What Exactly is a Domain Name? Fully Explained

Domain names are human-readable words, such as amazon.com, that direct a web browser towards specific files on a particular server.

A domain can be compared to a physical address… but it is on the Internet. They are not capable of doing any work on their own but are crucial to understand when building an online project.

This is the brief version. There’s much more to domains and domain registration than that.

What does technical speak mean by a domain name?

The Internet is nothing more than a collection of connected devices with IP addresses (usually a series number like It is difficult to remember IP addresses, and they also change often.

Domain names are a series of letters that can be read by humans and matched with an IP Address. This allows a user to locate the device (usually a server that has files) they desire.

The analogy in the physical world is that Addresses to Domain Names is what Geo Coordinates to IP Addresses.

This analogy can be extended and answers many common questions. You can think of physical addresses as an example.

  • Domain names are used primarily for ease of use and memory. It doesn’t mean you have to have one, but it can make finding your work much easier.
  • Domain names can be distinguished based on their neighborhood. New York City’s 5th Avenue is a familiar landmark. 5th Avenue is only as famous as the businesses that are there.
  • A central governing body regulates and structures domain names.
  • Domain names are partly determined by availability and country.

In this instance, ICANN is the central governing body. They oversee the domain name system’s structure and delegate responsibility for individual domains to registry operators.

ICANN also approved a number of Top Level Domains, (TLDs), that can be used to pair with specific websites/devices. Many of these TLDs are industry-related, while some are country-specific. Domain name registrars can register and lease domain names on an annual basis.

In a second, we’ll be able to discuss providers and what to look out for.

But what actually connects a domain name to a device/files/website? Now, we’re talking about the Domain Name System.

What is DNS?

The Internet Domain Name System is the protocol that converts a domain name request into an actual IP address request.

Name servers are required for every domain name. Name servers do the DNS work. These name servers allow you to create “records” that will be used for each request.

A request for an incoming mail can be told to go to a specific folder. Website requests can be directed to another folder.

Without an attached DNS server, your domain name will not work. It exists. A DNS name server cannot function without a domain name.

Access to a DNS server is typically included in domain names and hosting. This allows you to store your website files. It is important to remember that your DNS server doesn’t need to be in a specific location.

It is usually easier to have your nameservers set up with your hosting company, rather than your domain registration. They are responsible for routing your traffic to the folders. If you’re technically proficient, however, many people use separate DNS providers like Google, Cloudflare, or other companies.

The key point is that you must still set your DNS name server at your registrar, regardless of where it is located. They control your registration data and privacy.

Let’s now briefly discuss Domain Privacy and the products that surround it.

What is Domain Privacy?

Domain Privacy is a product that domain registrars are authorized to sell according to certain regulations. You must provide accurate contact information when you register your domain name. This is required by the ICANN license agreement. Your contact information will be stored in the public WHOIS database.

This is necessary to fix spam, abuse, or technical problems that may arise from domain names & DNS operation.

A public WHOIS database has the side effect that you can guess. This is the Internet.

Stalkers, spammers and stalkers have a tendency to misuse the public contact information of salespeople, scrappers, spammers and other criminals. Sometimes you can even use it to locate spammers.

Domain Privacy is designed to address this problem. Your registrar acts as a public intermediary and you pay them. They will publish your contact information instead of yours, and they promise to share any important information with you.

Domain Privacy is expensive, even though some registrars offer it “free”, i.e. the base cost included in the total cost.

It’s an excellent idea, and worth the upgrade, even if it means less spam or random calls.

How DNS, Privacy and Domains All Work Together

This is a real-life example of how it all works.

  1. The domain name of this site is larryludwig.com
  2. The domain name is registered at namecheap and the DNS name servers point to my host, inMotion Hosting.
  3. InMotion’s DNS server servers are configured to direct web traffic towards a folder on my VPS hosting server. This folder will contain my website files, including this page and all its images and design. Any email sent to nate@larryludwig.com will be delivered to Google. This is where I receive my emails.
  4. Namecheap holds my registration information. I am protected by WHOIS Privacy Protection. Namecheap is able to get in touch with you, but no other company can.

This is how domain names, DNS, and WHOIS privacy work together.

There are still many questions that arise. Here are my answers.

What Does a Domain Name Cost?

