Domain name management is a multi-step process that starts with choosing the root term or keyword phrase that a website will be accessed with on the home page in the URL. The domain name will be used to serve to the public all of the web pages, associated files, and subdomains included in a website. The domain name must be purchased from a registrar company, usually for a term of 1 to 10 years and at variable rates of cost. All of the domain name registrar companies are regulated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), while its subdivision the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) governs the development of addressing standards on the web. Both of these non-profit organizations were established by the U.S. Department of Commerce with regulatory oversight authority over the use of domain names on the internet. Some examples of popular domain registrar companies are Network Solutions, GoDaddy, eNom, VeriSign, Tucows, and NameCheap.
After the initial registration of the domain name, the registrar company will require the owner to set the Domain Name System (DNS) servers that will be used with the address to share files with the public over the World Wide Web (WWW) using Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), or privately via FTP, email, and other standards for file management on a web server. Typically, each web hosting company will operate their own DNS servers, which will then assign the domain name with either a shared or dedicated IP address, creating a unique numerical value under IPv4 / IPv6 standards that makes a website publicly identifiable and accessible by anyone in the world with an internet connection. This process forms the fundamental aspect of the internet’s addressing system through which the URL structure operates in a distributed online network to serve files between computers over fiber optic, broadband, WiFi, telephone lines, and other forms of data transmission.
Domain name ownership can also be transferred between owners or sold privately at higher prices than the initial registration fee, leading to “pioneering,” “flipping,” “squatting,” domain name auction services, and other forms of speculation on popular keywords in the industry. Many domain speculators park ads on popular keywords or search terms rather than developing a website with content while attempting to negotiate a higher priced sale. The highest recorded price for a speculative domain name resale was insurance.com which sold for over $35 million USD in 2010. Dotcom domain names are viewed as having a much higher value than other TLD extensions. A domain presence refers to the total sum of resources published by a company, individual, organization, or brand on the web under the same URL index structure and domain name. As of 2016, there were over 334.6 million domain names registered globally across all TLD extensions.
Domain Name Registration
Domain name registration is conducted through an ICANN licensed registrar company and consists of a keyword term associated with a .com, .net, .org, or other internet address extension. In the early days of the internet (1991-98), this process was managed by InterNIC as part of the Stanford Research Initiative in Menlo Park, California. In 1998, after the huge growth of internet usage worldwide, the U.S. Department of Commerce and industry representatives established ICANN to manage the domain name registration system and other aspects of internet address protocols. Initially, the company Network Solutions was the sole ICANN-licensed registrar company for domain names. After 1999, any approved company paying a licensing fee to ICANN could run a recognized domain name registration service.
The multi-vendor system for ICANN-licensed domain name registrations also created the possibility for companies to delegate or franchise domain registration authority to associated businesses or individuals. ICANN subsequently led an increase in the domain name address variables available for use on the internet to include country code specific TLDs (ccTLDs), and progressively, a wider expansion of generic TLDS which includes vanity, brand identity, and service-specific gTLD extensions. In all cases the domain registration process is similar. A user navigates to a registrar company and searches the available extensions for a keyword term, then pays a fixed fee for a variable length of time contract to reserve use of the domain name. The registered user must place on the public record WHOIS contact information including an associated street address, email, and phone number for the domain name.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was founded in 1998 through a combination of academic, business, and governmental influences as a non-profit organization chartered to oversee and regulate the domain name registration process as well as internet addressing standards. Esther Dyson was the first chairperson of ICANN. The U.S. Department of Commerce coordinated the establishment of the group in order to meet the larger needs of the web community as information technology evolved, providing oversight authority for ICANN until 2016. Recently, there has been an increased number of calls from the international community to move stewardship of the internet away from ICANN to the United Nations or another non-profit organization more representative of all of the global stakeholders that use the web to foster greater inclusivity and transparency.
The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) is a sub-division of ICANN with a focus on the protocols related to the Domain Name System (DNS), I.P. addresses, and URI standards. The group has led the transition from IPv4 to IPv6 as the number of domain names registered may eventually exceed the total number of numerical variable values made possible under the original framework.
