The 7 Things You Need to Know About Domain Names

Or: What non-technical people need to know to have an intelligent conversation with their IT person

So you’re in charge of your company’s web project and after months of sweat, tears and mocha lattes, the site launch is finally at hand.

There’s just one final detail. You need your brand spankin’ new web site to show up when your hordes of eager visitors type in www.myawesomesite.com.

Now, you’re smart enough to know your site’s domain name. You go to your IT guy or gal–either in house, or at your award-winning interactive agency (ahem)–and say, confidently, “Switch our domain name!”

And they say something like “Do we host your DNS or do you?” Or “Do you need to set up SSL, too?”

If this is the point in the process at which your brains scramble and your eyes cross, never fear. We’re here to teach you how to understand–and how to have an intelligent conversation with your IT person about–domain names. So let’s untangle the 7 Things You Need to Know About Domain Names, shall we?

To begin with, you’ll need to understand just a little bit about how domain names work. That’ll make it easier for you to figure out how to answer the questions you’ll be asked.

As you know, web sites live on computers called web servers. And every site on each web server has a numeric address called an Internet Protocol (IP) Address. But most normal humans don’t want to access a web site by typing in an IP address like 122.44.67.1. It’s much easier to use “www.google.com.” That’s why there’s a system called, well, the Domain Name System (aka DNS).

For every domain name, there is a domain name server that points that domain — that is, it hosts a file that tells the world 122.44.67.1 = www.myawesomesite.com. And the server your web site is hosted on has a file that directs requests for www.myawesomesite.com to the correct pages. That’s why you have to specify DNS host servers when you register a domain name; often you’ll just be using the registrar’s own DNS hosting.

It gets way more technical than that, of course. (Check out the DNS FAQs site or this video tutorial on understanding domain names if you’re interested.) The part you need to know? That DNS can be hosted someplace different than where the web site is hosted.

And one more thing. You probably know this, but you don’t want to say “domain name” if what you mean is “URL.” A URL is the unique address of a specific site or page, like http://www.myawesomesite.com/content/help/faqs.html. The domain name is the myawesomesite.com part of the URL.

Now that you’re more domain name savvy, these are the questions your IT person will most likely ask you–and you’ll need to have answers for.

1. What is the domain name–or list of names?

Your IT person needs to know how much he or she is dealing with. Is it just one domain name? Or 50? Is it just www.myawesomesite.com, or do you have other variations, like store.myawesomesite.com?

2. If you’re buying a new domain name, how long do you want to purchase it for?

You can purchase a domain name registration to last in year increments, from 1 year to 10 years or more–Network Solutions even offers 100 year registration! The longer you purchase the name for, typically the lower the per-year cost. It’s also easier from a management perspective; the less often it’s up for renewal, the less often you have to do that task.

3. Who is the domain name registrar?

A domain name registrar is an organization accredited to manage the reservation of domain names. When your organization first registered the domain name(s), it used one of these registrars: for example, Network Solutions or GoDaddy. You just need to find out which one was used.

4. Who is the technical contact for the domain?

When you register a domain, you have to supply the name and contact information for a technical contact. This person is involved in the domain name update process. Ideally, the person listed as the technical contact is still with the organization; your IT resource will need that person’s email address and phone number.

5. Where is the DNS for the domain name(s) hosted?

Is it hosted with the registrar? With the web site host company? Or somewhere else?

6. Are you moving the DNS or just updating the records?

In other words, are you changing where the DNS is hosted? Or are you just requesting that the DNS records be updated to point your domain name from the old server IP address to the new one? This is important because it has implications for how quickly the domain change “propagates”; translation: how quickly your new site will show up at your domain. Moving the DNS can take a lot longer to propagate than updating the records–up to 72 hours.

7. Do you need a secure portion of your web site?

Does any part of your site require the submission of sensitive information, like credit card numbers or passwords? If so, you will need to secure that part of the site with a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate–and your IT person will need to know this. They will then work with you to purchase and set up the certificate; this involves making such decisions as which certificate vendor to purchase from (Verisign is the most well-known, and usually the most expensive), who’s buying it (your organization or the IT consultant), for how long, and for which domains.

Once you’ve gathered all of this information, you’ll be in a much better place to handle all aspects of domain names and DNS for your site. And you’ll save yourself and your IT person much time–not to mention gnashing of teeth.

A special tip of the pen to Greg Demetrick who helped me understand the world of domain names and DNS at my first web job at Digital City Hampton Roads, way back in 1997.

[Photo credit: SOSChilds, Flickr Creative Commons]

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