A domain costing a flat annual fee is determined by many factors, including the base price of the top-level domain domain (TLD), its status and the business model and markup of your registrars.

It all depends on the other words.

An inactive generic top level domain, such as a.com or.org, can be purchased for $10-30 per year.

You can expect to pay a base price plus the model and markup of the registrar if you’re buying a TLD for a country (e.g….co.uk,.ca, or.tv) as well as a premium TLD (e.g..ninja,.wedding, or.movie).

If you’re buying domains that are already registered, you can either negotiate a private price or wait until the auction to purchase it. The majority of large registrars have their own marketplaces, or they participate in a marketplace.

It is easy to find out how much a domain costs by simply searching for it. Most of my readers use namecheap because they offer low annual renewal prices and a great user experience. I have embedded their search tool below.

You can also use the search engine at domain registrars such as GoDaddy (cheaper upfront than Namecheap), Hover (focus is on support), or directly at hosting companies that usually offer a free domain (such as Bluehost or InMotion Hosting).

Your registrar’s business model, and markup, is the biggest wildcard when it comes to domain costs. I have written many reviews about different domain registrars.

Every domain registrar wants to make money. They all aim to make a profit, but in different ways. As a consumer, your job is to find the one that suits your needs. Also, remember that it is impossible to believe that something is too good to be true. You will end up paying for the domain over time if you buy a cheap domain. You’re likely to get a more expensive domain if a company promises the world a very expensive domain.

I’ll cover different providers’ business models below.

Can you buy a domain without hosting?

Yes, you can buy a domain without purchasing hosting. There are several good reasons to purchase a domain without hosting.

  1. You are not ready to start your project, but you would like to get your domain name.
  2. You wish to redirect your domain to an existing project (e.g., on Facebook or Medium, Amazon, etc.).
  3. You may want to speculate on domain name ideas. Although this practice isn’t as lucrative as it was in the past, it is still a thing.
  4. Protect trademarked phrasing.

You can find many good reasons. But that is up to your choice. You can purchase a domain name without hosting. To keep your domain registered, you will only need to pay $10-20 per year.

I bought a domain, now what?

There are some things you can do once you have purchased a domain.

Setting up a new website will require hosting/website builder/ eCommerce Platform depending upon what you are building. Hosting is something I prefer to separate from domains. If your domain provider offers a great deal or you just want to save time, you can follow their onboarding process.

After you have purchased a hosting/website builder subscription, you will need to point your DNS at your hosting company/website maker.

The rest of the steps can be completed at your web host/website designer.

You can use the DNS nameservers to set DNS settings for an email setup or other Internet project. You can either set MX records for email (e.g. Google Workplace), or @ records to point at a live project.

You will need to redirect visitors to an existing project. To do this, you’ll create 301 records with UTM parameters to track.

ReviewMy RatingNo cost DNSNo cost privacyWebsite
Domain.com7.5/10Learn More
Dynadot8.5/10Learn More
GoDaddy8.0/10Learn More
Google Domains8.5/10Learn More
Hover7.5/10Learn More
IONOS from 1&17.0/10Learn More
iwantmyname8.0/10Learn More
Name.com7.5/10Learn More
Namecheap9.0/10Learn More
NameSilo7.0/10Learn More
Network Solutions6.0/10Learn More
Porkbun7.5/10Learn More
Register.com6.0/10Learn More

There are many domain registrars available on the Internet. These domain registrars range from large companies like GoDaddy to young upstarts like Hover, to companies that offer registration as a compliment (like hosting and website builders).

All of them have their tradeoffs. Here’s a list of top domain name registrars.

Shopping is all about deciding what you want. Are you looking for a low-cost first year, only to end up paying more the next year? Are you looking for phone support or chat? Are you looking for a well-established brand or a new company? Are you looking for a simple user interface or lots of products that complement it? Are you looking for a broad TLD selection? Are you planning on purchasing multiple domains, or just one? Are you looking for the ease of purchasing a domain and hosting from one company, or the control of purchasing them individually?

Next steps

Domain names are fascinating. They are essential to any website’s success in many ways. They don’t matter in other ways (see thefacebook.com and basecamphq.com as well as all the terrible domains that are now associated with big companies).

If you have an idea or project, grab your domain name, and get started!

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