[This is part of a series of articles for which the introduction and list of articles is here. If you haven't read the introduction yet, it would be helpful to read it first.]
If you want a professional web presence, suitable for putting on a business card or giving out to art directors or gallery owners, you need something better than a MySpace page, a Flickr account or a page with an address like tripod.com/~joeartist/web/portfolio.html; you need a domain name.
In theory registering a domain name is simple; look up the name on a domain name lookup page; if it’s available, pay a fee, and then point the domain name at the web server where your site’s HTML pages reside. In practice, however, it can be a little more complicated than that.
When to register a domain name
Now. Yesterday. Three years ago. Get the picture? Even if you’re not ready to put your web site together yet, if you can find a domain name you like, get it now. It doesn’t cost that much to keep them registered ($5-$15 a year in most cases) and they disappear quickly. If you are looking around to “see what’s available”, and you find one that you really like, be prepared to buy in now. If you come back tomorrow, it may be gone. There is also the questionable practice of “domain tasting”, or “domain kiting” in which domains can be used by spammers for free for five days at a time (details here and here). If the domain you want isn’t available, it may be worth checking back in five days (but not before).
What’s in a name?
When you type in a URL like www.linesandcolors.com into a browser, or click on a link in a web page, your browser sends out a request for an HTML document (a web page) that is supposed to exist at that address. The web server at that address is supposed to receive your request and send back the web page, along with any embedded content, like images or Flash files, that are included in the code of the page.
A web server is a computer somewhere; it could be in a temperature controlled room in a vast hosting facility with backup power generators and 24 hour security; it could be in some geek’s closet. More specifically, a web server is a piece of software running on such a computer that handles requests for web pages. When you sign up for a hosting account, you’re paying to have your site hosted on a web server.
An address like www.linesandcolors.com or the first part of a longer address like www.linesandcolors.com/how-to-display-your-artwork-on-the-web/, is the domain name, the key part of the location of the requested web page. The domain name is like the address of a building, the other page locations are like offices or apartments in that building.
The domain name isn’t really the location of the web page (or web site), though. The actual location is a number, like 18.104.22.168. The domain name is just a short cut, a way to make it easier for humans to remember and use internet addresses. The domain name points to a web server at the address number. Your request for the page at www.linesandcolors.com actually goes first to a special computer called a domain name server, that translates the domain name into the number, and sends the request to the web server at that numbered address.
When you register a domain name, you point it to the number for a particular set of domain name servers (“DNS”) associated with your hosting company. If you change hosting companies, you can take your domain name with you and use the control panel, or domain name admin login that comes with your domain name registration account, to point the domain name at a new set of domain name servers associated with your new hosting account.
Registering a domain name
Registering a domain name and hosting a web site are two different and separate things, though they are often handled through the same company.
Domain name registrars are companies approved by ICANN, the officiating agency, to register and maintain records of domain names. Some are better than others and, as with my post on web hosting providers, I’m not going to stick my neck out and recommend which ones to use, so you don’t come back and complain to me if you don’t like them.
Unless you’re registering a domain name well in advance of creating a site, I’ll recommend that you take the easy path of registering your domain through your chosen hosting provider. Most domain name registrars, in fact, also offer hosting, and many web hosting companies offer a “free” domain name registration as one of the features in their web hosting accounts.
If you register your domain name through the same company you open your web hosting account with, they will automatically point the domain to their DNS servers for you. You can always take the domain name with you if you decide to change hosts. It belongs to you as long as you keep it registered.
If you can’t decide yet, you can simply choose a known domain name registar. Registering a domain name can cost anywhere from $5 to $15 a year. You can easily pay more, but I don’t think you have to. Cheapest is not necessarily best. You want one that is reliable an doesn’t make it difficult to administer the domain or move it to another registrar if you want to.
Domain name parking You can “park” a domain name, meaning to have it registered without pointing it to a web site, inexpensively. Some registrars offer a minimal home page with your name on it as part of the parking, others will just point it to their own site until you’re ready to use it.
Domain name look-ups All hosting providers and domain name registrars have a lookup field where you can type in a potential domain name and see if it’s taken. If it’s available, they will allow you to start the process of registering it. If it’s not available, they’ll try to sell you six dozen variations and twenty different suffixes (.net, .biz, .tv, .whatever…). You want a .com if at all possible.
There are a lot of other “top level domains” now, but “.com” is still preferable; “.net” or “.org” are a long second (in theory, “.org” is supposed to be for non-profits). This may change, but right now you can ignore the registrar’s attempts to sell you domains ending in .tv, .biz .name, etc.
The reason I say this is the same principle that applies to corporate domain names, people expect a domain to be companyname.com. The closer you can get to that as an individual or studio, the better. You will hear that shorter domain names are always better; this is not true. You want a domain name that people will remember and associate with you and what you do.
Types of contacts
Part of the registration process is listing four types of contacts, these may be different within a company, for example, or all the same for an individual. “Registrant” is the owner of the domain name and is the most important. “Administrative” is the one responsible for maintaining the information in the listing and is usually the same as Registrant. “Billing” is the one responsible for payment to renew the registration. “Technical” might be the IT department at a company, or a trusted web site developer for an individual, responsible for pointing the domain to the correct domain name servers, etc. You can assign all of these to youself.
