What is a domain name? Image of web browser

What is a Domain Name? How Do Domains Work?

In our hyper-connected era, domain names are essential to the customer experience. Every website you use likely has a domain name; for example, the website you’re on now uses this domain: wpengine.com

But what exactly does a domain name do?

We’ll be delving into the fundamentals of domain names, including how they work and best practices when choosing one for your website.

Domain Names: Explained

So, what is a domain name? In short, domain names are the most significant part of your website’s address. They provide a user-friendly way to remember and access a website.

Just like a physical address helps you find a house, a domain name helps internet users locate your site. And in the same way that providing a shipping address is much simpler than giving GPS coordinates, a domain name is a streamlined way to direct customers to your website.

Domain Name vs. URL—Are They the Same?

URLs and domain names fulfill similar purposes, but they’re not the same thing. A URL is the full address of a specific webpage. A domain name is only a portion of the URL.

To further explore this difference, let’s look at an imaginary URL and break it down piece by piece:


The Scheme

On the left side of the URL, you’ll find the scheme—in this case, “https.” The scheme instructs the browser to use a specific protocol when requesting information from the server. HTTPS is a secure protocol, while HTTP is the unsecured version.

The Subdomain

The subdomain in our example is “en.” Subdomains provide information about a web page’s location on the Internet (www), language (en or fr), function (shop or blog), or optimization for mobile (m).

The Domain Name

In our example, the domain name is “examplewebsite.com.” The domain name is the core of the URL; it is essentially the “name” of the entire collection of web pages.

The Top-Level Domain

This is the “.com.” Top-level domains (also known as domain extension) contextualize websites—we’ll explore them in more detail later on.

The Hostname

A large part of the URL is referred to as the hostname. In the example above, this includes everything from en to .com. For our website, the hostname is www.wpengine.com.

The Subdirectory

Also called the path or URL slug, this part directs users to a specific webpage. On examplewebsite.com, the path “blog-post” leads readers to the blog page.

How Domain Names Work

Domain names are human-friendly stand-ins for IP addresses (Internet Protocol). By using the Domain Name System (DNS), computers turn something that looks like this:


Into something that looks like this:

Every device connected to the Internet has a unique IP address—including the webserver that hosts your website. Domain names are the accessible link between this server and your site visitors.

The Parts of a Domain Name

The standard domain name consists of two halves: a top-level domain (TLD) and a second-level domain (SLD). Take our domain name wpengine.com as an example.

The top-level domain is .com. The purpose of the TLD is to provide context around the website’s contents (think .gov for “government” or .edu for “education”). You’ve probably seen a variety of TLDs in your time surfing the web—because there are hundreds of them. They all fall under two subsets.

The Top-Level Domain

There are officially two main types of TLDs: generic top-level domains (gTLD) and country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs). However, there are two major categories of gTLDs, so we’ll break TLDs down into three total classes:

  • Sponsored top-level domains (sTLD) – A short list of 15 sTLDs are overseen by governments or other private institutions. These include .asia, .edu, .gov, and .post.
  • Unsponsored top-level domains (uTLD) – While sTLDs are restricted to specific uses, the remaining generic TLDs are available to anyone. The most famous uTLDs are probably .com, .org, and .net, but you can choose from over 1200.
  • Country-code top-level domains (ccTLD) – The ccTLD was initially meant to identify a website’s country of registration, which is why there are 250 in total. A Canadian website uses .ca, while German sites would employ .de, and so on.

With that said, these TLDs are not explicitly restricted by location, and brands have found ways to use ccTLDs creatively. Familiar examples include Google’s clever repurposing of the Belgian ccTLD with YouTu.be and the countless .tv sites that take advantage of Tuvalu’s catchy domain.

There is, in fact, a third official category of TLDs called infrastructure top-level domains. The only member of this class is .arpa, and because its use is limited to internet infrastructure, you’ll rarely see it come up.