InterNIC was an early web standards and domain name address agency associated with the U.S. military and academic research in IT at Stanford University. The history of the group can be traced back to the 1970s, where it operated numerous resources associated with ARPANET. InterNIC came under management by ICANN, where it continued to provide limited services related to domain name registration, dispute resolution, WHOIS information, and trademark issues.
TLDs / gTLDs / ccTLDs
The use of domain names was developed in the 1980s as part of the ARPANET research and originally included a total of seven top-level domains: .gov, .edu, .com, .mil, .org, .net, and .int. The first commercial registration of a domain name was in 1985 with the establishment of symbolics.com by a computer equipment and services company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Semantically, the difference between TLDs (top-level domains) and gTLDs (generic top-level domains) is that TLDs as a category include both gTLDs and ccTLDs (country code top-level domains). Generic TLDs are intended to be used by anyone, anywhere in the world without reference to a specific country, which distinguishes them from ccTLDs, which are specifically tied to national identity. From the original 7 gTLDs, there are now more than 1300 extensions available for registration in 2016. Dotcom domains continue to be the most sought after and highly valued by website owners, though search engines and Google’s algorithms are not considered to weight any of the domain name extensions differently.
Domain Name System (DNS)
Functionally, the Domain Name System (DNS) is the means through which domain names are assigned to IPv4 and IPv6 numerical values and used interchangeably on the web for the transfer of information. This enables the construction of web pages through HTML, associated media files, databases, and scripting languages. Additionally, the DNS protocols include a number of other functions that are included in the Internet Protocol Suite which includes TCP/IP. For example, email functionality is also associated with a domain using Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), Post Office Protocol (POP), or Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP). File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is used for a site owner to upload files to a web server. The I.P. addresses associated with a domain name are assigned through Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). Combined with Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), all of these standards form part of the Internet Protocol Suite that make up the Domain Name System. Web hosting companies use DNS servers to manage this functionality across all the variety of web traffic requests which target a particular domain.
I.P. Address – IPv4 / IPv6
An I.P address is a numerical value that is assigned to a domain name for reference in transferring files from computer to computer over a network using a web server. The I.P. abbreviation stands for “Internet Protocol” and these values are a fundamental part of the Domain Name System (DNS) created by DHCP. IPv4 is a 32 bit system that supports around 4.3 billion total variables, but reserves around 18 million addresses for private networks and approximately 270 million addresses for multicast services. Since the total number of registered I.P. addresses will one day surpass the total number of numerical values that IPv4 will support, the internet is transitioning to a 128 bit IPv6 system with potential support for a huge number of terms (3.4 x 1038). Most web hosts will allow access to a web server using the domain name and I.P. address interchangeably. However, it should be noted that many shared hosting accounts provide only a single I.P. address for all domains listed on an account, requiring an upgrade to a dedicated I.P. address to procure a unique value for a single website. Dedicated I.P. addresses can also be important for configuring SSL/TLS certificates for enabling https encryption on domains.
A Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is part of the HTTP standards and is an addressing method used on the internet to reference, retrieve, or transfer digital resources. A URL can reference a domain name or TLD extension, for example, where a home page or site index is called to the browser by typing the root http://www.example.com address. A URL can also reference specific web pages, as when a .html, .htm, .php, .asp, etc. address is used. URLs are used to target individual media files, such as images (.jpg, .jpeg, .gif, & .png), videos (.flv, .mpeg), music (.mp3), etc., as well as FTP connection addresses and email links (mailto:). A URL forms a fundamental part of the referencing system for hyperlinks in HTML, as defined by Tim Berners-Lee in 1994. URLs are distinguished primarily by the “slashes” (http://), “dots” (www.example.com), and colon system used in web addressing under HTTP standards. In this manner, a URL is part of a larger set of URIs, or Uniform Resource Identifiers used in network computing.
WHOIS records also emerged out of the ARPANET era of the web, where they consisted of a centralized list of the individual, business, organizational, or government agency contact information related to a particular domain name registration. In this manner, WHOIS functioned similar to a database-driven phone book, and also developed its own search protocols that are part of the TCP/IP standards. WHOIS information includes the owner of a domain name, the administrator, and technical contact, who will all have a street address, phone number, and email address listed (which can also be the same). The date the domain was registered is also recorded in WHOIS records. There has been some criticism of WHOIS records and attempts to change the standard to more limited requirements over privacy concerns.
