If you’re embarking on an adventure of getting a website, you might be surprised to realize you need to purchase a domain name and that it is separate from your website’s hosting package. This is a common point of confusion and, fortunately, one that can be broken down fairly simply.

What are domain names?

At their most basic, when people talk about domain names, they are talking about URLs, or the website address you type into your browser bar. You have likely become familiar with many examples of this in your life online. Whenever you say things like Google.com or Facebook.com, you are saying a domain’s name.

What does domain mean? Domain names are identifiers for websites.

Why are domain names used?

Computers speak a different language from us, and so there are a lot of things online that were created just to make things more human accessible for the everyday user.

When looking for your website, your computer will use an IP address. We’ll get into this in more detail when looking at how computers find your website and how the domain name works. But for now, you need to know that your computer uses a long string of numbers, that look something like 67.347.33.1, to bring up the websites you see in your browser.

So, what is a domain name used for? To better understand, let’s look at the example of your home address.

To find the exact location of your home in the most accurate manner, you would use GPS coordinates. This will come up sometimes in official paperwork to pinpoint a location. GPS coordinates are a great system when accuracy matters because they are a way of finding a location anywhere in the world. If a city renames its streets or repaves them so directions become different, the GPS coordinates and the actual location of the house will remain the same.

The physical location of the house is your web hosting package. This is the server where all of your content and your actual website live. The IP address is like GPS coordinates, in that they are a reliable way of locating the website on the internet. However, if you want to tell your friend to come visit, you’re going to tell them that you live on 123 Strawberry Lane. In this same way, you will use a domain name to tell other people or websites where your website is.

The elements of a domain name

What is a domain name? To come at this question from a different angle, let’s look at the basic parts of what you see in the actual domain name.

At the top of your internet browser is the bar where you type in URLs to browse the internet. You will see https:// written at the beginning of the URL. A domain name is the website address you see written there. It has two parts.

The last part is the top-level domain. In the early days of the internet this could be a .com, .net., or .org. Today, you may see more variations, like .us, .uk, or .pizza. This is an important part of the website address, but is less exciting when you’re choosing a URL for your new website.

The part that gets the most attention is called the second level domain. This is often referred to as your site’s identity.

For example, in the website name Google.com, Google is the site’s identity (second level domain) and .com is the site’s top-level domain.

How do domain names work

Now, let’s take a look at what happens inside your computer when you visit a website.

You want to see a specific website. This means you need to connect to a web server so the site can be shown in your browser. The web server is the hard drive where your website is stored.

Users don’t often need to know all of that information in order to see a website, though. All they need to know is the site address. And we’ve discussed this. What are domains? They are the human accessible address for your website.

So, the user inputs the website address into a web browser. The domain name is connected to a domain name server (DNS) from the hosting provider. This information tells the web browser to look at that server to find your website.

After you are connected to the right nameserver, the server uses the IP address connected to the domain name to bring the exact website up in your browser.

All of this information is transmitted fairly quickly on today’s internet, but there is actually a long journey with a few translations for the computer to bring up the correct website you see in your browser.

Do I need a domain name to have a website?

Now that you better understand how domains and your website content are two separate things, you may be questioning whether you truly need a URL. Realistically, yes, you do. Most people do not know what an IP address is. If you give them one, they won’t find your website.

Even if you wanted to have a website without showing other people, you probably want to use programs while you build the site out. While an IP address is the computer’s language for your website, most programs are built with the expectation of a full URL being present.

Technically, you can purchase website hosting and build a site without a website address. But, what is a domain? While in its simplest form it’s the human language, it’s also part of the fun of having a website!

Today, you can go ahead and choose a classic top level domain like .com or .net, or you can choose something fun like .ninja or .pizza. You can come up with fun and creative identifiers for your URL or you can use your personal name. The choices are limitless.

Hopefully, now that you understand the difference between website hosting and website addresses, you have a better understanding of how they work together to build the sites we use everyday.