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Introduction to Domain Names

In the Beginning
Topics relating to domain names are often in the news these days, whether it's another tale of instant riches through the sale of a simple .com domain (the story most quoted: the "business.com" sold for $7.5 million in late 1999) or breathless stories of cybersquatters and trademark disputes. With over 15 million domain names registered to date, including well over 9 million names ending in .com (source: DomainStats), the market for registering domain names is roaring! A whole industry has developed around the buying and selling of domain names, with its own rules and regulations, an eclectic cast of characters, and even its own con artists! If you are trying to run an online business, you'll need a domain name before people can take your company seriously. You can also use a domain name to make a statement, or simply to give yourself a unique id in cyberspace...This site will explain what domain names are and why you should buy one, help you to choose the best names and select a good company to register those names with, teach you to you avoid the snares and traps of unscrupulous organizations... You'll get a unique view of the domain name industry from the point of view of website owners, domain name sellers, registrars and domain name brokers. If at any time you feel you need more information, just head over to the Domain FAQ where you'll find over 200 answers to the most common questions about domain names.

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What is a Domain Name?

Imagine that everybody in the world used their Social Security number or their telephone number instead of their name... If names didn't exist, you'd be forced to invent them, or you'd never be able to identify your closest friends, let alone casual acquaintances you'd met only a couple of times! Domain names were invented to fill a similar need on the Internet. Most computers connected to the Internet are identified by a unique number called an IP address (for instance, 234.208.12.129). IP addresses are neither intuitive (they don't correspond to a geographical location) nor easy to remember (you can prove that by glancing away from this page and then trying to quote the example IP address above!) If you type the IP address into the URL bar of your browser you will be taken to the web site it relates to. As well as being hard to remember, however, IP addresses are also FIXED (i.e. if you change web hosting companies you'll need to get a new IP address for your site). Domain names offer a more intuitive way to name and find a website. Each domain name replaces a string of meaningless numbers (an IP address) with a simple word or expression. That's the theory - in practice, domain names can be pretty obscure too.

The Structure of a Domain Name
Let's look in more detail at a domain name, using this site's domain name as an example. This site's domain name is ebaseasia.com - you can check this easily by looking at in the URL or location bar of your browser. .com is the top domain under which my domain name is registered. There are heaps of different top domains out there, from commercial (.com) through to non-profit (.org) and even country-specific top domains such as France (.fr) and Italy (.it) or Sri Lanka ( .lk ). Every domain name is registered under a top domain of some kind. The top domain is often known as the domain extension - these are the same thing, so don't get mixed up!

Don't be caught out: .com is pronounced "dot-com". Other international domains, such as .net or .org are pronounced "dot-net" and "dot-org" respectively. Country-specific domain names, on the other hand, tend to get spelled out. .jp is pronounced "dot-jay-pee" for instance.

ebaseasia is the sub-domain of our domain name. This is the part of the domain name that we were able to choose - we made it up when we registered a domain name. The top domain and sub-domain together make up what people call a domain name. If you asked us what my site's domain was, we would reply "ebaseasia.com” One of the best things about domain names is that they are unique. We can relax in the knowledge that there is nobody else out there who owns the domain name "ebaseasia.com". This is because all domain names are recorded in a central database, and each record in the database must be unique. This is also what makes some domain names quite valuable.

Always remember that when we talk about "owning" a domain name, we are really talking about the exclusive right to use that name. It is not possible to own a domain name outright, and you will have to pay a periodic renewal fee to keep this "right to use" your domain name. Also, since you don't own the name itself, under certain circumstances a court can take your right to use a domain name away from you. Like it or hate it, this is the way the whole domain name system has been set up, and run for over 10 years. So you are going to have to accept this rather strange way of working with domain names.

Here are a few examples of domain names that you may already be familiar with. They belong to well-known companies or organizations.
· ibm.com
· apple.com
· microsoft.com

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Some slightly technical stuff about Domain Names

We already talked about the "central database" for domain names a little earlier. Now this database is stored on several very large computers that are scattered around the world. The central database is maintained by a company called InterNIC.
When you buy a domain name, your details (name, company name, address, etc.) are recorded in the database along with the domain name, the date that you purchased the name and the date you will be due to pay a "renewal fee" for the domain name. Depending on how and through which company you bought the name initially, you will own the right to use the name for between 1 year and 10 years before you have to pay this renewal fee (each company has slightly different policies, so read the small print carefully when you register a domain name!)
"Register" was in bold for a reason: when you buy a domain name, it is said that you are "registering" it (since in fact all your details are being registered, or recorded, in the central database). This is why the companies that let you buy domain names are called "registrars".

This next part is the technical bit. You can skip down to the next box unless you are really keen to learn more about how the domain name system actually works.