The Second-Level Domain

The second-level domain in our example is wpengine. The SLD is the identifying factor—it’s often (but not always) the name of the company or website itself.

By combining SLDs with various TLDs, businesses can solidify their identity while creating a sense of regionality. For example, Amazon operates as amazon.com in the US, but amazon.nl in The Netherlands. The SLD is where brand recognition takes place.

Choosing a Domain Name for Your Website

What’s in a name? When it comes to domain names, quite a lot! 

A domain name can help you successfully show up on page one of a Google search. We’ll walk you through the domain selection process so you can feel confident in your decision.

Best Practices

Domain names often become closely associated with the brand—for better or worse—so it’s wise to put some thought into your new name. Here are some recommendations to follow around registering your domain:

  • Shorter is better – Though Google searches have drastically reduced the need to memorize URLs, a short, catchy domain name is still an asset. The domain name character limit is 63, but you should aim to use 15 or less. A quick and memorable name stands out in ads and helps attract new customers.
  • Choose your TLD wisely – While .com may be the industry standard, there are many other options to choose from—some of which are more affordable. Consider using a more specific TLD that pertains to your business, or buy a ccTLD that corresponds with your target market.
  • Think ahead – If the scope of your business expands, will your domain name stay relevant? Ideally, you’d be able to answer “yes” to that question. Try to choose a name that embodies the brand more than the product, as the latter is more likely to change.
  • Stick to ICANN-accredited registrars – Be sure to buy your domain name from an ICANN-accredited domain registrar. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers regulates domain names, holding registrars accountable and protecting you from potential issues.
  • Get an SSL certificate – You are required to get an SSL certificate if you want to get an HTTPS web address. It is not only an added form of security but also privacy, especially when you’re acquiring multiple domains.

How to Purchase and Verify a Domain Name

If your Content Management System doesn’t already provide you with one, buying a domain name is simple. Visit a domain registrar like Whois or Namecheap to confirm that your chosen name is available and complete the purchase. This process generally includes entering contact and payment information, as well as verifying your purchase through email.

Once you’ve secured your domain name, you should also verify ownership to enable email sending and keep others from registering your name. The easiest way to verify a domain is to create an HTML page that includes the verification information provided by Google or any other service that requires verification.

When you add the page to your site’s file directory, services can confirm that you have access to the domain.

Saving Money on Domain Names

No matter your budget, you probably don’t want to spend a substantial percentage of it on a domain name. Here are some frequently asked questions from businesses looking to save on domain-related expenses.

Can I Get a Free Domain Name?

There are a few ways to access free domain names, but they’re never ideal.

Some web hosts provide a free domain name upon signup, but these offers are generally short-lived, and you’ll eventually have to start paying annually for the domain.

Alternatively, some website building tools like Wix and Squarespace provide a free domain name by including their company name in the URL. These domain names can work well for personal blogs, but for businesses, they look unprofessional and don’t instill trust.

Finally, you may come across websites offering free domain names. At best, you’ll receive a domain name that looks untrustworthy; at worst, you could fall for a scam.

Your best option is to pay for a domain name—they typically cost no more than $25/year.

Do I Need a Domain Name?

The answer to this question is technically no, but realistically yes. Here’s why.

A domain name isn’t required to run a live website. As long as you have a web host, you can publish your site and invite customers to visit it.

But without a domain name, your visitors will have to access your site by entering your IP address—a long string of numbers. Because IP addresses are visually unappealing and difficult to remember, you really do need a domain name to remain competitive.

Next Steps After Securing a Domain Name

Now that you have a memorable new domain name, it’s time to build your website and unveil your ideas to the public through a web host. One of the best ways to achieve this end is through WordPress and a managed WordPress host.

With managed web hosting, you’ll have a dedicated team behind your site to ensure backups are made and software is up-to-date. All you have to do is input your domain name into WordPress and start designing your site—the WP Engine experts will take care of the rest.

Get started.

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