Table of contents.
A domain / domain name is the first thing you need to put a website online.
Your domain is the most unique and recognizable part of your website address. It usually ends with a .com extension, although you can also get domain names ending in other extensions like .net, .org, .xyz, .page, .blog, .design, .agency, etc.
Domain name extensions are also known as top-level domains (TLDs).
In the early days of the Internet, there were very few choices for domain endings: .com, .org or maybe .net. But all that has changed. There are now hundreds of domain endings to choose from – from the practical (.florist), to the philosophical (.guru) and the just plain fun (.ninja). In the coming years, that number will continue to grow.Google Domains
Here are some of the basics you need to know before purchasing a domain name. I learned most of everything here through trial and error, and these are the things I really wished someone would point out to me before I made those mistakes.
So buckle up, because we have a lot to talk about even with just the basics.
Domain names are sold by ICANN registrars.
ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is a non-profit organization that accredits registrars to sell domain names.
When you purchase a domain name, you either buy one directly from an ICANN-accredited registrar, OR you buy from a reseller that is affiliated with a registrar.
The reason I point this out is due to cost.
Resellers will usually charge more for domain registrations to make a profit. They might also charge you for features that are free with other registrars.
Some registrars will also charge more because they are integrated with services like website building tools and hosting. Examples include Squarespace, Wix, GoDaddy, and SiteGround. The main trade-off here is convenience VS cost. Personally, I think the added convenience is too slight to be worth the extra cost and risk. More on that later.
You cannot own a domain name forever.
When you purchase a domain name, you don’t actually own it. You are leasing it from a registrar. During your lease, you can do anything you want with the domain name, so long as it is not illegal (e.g. violating registered trademarks).
At the end of your lease, you can choose to renew your registration. Domain name registrations are done on a yearly basis, and the minimum term is one year.
If you allow your registration to expire, someone else can take your domain name after a grace period. Most registrars will send you email reminders and offer automatic renewals to prevent accidents like this.
You can replace your website and hosting at any given time, but your domain name is usually fixed. Ideally, you want to continue leasing the same domain for life.
Your domain name will be locked for 60 days.
You can transfer your domain names from one registrar to another. It’s a fairly straightforward process, but involves a lot of waiting. Up to a whole week, in fact.
The ICANN imposes a transfer lock on any domain that had its registration information changed in the past 60 days. This includes:
- newly registered domains;
- domains recently transferred to another registrant or registrar;
- a recent change in contact information of the registrant.
If you regret signing up with a registrar, tough luck. Like it or not, you’re stuck with them for at least two more months.
Domain privacy, email forwarding, and secure redirects should be FREE.
GOOD registrars will provide all of the above features for free. Those who offer them as “optional paid extras” are trying to squeeze you for more money.
Feature 1: Domain privacy.
Once you register for a domain name, your registration information will be displayed on a public directory (often known as a WHOIS database) for the whole world to see. This creates a pretty big problem for domain registrants.
The ICANN broadly requires the mailing address, phone number, and e-mail address of those owning or administrating a domain name to be made publicly available through the “WHOIS” directories. However, that policy enables spammers, direct marketers, identity thieves, or other attackers to use the directory to acquire personal information about those people.Wikipedia, viewed 25 Sep 2022
As a result, the ICANN allows registrars to register a domain in the name of a third party, thereby protecting and hiding the contact information of the actual owner.
For example, scatteringclouds.com is registered with Google Domains, and my contact information is protected by Google. If you perform a WHOIS search for scatteringclouds.com, you won’t be able to find my contact information.
This crucial privacy protection is sometimes offered as a premium feature OR an optional paid extra by a number of unscrupulous resellers and registrars.
I would like to reemphasize that domain privacy is not, and should never be, optional. If someone is charging extra for their so-called “premium” privacy features, you should find a new registrar.
Feature 2: Email forwarding.
Email forwarding allows you to create additional email addresses (based on your domain name) for the purpose of RECEIVING emails.
For example, if your name is John and you have a personal Gmail address called “firstname.lastname@example.org”. One day, you went to a domain registrar and purchased a domain called “yourdomain.com”.
You tell your clients to send all future emails to your new professional email address “email@example.com”, and then instruct your registrar to forward all emails meant for “firstname.lastname@example.org” to your personal “email@example.com” mailbox.
With email forwarding, you can now receive both your professional and personal emails with the same mailbox. Some registrars will charge money to enable such a feature. If you run into one, you might want to start looking for a new registrar.