Because WHOIS records contain public contact information including street addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses associated with a domain, a number of services have developed as part of the domain name registration process designed to keep this user information private. Primarily this consists of proxy agents who substitute their own public contact information for that of the person who owns the domain name. The domain privacy company usually receives a small fee for providing the service, and many domain name registrars offer domain privacy as an option when initially registering or subsequently renewing a domain name. However, not all TLDs will permit domain privacy, while other new gTLDs enable it by default as part of the operating agreement, not requiring a proxy service.
Domain parking consists of the registration of a domain name, often for speculative purposes, without developing website content or establishing email accounts for use in association with the internet address. Domain owners may also “monetize” a keyword term by parking ads that display instead of web content on the homepage for visitors. Many domain owners manage multiple web addresses in this manner while they seek to sell the keyword terms to other owners at higher prices through auctions, domain brokers, or other promotions. Some registrars will manage domain parking services and serve advertisements on the client web pages for a commission of the revenue earned.
A domain transfer involves the formal exchange of ownership rights to a domain registration from one person, business, group, or organization to another, which involves a verification process. A domain transfer can take place between two owners on the same registrar, or between the customers of different registrar services. The ability to transfer domain ownership between private parties establishes the speculative aspects of the domain name aftermarkets.
A domain auction service allows for registered owners to resell domain names to the highest bidder in either a public or private marketplace in order to capitalize on popular keywords or search terms coveted by other website publishers. Domain auction services like GoDaddy, Sedo, and Flippa often allow for the sale of complete websites with content or mobile applications with an existing user base, as well as previously registered domain names by extension. Private brokers can also conduct domain name auction services without being licensed as registrar companies by ICANN.
What to Look for in Domain Name Services
When registering a domain name for use in web publishing, developing an online presence for business, non-profit groups, or other potential uses, there are a few common guidelines that are helpful to consider throughout the process and when evaluating the registrar companies providing services.
SEO Keyword Domain Names
One of the most important aspects of a domain name is that it contains the keyword terms that users search for when seeking information on the web. A domain name that contains the keywords a user searches for in the root term will rank higher on the SERPs than comparable websites under traditional Google algorithms, although many other factors also contribute to the construction of Google PageRank.
Brand Identity Domain Names
Most brands are concerned not only with registering their products and services under business ownership authority for web publishing and ecommerce, but also with protecting their brand identity and reputation online. Trademark owners are afforded certain protection guarantees with domain names by ICANN, but the expansion of gTLDs from 7 main extensions to over 1300 means it is no longer practical for most businesses to register every domain name potentially identified with their brands.
Price of the Registrar Service
There is a lot of variance in the prices charged for domain registration across the different companies offering the service online, which includes sales, special offers, discounts, and promotions. There are also a wide range of different companies offering domain name registration services, including “white label” reseller web hosting companies. In short, it pays to shop around for the best price, but most prefer to have all of their domain names registered under a single registrar for ease of management.
Protection of Personal Information
Because WHOIS information is made public in a searchable database, many people are reluctant to list their home address, phone number, and email in fear of potential identity theft or access by malicious sources. WHOIS information can also be used by spammers, hackers, credit agencies, or press reporters seeking more information about a domain owner. Because of this, many people either use a non-personal street address such as a PO Box, a secondary email address and business phone number, or choose to pay a domain privacy agent to keep all of their personal information private and offline.
DNS Server Speed
DNS server speed can impact website performance and may vary between web hosting companies. For those who require the highest levels of web server performance for scripts, databases, ecommerce, online applications, etc., it is recommended to benchmark DNS server speed between webhosts when evaluating service providers and choosing to purchase IT resources. Website response times have become a critical aspect of SEO under Google PageSpeed requirements.
Integration with Web Hosting Plans
Many website owners prefer the simplicity of having their domain name registration and web hosting with the same company. However, this is not always possible or practical. Fortunately, most domain name registrars make it easy to set the DNS servers for a domain name to any web hosting company. Web hosts usually provide these values in the welcome email upon new account registration. Site owners need to set the DNS server values at the domain registrar to use their domain name with a web server under any web hosting account plan. It may take anywhere from 2 to 24 hours for changes made to DNS server settings for a domain name to propagate from the registrar locally to the web globally.