One thing you may well come across when registering a domain name is a request for information about the name servers you will be using.

You remember we talked about domain names being a substitute for IP addresses? Well, there has to be somewhere where a computer can go to find out what IP address is associated with a particular domain name, since computers use IP addresses to locate data around the Internet. This association information between domain names and IP addresses is stored on a name server (or nameserver - both spellings are used!)

Think of a website as a store set well back from a road, behind some trees. To find the store, you're going to need a sign. You can think of the domain name as that sign, and the IP address as the direction in which the sign is pointing. If the workmen who were hired to put up the sign don't know where the store is, they will leave the sign pointing in a random direction. This is similar to why many domain names do not seem to lead anywhere: they do not have a particular IP address associated with them.

Now think of the name servers as foremen who tell the workmen in which direction to point the sign. Once the sign is pointed in the specified direction, it will not be moved unless the workmen give new instructions. Each name server is responsible for maintaining the master record of the information associated with certain domain names.

A domain name record requires two name servers: a primary name server (also known as a domain name server, or DNS for short) and a secondary name server. Name servers are scattered all over the Internet - there are thousands of them - and each one passes on requests for information ("where's the store?") until it reaches the primary name server, which replies ("it's over there... see, where that sign is pointing to") and maps the domain name to the IP address, letting your computer find the right website. If the primary name server is not accessible (broken, switched off, behind a slow connection, etc.) then the request for information will be sent to the secondary name server.

In practice, things are more complicated than the simplistic picture painted above. For instance, many name servers cache information about commonly requested mappings between domain names and IP addresses (= record that information locally so that it can be reused again for later requests). This is why, when you change the information on a particular domain name, such as the IP address it points at, it can take several days for people all over the Internet to find your site at its new address (since the information cached on their local name servers is out of date, and takes a while to get refreshed). This is know as propagating new domain name information.

Most domain name registrars (companies selling domain names) will set up your new domain name on their name servers, at least until you want to "move" it somewhere else. If you move a domain name, you are basically transferring the right to maintain the association between that domain name and its IP address to a different name server. This is often necessary, for instance, when changing web hosting companies. Again, the technical support staff at your web hosting company should be able to help you on this issue in more detail

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Domain Name Characteristics

A domain name can contain the numbers 0-9, the letters a-z and the hyphen character ("-"). Note however that domain names cannot begin or end with a hyphen. You can use UPPERCASE or lowercase letters when registering a domain name, but you may occasionally run into problems if you mix cASes, depending on the exact configuration of the web server that will be hosting your website.

The easiest way to make sure your domain name will not cause you any problems later is to register it using all lowercase letters.

A domain name can contain up to 67 characters, although some domain registrars have still not reconfigured their services to accommodate these longer domain names (domain names used to be limited to 26 characters until mid-1999)

This 67 character limit includes the "." (dot) and the top level domain. So in the case of a ".com" name, for instance, you'll be able to specify up to 63 characters yourself.

Some top domains from specific countries have additional limitations on length and on the number of characters in a domain. Some even specify a minimum length for a domain name, such as 3 characters or more. This site is designed to give you an introduction to the subject - for the specific rules of each of the over 200 top-level domains, you'll have to read the small print when you register a domain.

DID YOU KNOW? You can include two consecutive hyphens in a domain name ("--") although you should consider that this will make it MUCH harder for people to remember/type your name correctly into their browsers.

One final proviso: many domain name registries forbid domain names that contain any of the so-called 7 "taboo" words that are banned on US network television. I am not going to list these here, but most have to do with sexual or bodily functions. If one of these words shows up in a domain name the name will be automatically rejected. Some adventurous registries are allowing such names to be registered - you'll just have to experiment if you are inclined to go after this kind of name.

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Common misconceptions about Domain Names

There is a lot of information about domain names in the Domain FAQ including in-depth coverage of what you can and cannot do with domain names. This page is designed to supplement rather than replace the FAQ, and you should always turn to the FAQ for more information. That said, here are some of the most common misconceptions about domain names.

1. So when I register a domain name I then own the name?
No, you own the right to use the name for a defined period of time, often 2 years in the first instance. You will have to pay a renewal fee after your initial registration period expires, or face losing control of the domain name. You do not automatically have the right to keep the name forever, although in practice as long as you keep on paying for the name and it does not infringe on somebody's trademark or service mark, it is essentially yours to do what you want with.

2. Do I have to be a US company or resident to register a domain name?
No, Anyone can register a domain name under any of the .com, .net or .org top domains. You don't have to be a US citizen or resident, and you don't have to be registering on behalf of a company either. Some countries impose additional rules on people trying to register domain names under that country's top level domain, for instance that you are only allowed to register one domain name, or that only registered companies can purchase domain names.