Author’s note: Please note that you can only RECEIVE emails with this setup. You cannot create emails with “firstname.lastname@example.org” as the sender using email forwarding.
This requires an actual professional email account with an email host. Your website host might be able to provision you with such an account.
However, it is better to set up a professional email account with a dedicated email host, such as Google Workspace or Microsoft 365. They do a much better job at ensuring that the emails you send will not land in the spam mailbox.
There is a lot of detail that goes into setting up a professional email address with your domain, but that is a topic for another day.
Feature 3: Secure redirects.
The most common use case for secure redirects is to set up domain forwarding with naked domains. Allow me to explain with an example:
Say you have a website at the address “https://www.yourdomain.com”.
In this case, your website can only be found on the “www.” subdomain via the secure HTTPS protocol. If you enter the naked domain “yourdomain.com” (i.e. your web address without the www.) into the browser address bar, you will NOT be able to find the website.
You need to set up a secure redirect to automatically forward visitors looking for “yourdomain.com” to the address “https://www.yourdomain.com”. If the redirect is not secure, it will result in an error because it won’t work with the HTTPS protocol.
Secure redirects are sometimes also known as URL address forwarding or redirection, SSL or HTTPS redirect, 301 or 302 redirect, pointing to a different domain, etc.
Some domain name registrars are unable to provide secure redirects.
This is less of an issue than the previous two, because it is also possible to set up secure redirects with certain website hosts. However, this also means that your registrar did not bother updating their software to provide this feature for users.
In which case, it is probably prudent to move your domain to another registrar with a more feature-complete and up-to-date software infrastructure.
Be wary of free domain offers.
If someone offers you a free domain, you probably shouldn’t take it. I have only encountered two types of “free” offers in the wild, and neither are much good.
Offer 1: FREE domain names forever.
DO NOT rely on free domains.
The registrar can seize it anytime, and you may NEVER get it back.
Freenom.com is a registrar that offers free registrations for five domain extensions: .tk, .ml, .ga, .cf, and .gq.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? However, if you dig into their FAQ, this is what you find:
… having a FREE domain name does not give you the legal registrant rights.
… If your website is down for a prolonged period or if your content is unacceptable/not uploaded the domain will be cancelled. Your domain name might then become automatically available for other registrants to register either as a free or as a paid registration.
If you have a PAID domain name and do not respect our Terms and Conditions for PAID domain names, in our judgment, and you use your Freenom services for any unlawful purposes, …, we have the right to de-activate your domain.
The key things to note are the words “does not give you the legal registrant rights” and “in our judgement”.
Freenom’s policy enables them to revoke your domain name if your website is down “for a prolonged period”, which is an arbitrary timeframe of their choosing. They have also been accused of using underhanded tactics to seize domains whenever a free domain gets popular, usually by allowing the domain registration to expire without sending a renewal reminder to the user.
Freenom then lists the seized domain for sale, forcing users to pay to retrieve the domain. They might even display advertisements to anyone who attempts to visit the original website, capitalizing on the popularity of the seized domain.
Freenom explained that their policies are done in such a way to combat abuse.
Indeed, the five free domain extensions offered by Freenom are often subject to fraudulent use. Examples include large-scale spam emails, malware distribution, as well as phishing, scam, substance abuse, and adult websites. These free extensions have therefore garnered a very bad reputation, and are sometimes blacklisted by email hosts and other service providers.
So if you don’t want to pay for domain names, free domains might be a good offer to take. As long as you are prepared to lose access to the domain at any time, be refused service, and have all the emails you send out classified as spam.
Offer 2: Sign up for a yearly plan and get a FREE domain for your first year.
Website builders like Squarespace and Wix love touting this offer, as does hosting companies like Bluehost and GoDaddy. This is more legitimate than Freenom’s offer mentioned previously, but it is still a marketing sham.
They make it sound like the best deal in the world, as if they’re doing you a HUGE favour. The moment you turn your back, they laugh at you like the sucker you are.
Why? Because their domain renewal prices have insane markups. From the second year onwards, you have to pay 200% ~ 350% the regular market prices. The only reason they offer free registrations is because they will break even in the next year, and they will continue to overcharge you until you decide to move away.
The thing is, unused domain names are cheap. They are the most affordable component you need to put a website online. And reputable registrars will sell domain names with little to no markup:
- Cloudflare is the cheapest registrar you will find, because they sell domain names at wholesale pricing with zero markup. You pay what they pay.
