a second).
Buying, Selling, and Using Domain Names
As the backbone of the modern Internet, domain names are purchased and sold every day around the world. The owner of a domain name can:
- Purchase hosting from a provider, associate the domain with their hosting account, and set up a website or sites
- Store, or “park,” the domain name, pointing it to a “Coming Soon” page, placeholder website, or a website they’ve already associated with another domain name
- This is of particular value to site owners whose site is still in development or who want to own the intellectual rights to a name but associate with another, more well-established brand.
- Sell and transfer ownership of the domain name to someone else.
Buying and selling of domain names can either be done directly through your hosting provider, or through a specialized company known as a domain registrar. These companies are monitored by the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which regulates the assignment of domains at the TLD level. You pay a fee to the registrar, and in exchange, they:
- Ensure your chosen domain name has not already been registered
- Suggest available alternatives should your chosen domain be unavailable
- Register it with ICANN and list you as the owner using the Extensible Provisioning Protocol, or EPP. EPP is a secure method for registering and maintaining domain name assignments, and helps prevent domain name highjacking (theft).
Registrars do the same thing for hosting providers, who act as middlemen in the registration process. Some registrars, however, are also hosting providers themselves, effectively cutting out said middleman. Most registrars offer you a term of one or more years of domain ownership, and many also offer automatic renewal (domains expire, and you must renew them periodically to maintain ownership).
The market for domain names may fairly be compared to the real estate market (and often is). Both involve dealing with new and extant properties and locations, and in both industries, supply and demand, as well as perceived value, drive the market.
Selling a domain you own works in much the same way as selling your home. Most people reach out to an agent (the registrar, in this case), who then handles the technical and legal aspects of the transaction while acting as a go-between for buyer and seller. Private sales are also quite common, and in some cases, worth millions.
Take a look at the top five most expensive domain names ever sold in Australia:
- money.com.au – $400,000
- jobs.com.au – $300,000
- pay.com.au – $168,000
- flowers.com.au – $153,000
- cars.com.au – $141,000
Domain Names and Web Hosting
If you choose to set up a website using your new domain name, you’ll need to sign up with the provider of your choice. The signup process is fairly straightforward, and once you’ve chosen a plan and paid your fee, your domain name will be associated with your hosting account, and you should be clear to set up your site.
Review: The domain name hierachy of a hosted site.
Once you’ve got a hosting account and set up your site, the domain name hierarchy for your site will look something like this:
- URL: http://www.yoursite.com/index.html
- Top-level domain name: .com
- Second-level domain name: yoursite.com
- Hostname: www.yoursite.com
Your IP address will be assigned to you by your hosting provider, whose own IP address will be configured to support multiple assignments under one address (this is the process that makes shared and virtual hosting possible in the first place).
How Subdomains Work
Sometimes, you might want to add a new website to your account, but you don’t want to bother with finding and purchasing a new domain name. With subdomains, you can “piggyback” a new website onto your existing domain without needing to purchase another domain or hosting account.
A subdomain is, in essence, an additional website, complete with its own content. However, instead of creating a new second-level name (e.g., “yoursite.com“), you tack on a new prefix to your existing second-level domain (e.g., “blog.yoursite.com“).
Subdomains can usually be created using the hosting control panel (e.g., cPanel, Plesk, etc.) that comes with your hosting account. Some providers will set up subdomains on request.
Once it’s established a subdomain that’s associated with a domain name works just like any other website. You’ll be able to install applications, build website pages, and store media and other files, all of it separate from (but still on the same server as) your existing domain name and Web hosting account.
It’s important to keep in mind that even though subdomains function independently from the main domain with regard to content, they are still using the same resources as your main account. So if you set up multiple sites on various subdomains, you may find that you’ll eventually have to move up to a more robust hosting plan if the sites begin to use more resources than your current plan can handle.