Web-hosting companies are beginning to offer free domain names, or, to put it more accurately, free Web addresses.

By signing up for these services, you get a free address.

Great, you think, no need to go to the trouble and expense of registering a domain name. But is there a catch with these free Web addresses? You betcha!

First, understand the makeup of a typical free Web address. Let's use http://yourcompany.webhostingcompany.com as an example. The .com will be familiar to everyone. It is often called the domain extension, or top-level domain (TLD). It can be .com, .net, .org, .tv, etc. Moving left we have webhostingcompany, which is called the domain name, or second-level domain (SLD).

Left-Leaning Tendencies

As we move left again, things begin to get interesting. For most Web sites, this will be www, but with our example it is yourcompany. So what's going on here? Is our example name still part of the World Wide Web? Yes it is. What's happened is the Web-hosting company set up what is known as a "subdomain" or host for the domain name webhostingcompany. They have not registered an extra domain name but added an extra entry to their domain name service (DNS).

"So what?" I hear you say. "The Web hosting company has set up a Web address for me. What do I care if it is a real domain name or just a subdomain?" Well you should care, and if you are planning to run a business with one of these subdomains, you must care. It could be the difference between launching a successful online business or a three-month disaster.

It might be a cliche to say that first impressions count, but in the online world it's undoubtedly true. And what's the first impression people get of your online business? Your Web address, of course. Do you want potential customers to think you can't even afford $20 (U.S.) for a domain name? How many Web sites using free subdomains have you bought a product from recently? No, me neither.

Short Is Sweet

It is well accepted that Web addresses need to be as short is possible. Even if people can remember long addresses, nobody wants to type them in repeatedly; and the longer the address, the greater the chance it will get misspelled or mistyped.

Your Web address will appear on printed business cards, letterheads, and marketing material. The longer it is, the less room you have for your sales message.

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