If we had to single out the most common misconception of all, we would have to say it's this: "My domain name will make me RICH!"

This is nonsense. Sure, some domain names have sold for very large sums of money, and a few have changed hands for over $1 million, but we estimate over 99% of names offered for sale never find a buyer (you just have to look on eBay or Yahoo! Auctions to see hundreds of examples of unsold names)

This is the reality that most domain name owners refuse to face up to: unless a domain name is truly exceptional or otherwise desirable, it simply will not sell. At the same time, most domain name owners place totally unrealistic prices on their domain names - this encourages the PERCEPTION that all domain names are valuable - but the names are FAILING TO SELL at the prices they are asking! THINK ABOUT THIS!

3. Do I need a website to own a domain name?
No, you can reserve a domain name even if you don't have a website (this is known as domain parking). Later, if you build a website, you can "move" your domain name to the company that is hosting your website.

4. When I register a domain name, do I get a website too?
No, you do not usually get a website along with your domain name. Some domain registrars offer web hosting as an optional extra service, but you don't need to host with your registrar even if you do. The beauty of the domain name system is that you can use the name you registered with just about any web hosting company you like!

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Different kinds of Domain Name

There are many different types of domain name. By far the most popular (and hence "valuable" if you are considering registering domain names as an investment) is a domain name ending in .com. These dot-com domain names are used by the vast majority of large companies, who have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on branding the "dot-com" top domain in the minds of web users worldwide. In fact, .com names are so widespread that many people don't know other domain extensions exist! .com domains can be freely bought or sold by anyone.

.com domains should be considered the equivalent of prime real-estate on the Web. Most companies will place a premium on owning a .com name over any other domain extension.

Two other international top domains, .net and .org, are becoming increasingly popular. .net is officially reserved for network associations such as ISPs, but in practice anyone can register a .net name. .org is supposed to be for non-profit organizations, but again this rule is not enforced and anyone can buy .org names. You should think of .net and .org names as distant cousins to the almighty .com, less desirable certainly but not unbearably so. Anyone can register .net and .org domain names.

Most countries now have their own top domains, such as .uk for the UK or .fr for France. The rules for buying domain names under each country top domain vary from country to country; always check before you buy!

Some countries have essentially sold their cyber-rights to enterprising entrepreneurs. For instance, anyone can pick up a .to domain name (Tonga) or a .cc domain name (Cocos (Keeling) Islands) and most people are not even aware that these were intended to be country-level top domains in the first place!

Some companies are selling sub-domains of memorable domain names. For instance, you can buy a sub-domain of .uk.com if you could not get the .uk domain name you wanted. These are NOT official, internationally sanctioned top domains, just companies essentially chopping up their own domain names into smaller pieces.

The choice of which top domain to register your domain name under depends on availability, on the impression you want to give, and on the reason why you are registering a domain name. Country-level top domains are often firmly associated with that particular country, so if you are working in an international company or organization, you're better off buying a .com name. However, over 9,000,000 .com names have already been registered, so supply is very tight and you may have to compromise with a .net name. If you do business in one country but you also want to appear as international as possible, reserve both the .com and country-level top domain versions of your new domain name.

If you are buying domain names as an investment and you are VERY confident that the name you have chosen is valuable, it can be worthwhile securing the .com, .net and .org forms of the domain name. That way, nobody can "undercut" you when you come to sell the name by offering a different extension cheaper. The downside, of course, is that you'll be paying 3x the registration fee! With prices dropping all the time, this is no longer the expensive proposition.

You can follow the same approach to secure your company or brand name against people trying to cash in on its popular

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What can I do with a Domain Name?

There are many uses for domain names, both active and passive.

1. Domain names can be used to establish a unique identity in cyberspace
Companies often choose a domain name that corresponds to their company name. For instance, IBM's web site is at ibm.com and Microsoft is at microsoft.com.

People who register domain names that are or contain common trademarks belonging to other companies are known as cybersquatters. BEWARE: there are more and more cases of large companies winning back the rights to "their" domain names - and in some cases cybersquatters have faced very hefty fines (US law currently provides for up to $100,000 in damages if a cybersquatter is found liable of deliberately infringing a trademark)

2. Generic domain names are popular
A generic domain name is one that would not immediately be associated with a company, but instead is a name that defines an entire category of business. Some examples of generic names include books.com, music.com and art.com. Companies have gone on to create successful brands based on a generic domain name, and these names tend to be very valuable if the word is a common one.

