Your domain name is more than just a URL: it represents a virtual storefront for online shoppers to find your store and discover your brand and products.
A memorable domain name can help you stand out from the competition and keep you top of mind for consumers seeking products and solutions. A quality domain name can dramatically improve your online presence.
Retail store owners enhance their curb appeal of their physical location to entice customers to walk through the door. Domain names accomplish the same goal, making your ecommerce store easy to find and inviting.
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about domains, including what they are and how they work. We’ll also cover some frequently asked questions related to domains, hosting, and registering a new domain name.
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Table of contents
What is a domain?
A domain (or domain name) is a web URL (short for “uniform resource locator”), or address. You’ll find the domain name after the http:// or www. in a URL string, or after the @ symbol in an email address.
A valid domain name serves as a user-facing digital destination. It’s the equivalent of the street address of a store. When you type a domain into your web browser, you’re giving your computer directions to a specific location on the web.
Sometimes, a domain name is simply the name of the brand. Shopify merchant Mikokos, for example, uses mikokos.com as its domain.
Some brands supplement their domain names with other words or phrases, either because their preferred domain name isn’t available or to create a more descriptive URL. Swimsuit brand Viera, for example, adds the word “swim” to its domain name: vieraswim.com.
Depending on your industry and competition, you may have to get creative when deciding on your domain name. This could include using a different domain extension, such as .org, or .cc, or adding more words to include in your domain.
If you’re selling cars for example, Cars.com is already taken. But you can experiment with Cars[City].com and see if there is availability.
While you’re unlikely to land a short or popular domain name without spending a significant amount of capital, a little creativity goes a long way when choosing a domain name.
How do domain names work?
Domain names are unique digital addresses that are easy for people to remember and use. When you enter URLs into your browser, your device sends a request to the global Domain Name System (DNS) network of web hosts. The DNS network then finds the unique IP addresses associated with typed-in domain names and sends the device to those virtual destinations, or websites. When someone enters your domain name into their browser, they will be directed to your specific web page.
A domain name is unique to each website, and no two websites or businesses share the same domain name. For example, http://website.com and http://website.org are two separate entities. That’s because they end in different top-level domains (TLDs)—more on that later.
The basic building blocks of a URL break down like this:
- http://—protocol (not technically a part of the domain)
- website.com or website.org—root domain
- website—domain name
- .com, .edu.gov .org—top-level domain
Personal care brand by Humankind’s root domain is byhumankind.com. So in this example, “byhumankind” is the domain name and “.com” is the TLD.
Note that some domains include www and others don’t. You might also see things like shop.website.com or blog.website.com. The words blog and shop are subdomains that act as separate entities and destinations from your main domain.
When you want to build an ecommerce website with your own domain (we recommend this!), you’ll need to do so through a domain registrar. Fortunately, there are many domain name registrars to choose from, including here at Shopify.
Registrars serve as domain hosts or domain providers for your website. They do all the work in the back end to make your URL accessible to any internet user in the world who visits it. Your domain registrar will assign your domain its unique IP (internet protocol) address.
Furthermore, by purchasing a custom domain name, you gain the ability to modify standard email addresses to include your domain in your email. So instead of Sally@gmail.com, you can use Sally@yourbusinessname.com.
Domain name server vs. hosting provider
While domain name servers and web hosting providers are both essential to domain owners, they perform different functions. Following the domain name registration process, a DNS translates user-friendly domain names into their corresponding IP addresses. Meanwhile, web hosting providers secure the files that make up the web pages of your site, giving internet users something to view at your address.
While there are many hosting services to choose from, they aren’t all created equal. It’s important you choose a web hosting provider that is able to deliver on your traffic and performance needs.
Types of domains
According to the latest data, there are nearly 350 million domain names registered world wide, and that number continues to climb as more and more businesses and individuals register domains.
Nevertheless, not all domains are created equal. Here are some of the most-used types of domains today.
Top-level domains (TLDs)
Top-level domains include some of the most common types of domains you’ve undoubtedly come across while browsing the web. When the internet first began to take off, .com was the standard. However as more businesses and individuals began registering domains, other options were introduced.
Generic top-level domains (so named because they aren’t country-specific) are the most common domains, and the most sought after. These include:
- .com: Representing roughly 50% of domains registered, .com’s are by far the most popular domains used today. When possible, owning the .com of your brand name is preferable over other options.
- .org: Short for organization, .org’s are also a popular form of top-level domains. .org is popular among nonprofits and charities, for example. Roughly the same cost as a .com top-level domain, it can be a possible alternative if your desired domain with .com is already taken.
- .net: While not as widely popular as they once were, many advertisers and network operators use the .net extension. Although snagging your domain with .net can be beneficial, it’s not as well known as some of the other top-level domains available.
