Like any real-world business, the key to a successful Web-based business is getting customers in the door or, more accurately, getting them to visit your site. One of the best ways for a small company to attract visitors--and to begin building a powerful online presence--is to register a catchy domain name.

The benefits of having your own domain name are obvious. If you hope to generate sales through your Web site, visitors must be able to find it. If you advertise your Web address on billboards, or in newspapers, magazines, and commercials, it's essential that customers remember it long enough to reach their computers.

The right domain name can quickly become a household word--and a tool for branding your business. has a memorable moniker that also conveys a message about the breadth of its book-selling business. In a testimony to the power of a good name, the online giant briefly flirted with "Cadabra" (as in abracadabra) but quickly dropped after it discovered most people thought the company's name was "Cadaver."

But coming up with a snappy name is the easy part. Many small businesses find the process of domain name registration an exercise in frustration, fraught with technical terms and confusing concepts. To help you master your domain, Inc. Online has prepared a simple guide that answers the most commonly asked questions about this process.

Learn the Jargon
Here's a brief glossary of the most common words and phrases, courtesy of NetLingo: The Internet Language Dictionary (copyright, 1995).

Domain name: The "address" or URL of a particular Web site. This is also how you describe the name that is at the right of the @ sign in an Internet address.

Domain name system (DNS): A database system that translates an IP address into a domain name. For example, a numeric IP address such as is converted into The DNS is a static, hierarchical name service and it uses TCP/IP hosts, and is housed on a number of servers on the Internet. Basically, it maintains this database for figuring out and finding (or resolving) host names and IP addresses. This allows users to specify remote computers by host names rather than numerical IP addresses.

Host: Any computer that can function as the beginning and end point of data transfers. An Internet host has a unique Internet address (IP address) and a unique domain or host name.

InterNIC: A repository of information about the Internet. It is divided into two parts: 1) directory services, run by AT&T in New Jersey, and 2) registration services, run by Network Solutions in Virginia. It is funded partially by the National Science Foundation and partially by fees that are charged to register Internet domains.

Internet Protocol (IP) address: A numeric address that is given to servers and users connected to the Internet. For servers it is translated into a domain name by a Domain Name Server (DNS). When you get online you are assigned an IP address by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). This IP address may be the same everytime you log on (this is called a static IP) or it can change and be assigned each time you connect based on what's available.

Internet Service Provider (ISP): A company that provides access to the Internet. Before you can connect to the Internet you must first establish an account with an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Server: A host computer on a network that answers requests for information from it. The term server is also used to refer to the software that makes the process of serving information possible.

Uniform Resource Locator (URL): Describes the location and access method of a resource on the Internet. For example, the URL describes the type of access method being used (http) and the server location which hosts the Web site ( All Web sites have URLs. One could say a URL is what a telephone number is to a telephone or a street address is to a house.

What is a domain name and why do I need one?
A domain name sends visitors to the numerical address where a Web page resides on the Internet. The best ones rely on a unique word, business name, or phrase to make them easier to remember: (for Inc. Online) or (for Harvard University).

Web surfers would have to type a long sequence of numbers to access specific sites without the domain name system. For example, would you remember where to find if its Web address was www.nameserver/users/557/amazon?

To whom do I apply for a domain name?
For years, all reservation and registration services for domain names have been handled exclusively by Network Solutions under an agreement with the U.S. government. That's all about to change. As of this writing (June 1999), five new companies are testing registration services: America Online, France Telecom, Melbourne IT,, and CORE (Internet Council of Registrars). just became operational; the others are expected to do so in the near future.

How do I get the name I want?
First, choose a name and find out if it is available. When choosing a domain name, keep in mind:

  • You can use up to 26 characters (not including the http://www)
  • Only letters, numbers, and hyphens can be used
  • All names must start and end with a letter or number
  • Domain names are not case-sensitive; letters can be capitalized or not

Once you've selected a domain name, it's time to see if it's available. Be warned--the heightened interest in the Internet has led to an explosion in the number of people and businesses registering domain names. It might take a while to find one that's available.

Generic names--such as and quickly snapped up. Speed your search and better brand yourself online by trying for a variation of your company's name. Your company is John Higgins Consulting and is gone? Try instead for johnhigginsconsulting, john-higgins-consulting, jhigginsconsulting, or jhconsulting in front of the .com.

Make sure you also try alternative Top Level Domains (TLD) if your name isn't available. A TLD is the suffix that follows a domain name and usually denotes the type of organization that owns the site: .com is for commercial businesses; .net is for network associations; .org for non-profits.

However, just because you're building a site for your business doesn't mean you can't use .net and .org. It's a smart idea to buy all three so customers can find your site no matter which suffix they type. The .gov and .edu endings you see at the end of some Web addresses are for use only by government agencies and educational institutions.

What if the name I want is already taken?
If someone has registered your company name or trademark as a domain name you have three options: choose another name, ask the registrant to hand it over, or take legal action against the registrant. It's important to note that Network Solutions will only turn the address over to you if the registrant agrees to relinquish the name, or if a court decides that the name does in fact infringe on your trademark.

To contact the owner of a particular domain name, use the contact information Network Solutions provides on the Whois Search page.

I've found a name that's available. How do I make sure no one else can use it?
Simply go to the Network Solutions home page, plug your selected name into the box labeled "Register a Web Address," and follow the step-by-step directions.

If your domain name is available, you can either reserve or register it at this point.

Reservation includes a $119 fee paid to Network Solutions that gives you exclusive rights to the name for two years and enables Network Solutions to manage and host the name.

You can reserve a name even if your Web site doesn't exist yet. Network Solutions will provide a temporary page customers can access through your new domain name, so they don't get a "site does not exist" error message. They'll provide either an "under construction" page, or a "dot com biz card" page that lists contact information for your business.

If you choose to register a domain name yourself, you'll need to provide Network Solutions with the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of primary and secondary domain name hosts, obtainable from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). The cost for registering a domain name yourself is $70 for two years, paid to Network Solutions.

You can also have your ISP register a domain name on your behalf. If you do, make sure the rate your business is charged for this service seems sensible.

Most ISPs will charge a registration fee in addition to the Network Solutions fee, though it is often bundled together with your entire Web site hosting package. Remember that this is a very simple service that only involves sending your requested domain name and contact information to Network Solutions. If your ISP is charging an excessive registration fee or if it charges a high monthly maintenance fee for domain name hosting, consider shopping for another service provider.

It's also important to make sure your ISP doesn't have a policy that prevents you from transferring your domain to another ISP. Though it's uncommon, some ISPs may try to keep your domain name if you decide to change services, so make sure they list your name with Network Solutions as the administrative contact for your domain name account.

Registration procedures and fees are likely to fluctuate as new players emerge. You'll need to do some homework in order to find the best deal.

So what's in a name? Everything you need to succeed on the Net: Top billing for your business, a powerful online identity, and a simple, intuitive way for customers to reach your Web site.

Mike McLoughlin is a former reporter for Inc. Online.

Published on: Jul 7, 1999