More on registering a domain name here.
Choosing a domain name
The bad news: all of the really good ones are taken. You can tell I’ve been on the web for a long time because my web comic (which was the first of its kind) has a four-letter domain name (zark.com). Not only have people been snatching up domain names for the last 14 years, there are companies and individuals who make money off of domain name “squatting”, i.e. the bulk registration of hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of domain names, on the basis of being able to hold them for ransom from those who actually want to use them.
The good news: If you’re lucky, clever, or work at it hard enough, you can come up with a perfectly acceptable one.
The best domain name is yourname.com. If you you have a name with an unusual spelling, you may actually be able to do this. It was only a few years ago that I registered charleyparker.com.
The next best is something that has to do with your name and what you do, the name of your studio, your name and your specialty, etc. For example yournameillustration.com.
I’ll say it again: shorter is not necessarily better. The important thing about your domain name is that people can remember it and associate it with you! janedoeillustration.com is better than jdcoolpen.com.
Adopting a professional studio name, for which you can find a good domain name and under which you intend to do business, is another solution, just like having a company name. Not easy, but certainly possible. Be prepared for that studio name to become your professional identity.
If your domain name is easily misspelled, consider buying the common misspelling (if it’s available) and “pointing” it to your domain. (Try typing misspellings for Britannica.com into your browser.)
Automatic renewal. The default registration is for one year, though most registrars will try to get you to register for two or more. This is actually a good idea if you are certain you want the name for that long. Most registrars also offer “automatic renewal”. This is also a good idea, in that once a domain name is registered, don’t let it lapse, unless you are intentionally dropping it. There are thousands of hungry web bottom feeders out there waiting for dropped domain names to appear so they can grab them up and fill them with spam links. If you don’t want this to happen, keep your registration current. If you choose the automatic renewal option, registrars and hosting companies that offer it will send you an email in advance of your renewal date, and then automatically charge your credit card (keep that current, too) to renew your domain name unless you tell them not to.
Domain name locking (transfer protection). ICANN recently changed the rules so that one registrar can initiate the transfer of a domain from another registrar without the current registrar’s approval. This may seem odd, but it was initiated so that unscrupulous registrars couldn’t hold a domain against the wishes of the actual registrant. Of course, this solves one problem and causes another, because it allows those same unscrupulous registrars, or hackers working through them, to force a domain over to a shady registrar without the registrant’s knowledge or permission and actually steal it from them through additional machinations. This is why registrars now offer “domain locking” which means that you voluntarily “lock” your domain from being moved to another registrar until you unlock it. If you trust your registrar (and you’d better), this is a good idea, and it is not the default. You have to choose it somewhere in the registration process or later in the page where you administer your domain. (More details here.)
Master of your domain
When you register a domain name, you should be provided with some way to administer it, i.e. to re-register it, change where your DNS servers point, lock it or unlock it, and so on. This is usually a web address accessed by a log-in and password that the registrar or hosting company will provide you in an email. (Print out that info and keep it on record!) If you purchase your domain through your web hosting provider, domain name administration may be through the same “control panel” that allows administration of your web site and email.
Multiple domains If you have multiple domains regsistered through the same company, you can usually administer them through the same admin panel. You can also “point” one domain to another. If you have a domain name for you and one for your studio, for example, you can have one point to the other instead of maintaining two sites.
Dealing with the bottom feeders
Other people have multiple domain names for a different reason. They’ve registered zillions of them in the hope that they now have the one you want and can force you to cough up many times the cost of registration to ransom it from them. If you look up your absolutely perfect, no-substitutes, must-have domain name and find that it is being squatted, usually indicated by the fact the the domain points to a page full of links, or a page that tries to look like a search engine, you may decide you want to ransom it from the squatters.
While I don’t necessarily condone this, the one thing I will suggest is that you enter the transaction warily and use a service like escrow.com to cover yourself. (It adds expense, but getting a domain from squatters can be expensive to begin with.) The squatters who want to sell the names usually have a notice on the page saying that the domain is for sale and offering contact info. Some squatters don’t want to sell the domain name because it is successful in bringing in “pay-per-click” revenue on the page full of ads that the domain links to. It may be hard to wrestle these away, even with a gerneous offer.
WhoIs You can also look up the owner of a domain name and their contact information by using a WhoIs lookup, like the one on arin.net or Network Solutions. There are also a number of other WhoIs outfits out there. Be aware that its been suggested that some of the less reputable WhoIs search services engage in domain name tasting (see “When to register”, above).
Putting your name out there
When you register a domain name your contact information, including your email address, becomes public record through the same WhoIs process described above. This is unavoidable unless you want to use “anonymous registration” offered by some registrars, but I’m wary of that because legally it means the registrar (or web hosting provider) becomes the actual owner of the domain name. You must use a real email address when registering a domain as it is one of the primary ways the domain is administered, and the only way you will usually be notified if there are any important changes (or if your domain is up for renewal).
Promoting your domain name and making your site known will be the topic of a future post, but it’s worth noting that keywords in domain names can sometimes help with search engine rankings (there are other factors that are much more important, however).
Next: Building your web site