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Every time you use your web browser, you enter domain names of sites you want to visit into your browser’s address bar. But what’s the technology behind these names, and how do they help you get to the places you want to visit?
Let’s break down what a domain name is, and why we use them.
What Is a Domain Name?
Domain names are unique names given to websites to help humans remember them. Computers don’t use the domain name at all; it’s designed to make internet browsing easier for human beings.
The best way to imagine domain names is like a phone book. If you opened your phone book and saw a wall of different phone numbers, you’d have little idea about which number was whose. How do you solve this? Easy; you write the contact’s name next to each number to remind you who’s who.
A domain name works similarly. Ideally, a computer wants to handle websites using IP addresses; that’s the language it “speaks.” Unfortunately, humans are bad at remembering IP addresses, as they’re often four decimal numbers seemingly selected at random.
That’s where domain names come in; they’re the name associated with the number to help humans remember them. The computer passes these names to a Domain Name System (DNS) server, which then matches the name to an IP address. The computer then uses this IP to access the website.
Components of a Domain Name
To understand domain names, let’s break down a name and see what each part is. What better domain name to break apart than our own?
Let’s look at this site’s domain name: //www.makeuseof.com/.
The Top-Level Domain
The top-level domain is an extension to the domain name. In our URL, this is the .com part of the name. This part is usually the URL’s “flair” that tells the user a little extra information on the subject matter of the website.
For MakeUseOf’s top-level domain, we’re a site that caters to countries all over the world, so a simple .com extension suffices. If we were a business based in the UK, we could go with .co.uk instead to reflect that. If we were a political site, we could use .gov to let visitors know. Should we decide to focus on humor, we could have .fun or .lol as our extension instead.
There’s no authority over which websites get which extension. It’s entirely possible for a website in the US to register a UK domain, for instance. We also can’t set our custom extension; we have to pick one from a pre-set list. The top-level domain is just a handy signaller that lets the user know what to expect when visiting the site.
The Mid-Level Domain
The mid-level domain is the area where users have the most control. In our domain name, the mid-level section is makeuseof. As you can tell, this is the part of the domain name where people can define the name of their site.
This part is what people refer to when mentioning a website. If I say that I use Google, you instinctively know that I’m talking about www.google.com, of which “Google” is the mid-level domain.
Further Components of a URL
Now that we’ve analyzed the top and middle domains, we’ve technically covered all there is to a domain name. makeuseof.com is the domain name for this website; but of course, if you look at what’s in your address bar, you’ll see there’s a lot more to it than that!
The rest of the address outside of “makeuseof.com” is called the Uniform Resource Locator (URL). It’s not part of the domain name, but it’s used to modify and build upon it to create a functioning website. As such, it’s good to know the additional parts of a URL and how they alter the domain name to bring you the page you want to visit.
The subdomain contains additional details on what part of the domain you’re accessing. In our URL, this is the part that says www. It denotes what part of makeuseof we’re visiting.
www is the “default” subdomain of a domain name, used for general webpages. It’s so general that you don’t even need “www” to access a website! If you typed makeuseof.com instead, you’d still arrive on the site. The www part is a relic from olden times when it was needed.
Where it does help, however, is when you’re segmenting a site into different areas. If we decided to have an area of the site dedicated to videos, we could host it under the domain videos.makeuseof.com. As such, even though www has been antiquated, subdomains still have a use for separating the website into different categories.
The protocol defines what kind of connection you’re establishing. In our URL, it’s the part that says https://.
Usually, one of the three protocols is used: HTTP, HTTPS, and FTP.
- HTTP stands for “Hypertext Transfer Protocol,” and is the standard fare for browsing the internet.
- HTTPS is the same as HTTP but adds “Secure” to the end to show your connection is encrypted. We use HTTPS because we care about our readers’ privacies!
- Finally, FTP stands for “file transfer protocol,” which comes into play for downloading and uploading files.
Of course, the URL you see in your address bar right now isn’t just //www.makeuseof.com/. It has a lot of stuff at the end which contains words related to this article.
This “stuff” is called the path, and this helps separate each page on this site from one another. The path you see in the address bar right now points to this article.
If you wanted to read the article “How to Peek at Shortened URLs Without Clicking on Them,” for instance, you’d see its path is peek-shortened-urls-without-clicking. This path is the article’s unique “home” on MakeUseOf and is different from the path to this article.
Getting a Domain Name
Getting a domain name is relatively simple. If you’re building a website using something like WordPress, it’ll come with the option to make your own domain name. If you’re using a service such as InMotion Hosting, they’ll give you a domain name for your site.
You may even have the option to set up an email account with your domain name for a very professional-looking address. Even if you can’t, you may have the option to redirect mail to an email provider instead.
How Companies Fight Impostor Sites
As we mentioned above, the top-level domain (.com, .co.uk, etc) is customisable. Unfortunately, if you get a domain name that ends in .com, it doesn’t automatically mean that .co.uk, .net, and other top-level domains are under your control.
If you own a business called Purple Cat Pottery, and you registered www.purplecatpottery.com as your site, it doesn’t automatically “reserve” www.purplecatpottery.co.uk. Someone in the UK could make their own company with the same name and register their site under .co.uk, and it’ll go to their website instead of yours.
People can exploit this to harm users. Let’s say your pottery starts taking off, but you only own the .com domain. Someone could register www.purplecatpottery.net and create a fake clone of your site. They can use this to distribute malware or set up phony buy orders for your pottery to visitors who arrive at the wrong website.
Businesses tend to register multiple top-level domains which redirect back to the main website to combat this. You can try it on this site; try going to //www.makeuseof.co.uk and watch what happens to the address as it loads.
Some Domain Name Examples
https://www.google.com is a straightforward domain name. We can tell the name of the site (Google) and that it’s an international site (from its .com top-level domain).
https://maps.google.com is a little different, however. Here, we can see the subdomain has been swapped out from www to maps. As you can tell from this URL, it will direct you to the maps section of Google.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page tells us a lot from its URL. Its subdomain says en, which relates to the fact we’re browsing the English version of Wikipedia. It’s an organization, so they chose the .org top-level domain to represent this. The path indicates that this URL will take you to the main page of Wikipedia.
https://www.amazon.com/ will take you to the US version of Amazon, but what if you want to shop in a different country? You can change the top-level domain to a different country and see the storefront in that currency. For example, https://www.amazon.co.uk/ for the UK.
So, what happens when companies use the same mid-level domain name, but different top-level domains? If you visit https://ohanafilms.com/, you’ll find a video production company in Hawaii. http://ohanafilms.co.uk/, on the other hand, directs you to a wedding video producer in the UK. This example shows why companies tend to register as many top-level domains as possible.
Understanding Domain Names
Domain names give humans an alternative to entering IP addresses. As you’ve learned, these names have intricate details to them which help us navigate the internet.
Want a domain name for yourself? Why not get one for free?