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What do I pay for when buying a domain? (and other questions)
Sep 13, 2017

For many, domain names are one of the most confusing aspects of making a website. When you go to buy a domain name, it feels like you must choose between dozens of identical companies all trying to upsell you on their own add-on services.

Fortunately, domain names are not as confusing as they appear. Below, I’ll go through the questions I had when buying a domain name. When you understand the machinery around domain names, you can buy domain names and run your website with confidence.

Tl;dr - If you don’t want to read this whole post and simply want a website, buy a domain name that you like the look of from hover (referral link for $2 off). I have multiple domains through them. Buying domains is fast and easy, and they won’t try and upsell you confusing services. They include DNS hosting and Whois privacy automatically. Keep reading if you want more in-depth answers to questions about domain names.

Who do I buy a domain name from?

Domains are managed at the top level by an organization called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). But you the website owner will never deal with ICANN directly. ICANN delegates the ability actually register domain names to accredited “registrars”. Becoming a registrar involves paying about a $8,500 fee per year and lots of paperwork. Here’s the official list. This list will include the legal name of most sites that sell domain names you’ve ever heard about. (Godaddy, Namecheap, hover (owned by tucows), etc.). Generally you want to buy directly through one of these registrars, but there is one more option: resellers. A “reseller” is more of a convention than a technical term. It is a company who communicates with a registrar on your behalf to buy a domain name. Many resellers do this to offer convenience for consumers of their other services, like web hosting. I recommend making sure to buy a domain name directly from a registrar. This offers additional trust provided by the ICANN accreditation and minimal cost markup provided by middle men.

Does it matter which registrar I use?

Not really. All provide the same service. There’s not much to differentiate one registrar from another. Pick a registrar with a website that is easy to use and that offers fair prices and you’ll be good. Some will have features like DNS hosting included, which is a plus.

Why do domain names cost so much?

Domain price is primarily driven by the cost the registrar has to pay to a company called the “registry”. A “registry” is an entity that administers a “top-level domain” (TLD) like .com (Verisign), .io (National Informatics Centre), or .org (Public Interest Registry). The price the registries charge registrars is known as their “cost price”. For .com, this price is currently $7.85 per domain. Any price on top of that is margin for the registrar, meaning a .com will cost between $10 and $15/yr usually.

What do domain names do?

Domain names map friendly names like www.google.com to IP addresses like 172.217.3.164. IP address are needed by computers to talk to each other directly. Domain name resolution happens in a tree-like fashion. When your browser tries to resolve www.google.com to an IP address (needed for actual computer-to-computer communication), conceptually it asks the root nameservers (operated by ICANN) “Who knows about .com?” And the root servers answer “Verisign”. Then your browser asks Verisign “Who knows about google?” And Verisign’s servers answer “Google, duh.”. And finally your browser asks Google “Where is www?” And it answers something like 172.217.3.164. In practice, this conversation all happens in one computer since the answers to most of those questions are stored (cached) for a given period of time for performance reasons. This cache is why changes to domain-related things take time to take effect.

What do I pay for when I buy a domain?

You pay for an entry in the registry’s database, so that when browsers ask “Hey, .com, where is mycoolsite?“, they’ll point to you.

Which TLDs am I allowed to use?

In addition to .com, and .org, there are hundreds of different TLDs like .cn or .ninja. The rules on who can use which domain are pretty open for most domains, and up to the terms of service of the registry that administers the TLD. Google has a pretty good resource if you are interested in digging into the legalese of TLDs with special rules.

Are domain names property?

Yes. Domains can be bought and sold in private markets. If someone else owns the domain you want, you can buy it from them, but that usually doesn’t come cheap. The most expensive domain purchase ever publicly reported was insurance.com, which sold for $35.6 million in 2010.

Can someone take my domain name from me?

If you break the rules of the registrar or don’t pay to renew your domain, it will go back to the registry and be available for anyone to register.

Does my TLD matter for SEO?

Maybe? Search engines are notoriously cagey about factors that affect SEO, for the fear they will be gamed. If this is a factor, it is definitely dwarfed by factors that have been confirmed important by search engines such as time on page or good links to the website. I wouldn’t worry about .com vs .io vs .ninja for SEO.

What is Whois?

Whois is a database on the internet that lists the contact information of every owner of every domain. Not everyone wants their contact information, including address and phone number, on the internet for anyone to see. Whois privacy lets you hide this by providing the registry the contact information of a proxy. This proxy will forward any communications to you.

Can I get email on my domain name?

Yes. Most registrars have a feature you can pay for that enable you to receive email@mycoolsite.com messages and forward them to another email account (like Gmail).

How long does my domain last?

Domain name registrations last until you stop paying. The most common setup is an initial registration for 1 year, followed by yearly renewals. Some registrars allow for longer terms of registration, some up to 10 years.

How long can my domain be?

63 characters. For reference that looks like this: http://www.abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzabcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyzabcdefghijk.com. It’s obnoxiously long. You should pick a domain that’s shorter than that.

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