3. Domain names can be resold, leased and bartered
As well as being used to identify a website, domain names can be resold to other companies or people, leased or even bartered for other names or for goods or services. A whole industry has sprung up around the resale of domain names, with domain brokers acting as middlemen in the sales process. The profits from a successful sale can be enormous compared to the original value of the name, since some domains have sold for over $1 million - and cost under $100 to register!
However, there are many more sellers than buyers, and the market for domain names is still relatively immature, making it difficult to locate a potential purchaser for a given domain names. There are also too few quality names, so that they often get buried in a mass of worthless listings on domain brokerage sites. If you want to dabble with making money from domain names, go ahead and speculate... but don't expect a quick return unless you have picked some exceptionally good names! THE MAJORITY OF DOMAIN NAMES ARE JUNK AND HAVE NO COMMERCIAL VALUE!

4. Domain names can be used to give yourself a unique, permanent email address
Many companies will set you up with email forwarding, where messages sent to @yourdomain.com will be redirected to your existing mailbox as provided by your ISP. This lets you choose a truly unique email address and keep the same email address regardless of which ISP you use to access the Internet.

5. Domain names can be used to improve a site's ranking in certain search engines
Although the rules by which search engines "rank" sites when returning search results change often, some search engines have recently been favouring sites with their own domain names over sites that do not have a domain name of their own. Some search engines even give increased relevancy to domain names that contain "keywords" that people search for. For example, a search engine might rate a site with the domain name "freestuffguide.com" more highly than a site with the domain name "freebieguide.com" for the search "free stuff" since the former domain name contains the search terms being searched for.

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Why should I buy a Domain Name?

There are many reasons to buy a domain name, and with the recent drop in prices, getting your own domain name is more affordable than ever.

1. Domain names build credibility on the Web
If you are trying to do business on the Web, a domain name is essential. It's like the difference between setting up a stall in the corner of a warehouse you share with dozens of other stores, and owning your own store. And with registrations for a mere $35 a year depending on the registrar, this is a very small price to pay for increased credibility in the eyes of potential customers.
If your site is just a personal homepage set up for fun or as a hobby, you don't actually need a domain name. But you'll still find it easier to get your site noticed if you register one.

Unlike the "real world", on the Web there is no such thing as a "prime location" in which to set up a store or business. No matter how small you are, a good domain name can put your business on an equal footing with Microsoft or AOL. That's the wonder of the Web: nobody knows if your site is run by a large team out of elegant offices, or by one person in a spare room or corner of the bedroom. Frankly, a business website without a domain name screams "small time operator!"

Domain names are being bought up at the rate of several thousand new registrations a day. However, it is still possible to find some nice names as long as you apply a little lateral thinking. In the Registration section of this site, you'll find plenty of tools and tips to help you come up with a domain name you can be happy with. The longer you wait to register a name for yourself, the more limited your choice will become. Think of a domain name as an unavoidable cost of doing business online.

2. Domain names are portable
As we have already seen, a domain name is just like a sign pointing to your site. "It's over there" the sign says. You can move the underlying site (change web hosting services) and with a very minor technical adjustment (your new hosting service will help you) the domain name will point to your "new" site. This way, you are free to change hosting services to find a better deal, or if the service you are currently receiving is inadequate. The important thing is that none of your visitors' bookmarks will need to change, nor will the move break any links to your site! This is impossible without a domain name...

3. Domain names improve your promotion chances and therefore your site's "visibility" on the Web
As discussed earlier, domain names which include common keywords can improve a site's ranking in search results returned by major search engines. However, this is only the beginning of the benefits as far as web promotion is concerned. Many large Directories (sites listing or reviewing other sites) will not accept to list any site that does not have its own domain name. Yahoo! for example has a tendency to "favor" sites with their own domain name.
There are various reasons for these policies, but for our purposes really doesn't matter WHY the search engines and directories are doing this - the fact is that they ARE! As the Web continues to grow at a breakneck pace, the situation is bound to get worse for sites that do not have their own domain names.

4. Domain names produce a feeling of professionalism
This topic goes hand-in-hand with the credibility produced by a domain name. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that sites hosted under their own domain names are more professional than other sites. This idea comes from two facts: all the major, famous sites have their own domain names... and there are a lot of junk sites hosted on free or ISP hosting services.
Sadly, it really doesn't matter what you or I think about this, as a certain amount of prejudice has already built up against commercial sites without their own domain names... So while you CAN be successful with a free site or an ISP-hosted site, you can be MORE successful with your "own" site.

5. Domain names are memorable
Which of the following URLs is easier to remember:-
http://www.srilankanguide.com/pr2/index.htm
or
http://www.pr2.com/
The top URL is where the PR2 website used to live before it was allocated its own domain name. After it was set up with a domain name, traffic to the site tripled in a short period of time. It was clear that people were remembering the URL and coming back to the site to visit.
We've seen many reasons why domain names can be useful, so this seems like the ideal moment to move on to the next section of this guide: Buying a Domain Name

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