Master of Your Domain

hand clutching a domain name

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Choosing a name (and domain name) for your blog might not be quite as important a decision as naming your firstborn child … but it is something to consider carefully … — Darren Rowse

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Your domain name identifies your Web site. The domain name "" identifies the Google search engine (and the entire Google empire, as everything Google-related is accessed through that particular domain name). There are two parts: the top level domain (TLD), the "dot com" or "dot org" or whatever, and the second level domain that is the actual name: "google" or "mybigfatgreekwebsite" or whatever. Together, the two combine to tell the Domain Name System (DNS) where to locate everything on your site, and how to steer users to your site. There is also a third level domain, almost always "www".

Actually, the whole "" thing is just a mask for a string of numbers — your IP, or "internet protocol" address. For example, Google's IP is (it actually has several, but this one is first on the list. So if you go to:

you'll get the Google home page.

Since neither I nor anyone else bothers to memorize tons of IP addresses, we rely on the TLD and second-level domain names to help us remember where we want to go. Then we let DNS do the actual finding.

These IP numbers only deal with the main part of the domain name. The subdirectories still have to be identified by name. For example, if you wanted to check out the Google Analytics page, you could type:

and off you'd go.

How do you find the IP address of a particular Web site? There are many, many "lookups" on the Internet, often called "whois" searches. One of the oldest and most reliable is the Domain Tools Whois lookup. You can find much more on a Web site through a whois search, including who owns the site, where it's located, and how to contact the site owner.

Domain names can be 63 characters in length, maximum. They can only use letters, numbers, and hyphens. So, for example, "" is okay, as is "" or some combination thereof. The domain name "" is not kosher and won't be accepted; neither is "*max*web*". You can put a number in there: "" is okay. Some businesses use their 1-800 number as a web site: "" is a very successful US-based flower delivery business.

Top Level Domains

There are a blue million of these out there, but we really only concern ourselves with a few.

Back in the 1980s, when A Flock of Seagulls was big on the pop charts, the mighty minds working with DNS came up with seven TLDs that comprise the bulk of Web site domain names today. Here's a list with a quick definition of each one:

Stands for "commercial," and was intended to represent general commercial/business sites. The "dot com" TLD is the closest to a generic, all-purpose TLD around today. This site operates under a "dot com" TLD, and I don't sell anything.
Stands for "organization," and was intended for non-profit organizations. You used to have to qualify to gain a "dot org" TLD, but now anyone can buy one.
Stands for "education," and is restricted to accredited post-secondary schools, colleges, and universities. A very few non-educational sites have "dot edu" TLDs due to owning them before the restrictions came into effect in 2001.
Stands for "government," and is restricted to US government sites. Because the US government is, well, arrogant, it is the only government with its own TLD. Other nations and their governments make do with their "country codes" (see below).
Stands for "military," and is restricted to US military sites. Again, the US government doesn't feel that its country code ("dot us") suits its military needs, so the US Department of Defense has its own TLD. The US military also uses "dot com" sites such as "" but these are mostly recruitment and marketing sites. The site "" is very different from "".
Stands for "network," and was originally intended for networks and other technological purposes. It has long been a generic, all-purpose TLD, and for some reason is often used for movie Web sites (i.e. "", and tell me you didn't actually try that address …).
Stands for "international," and is restricted to international treaty organizations such as the United Nations. A very few non-international treaty organization sites such as the YMCA's "" retain their TLD because they had them before restrictions came into effect.

(Okay, these are actually "generic top-level domains" or gTLDs, or "sponsored top-level domains" or sTLDs. Did you care?)

Other TLDs

The folks at IANA have created 14 more TLDs besides the 7 listed above. Some are becoming familiar, such as "dot name" (.name), "dot info" (.info), "dot mobi" (.mobi, for mobile devices) and others. Others have virtually no recognition and are rarely used. In 2007, a number of non-English "internationalized domain names" were made available for testing purposes, in languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Greek, Korean, Yiddish, Japanese, and Tamil. Wikipedia provides us a comprehensive list.

Country Codes

Every nation has its own "country code" that identifies a Web site as being from that nation. If you're an American and feeling particularly patriotic, you can buy a domain name with the "dot us" code; if you're an Aussie, you'd buy a "dot au" name, and so forth.

A few nations have made a ton of money from their country codes, since they coincidentally refer to something else besides that nation. The "dot tv" code (.tv) has been one of the most popular because it references television: for example, the Turner Network Television corporation has "" up and running. It actually stands for the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu. Same with "dot fm" (.fm), which stands for the Federated States of Micronesia but is often used by radio stations. Some country codes such as "dot it" (.it) are used to make catchy domain names such as "" and so forth. The company "", which makes its living creating "shortened" domain names and URLs for Twitter and so forth, uses Libya's country code, though the firm itself operates out of New York. Some countries permit foreign registrations, others do not.

For your perusing pleasure, here's a list of all the country codes, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Choosing a Domain Name

God only knows how many domain names are out there; I certainly don't, though as of June 2010, there were over 120 million (and over three times that in deleted domains). Chances are, your short, pithy, beautifully descriptive domain name is already gone, so be prepared for disappointment and have fallback domain names in mind.

Having said all that, how should you choose a domain to begin with?

Whatever you choose, it should be as short and pithy as possible, so people can remember it. Plain English, and not text-talk or acronym gibberish, is always preferable. If you're a business, obviously you want a domain that reflects your business, i.e. "" if you can get it, but if not, some memorable "keyword" or short phrase that reflects your business might do the trick: say, "" or something similar. Don't fight a trademark; if you want "", be prepared to fight Hasbro for the right to this domain. And don't forget, if you can't get the perfect domain name under "dot com", you might be able to get it under "dot net", "dot info", or some other TLD. (A lot of businesses and organizations try to secure as many TLD variants as possible, and use redirects to send people to the main "dot com" site. Yahoo! has the "dot org", "dot biz", "dot info", and other TLD variants of their "" name secured; they either send visitors right back to "" or to affiliated sites.)

Unless you have considerably more money than I do, I wouldn't recommend "bidding" on domain names. The "domain name buying craze" of the late 1990s has come and gone, and instances of people making fortunes by grabbing domains such as "" and then selling them at inflated prices to interested parties are far less frequent than they used to be. If you're set on "", but someone else beat you to it, you can contact the site owner and negotiate, but be prepared for frustration and outlandish charges. (Ironically, as I write this, someone is selling "" for $2500. If you want it that badly, knock yourself out.) You can buy unsecured domain names from many, many different sellers, sometimes for as low as a dollar, but usually anywhere between $8 and $15. Here, Google is your friend.

If you can, you should avoid dashes in your domain. The domain "" is, generally, preferable to "". There are exceptions to this rule of thumb, and some domains, such as "", do quite well for their owners.