- I love Porkbun because their branding is 🐷 FREAKING AWESOME 🐷 and they sell domain names with minimal markup. I have never used them before, but I have heard a lot of good things from various sources.
Google Domains rank #1 for me in terms of sheer practicality and convenience. Google Domains is my favourite registrar because of a few factors: They have built-in domain sharing, which allows you to grant access to others to manage the domain. They are integrated with other Google products like the Google Search Console, which is used to monitor your website performance in Google’s search results. Everything can be done within your own Google account, so there is no need to register for yet another account on yet another website. They are very reliable because they have the backing of a global and highly resilient enterprise-grade infrastructure from Google. Their live chat support is decent and quick to respond.
Update 19 Jun 2023: Squarespace has entered into a definitive asset purchase agreement with Google to acquire Google Domains. Under the terms of the agreement, Squarespace will honor all existing Google Domains customers’ renewal prices for at least 12 months following the closing of the transaction, which is expected to happen in the third quarter of 2023.
Author’s note: Following the above announcement, I have begun to transfer all my existing domains to Porkbun. Squarespace’s domain name registration fees are too exorbitant, and based on their track record thus far, I have zero confidence that Squarespace is capable of providing a seamless transition.
I have written a blog post going into further detail about this.
Here’s the true renewal pricing of the registrars I recommend, compared against the seedier ones mentioned at the start. Prices are recorded on Sep 2022 and will definitely increase in the future.
Cloudflare.com – $9.15 USD per year with domain privacy included.
Porkbun.com – $9.73 USD per year with domain privacy included.
View screenshot (edited for clarity).
Domains.Google – $12 USD per year with domain privacy included.
View screenshot (edited for clarity).
Squarespace.com – At least $20 USD per year with domain privacy included.
Wix.com – Pricing not listed publicly.
Bluehost.com – $34.99 USD per year ($19.99 + $15 for domain privacy).
GoDaddy.com – $19.99 USD per year with domain privacy included. They charge an extra $10 per year for “Full Domain Protection”, which consists of fundamental necessities like 2 factor verification, so their real pricing is $29.99 USD per year.
Get your own domain from a reputable registrar and keep it there for good.
Always register your own domain names.
Sometimes, a website developer will offer to register a domain for you. You should NEVER accept that offer. If your domain is registered under someone else’s account, it does not belong to you.
There are other, much safer ways to grant developers access to your domain name. Certain registrars like Google Domains allow you to share access with others. Another way is to tell your registrar to use a custom nameserver for your domain. One that can be managed by your website developer.
Custom nameservers are sometimes also known as authoritative nameservers, domain name servers, or simply DNS servers for short. Nameservers are usually provisioned by the domain registrar OR the website host – more on that later when we talk about website hosting.
Keep your domain registration separate from your host.
Some website builders and hosting companies double as domain registrars. They offer the full package, from domain registrations to hosting, website building tools, and even email hosting, giving you convenient access to everything in one place.
It sounds good in theory, but in reality, this is almost always a bad idea. It is best to keep everything separate to maintain redundancy.
The good practice is to keep domains and hosting separate, because domains rarely have issues or fails, sometimes dns but even that can be outsourced, but hosting fails way more, so keeping your domain separate from the hosting protects your domain from fails in the hosting, from billing issues, hosting issues, domain issues, etc…
Whatever happens your domain is safe, so if you have any problems with your hosting company you can easily move to another, they have no power over your domain name, same with email, if your domain is with your hosting company you are stuck with them for better or worst…
Also historically domain companies are not that good at hosting services, the same way hosting services rarely do a good job managing domains…zuperzumbi, Jun 2022
If one company manages your domain registrations, your emails, and your hosting, you will lose access to everything when their servers go down.
If you keep everything separate, you will still have access to your emails during the downtime. And you always have the option to point your domain name to a temporary website while your host recovers from a protracted server failure.
Furthermore, when you register for a domain name with a website builder or hosting company, it gives them power over your online presence. If you get into a dispute with them, they can take your domain name hostage.
… people often have disputes with their hosting companies … When you’re in the middle of a dispute with your host, trying to move your domain name away could end up being difficult or even impossible without taking legal action.
Separating your hosting from your domain registration completely removes that problem.
… Personally I like to have my domain registrar, DNS, email, and hosting all separate.techjp, Jul 2022
TL;DR: Always register your own domain name, and keep your registration separate from your website host. Use a reputable registrar and guard the ownership of your domain jealously.