In addition to generic top-level domains, there are also a handful of sponsored TLDs used for specific purposes and organizations. These include:
- .edu: This top-level domain is used primarily for businesses and organizations involved in education. Unlike .com and .org, which can be purchased by anyone, .edu top-level domains may only be registered by institutions and organizations that are institutionally accredited. Many university websites will use the .edu extension. The benefit of having an .edu domain is you’re often seen as reputable given the qualifications needed to purchase.
- .gov: Used for government agencies and institutions, this top-level domain is largely reserved for government use only. Although there are technically ways to acquire such a domain, you won’t be able to find .gov extensions to purchase on reputable domain registrars. it’s highly recommended not to use .gov for business purposes and stick with other options listed above.
There are, of course, other top-level domains that vary depending on your location around the world.
Country code TLDs (ccTLD)
In addition to generic top-level domains, many countries also use country code domains, which are associated with a specific geographical location. Today, there are 255 country code top-level domains in use.
For example, many websites based in Canada will use .ca instead of .com. In Australia, you’ll commonly see websites with .com.au. Chinese domains are known to use .cn.
If your company primarily serves customers in a specific region of the world, country code top-level domains could be a useful investment, but you want to be careful to not to limit yourself right off the bat. Additionally, depending on the type of country code top-level domain, there may be some restrictions. .eu for example, requires registrars to live or be located in the European Union.
Many larger organizations, such as Amazon, will have multiple ccTLD’s in which they can tailor content specific to that audience. Amazon.com will offer a different experience than say amazon.au (Australia.)
Second-level domains (SLD)
A second-level domain is the string of unique text that comes before the .com or .org (or any extension). For instance, Shopify is our second-level domain, while .com is the TLD. Second-level domains aren’t restricted to just letters: the World Wide Web Consortium, for instance, uses the domain w3.org.
While using numbers in your second-level domain can sometimes make sense, we suggest avoiding numbers and hyphens when possible. In general, a second-level domain without numbers is easier to remember and comes off as having more authority. Additionally, those visiting your domain on mobile won’t have to switch their keyboard to add a number or hyphen.
A third-level domain falls under second-level domains in the domain name hierarchy. As mentioned above, www. is the most common third-level domain, but you’re likely to have seen others while browsing the web.
In the case of .co.uk, .uk would be the ccTLD, and .co would be the third-level domain.
If you’ve ever browsed Wikipedia in North America, you’ve likely been redirected to en.wikipedia.org, in which en. is the third-level domain. In this specific case, en. ensures that content is delivered in English.
Third-level domains are commonly used to designate a specific server of a website and can be useful for tailoring specific web content based on geographical locations or other branding purposes. Hubspot uses blog.hubspot to direct visitors to its blog content.
Typically, third-level domains are referred to as subdomains. Businesses will often create subdomains to split a parent domain into different sections, tailoring each to a particular purpose or audience
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How to choose a domain name
Naming your online store can be a fun but daunting task. When you start an ecommerce business, it’s important to choose a domain name that’s easy to remember, but still unique enough that people don’t confuse it with other domain names.
While it may be tempting to use creative spelling or variations on familiar words, such tactics can ultimately lead to confusion and a potential missed conversion. On top of that, you need to find a domain name that’s available and within your budget. You won’t come across a free domain name often.
You can even leverage your domain name to boost credibility and trust in your brand. That’s exactly what Andrew Lissimore did when he launched his website selling headphones. Andrew chose headphones.com as his domain name, negotiating a price from the original domain name owner and successfully using the new domain to grow his online business.
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Launch your domain with Shopify
If you’re setting up your own website, you need a domain registrar, a server to host your domain, a website design, and email and customer support functionality, among other ecommerce software features. That’s why it’s important to choose tools that simplify and centralize business management as much as possible.
With internet domain registration from Shopify, your new domain immediately connects to your online store. There’s no need to worry about third-party apps, complex setup processes, or even a website builder: everything is ready to go, so you can focus on what matters most.
Ready to create your first business? Start your free trial of Shopify—no credit card required.
What is a domain name FAQ
What is a domain for a website?
A domain is a web address people enter into their browser to access a specific website. A domain connects a user’s device to the DNS, which matches it with the IP address and gains access to the website through a web server.
What is the difference between a domain name and a website?
A domain is used as a user-friendly web address that enables internet users to find and access your website, which consists of your web pages and content you’ve published on them.
How expensive is buying a domain?
The cost of buying a domain varies widely and depends on several factors, including how unique your business name is, whether you’re using generic or country-specific TLDs, and whether someone already owns your desired domain.
Who manages domain names?
Domain names are managed by The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). There are hundreds of domain registries that can help facilitate a sale of a domain. Domain name registrar examples include GoDaddy and even Shopify.