What is a domain name and how do they work?

When we wrote this article, there were over 350 million domain names on the internet with thousands more being added every day. But what is a domain name and how do they work? We’ve minimised the jargon to bring you a simple explanation.

Article Info

January 11, 2024 6 mins

What we will cover

What is a domain name and do you need one?

Every website on the internet has a domain name, so yes, you definitely need one. Don’t confuse your domain name with your web host (where your website is held) because you need both.

A domain name is part of your web address and is best defined by an example – let’s use us!

To reach our web design services page (without using a search engine), you would have to enter something like the following in your browser’s search bar:


Technically, this is called a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), but ‘web address’ is the layperson’s term.

The domain name is everything between the https:// bit and the first forward slash. In other words, our domain name is vuonline.co.uk

A domain name actually consists of a combination of a Top Level Domain (TLD) and one or more Second Level Domains (SLD). These are separated by full stops. Everything after the last full stop is the TLD (in this case, uk)

When buying domain names (which we will look at at the end of this article), you can combine your chosen SLD with different TLDs to form separate domain names (e.g., yourbusiness.co.uk, yourbusiness.com, yourbusiness.net, etc.)

Domain names were invented as a human-friendly way to find websites online. If they didn’t exist, you would have to type in strings of numbers instead.

How does a domain name work?

We’re so used to seeing our favourite websites pop up on our screens when we type in a web address that it’s easy to forget that there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes.

Here is a simplified step-by-step guide to what happens when you enter the web address https://vuonline.co.uk/ into your browser

What is a domain name and how do they work: step-by-step

  1. Your computer, via your internet service provider, sends a request to connect with the computers hosting the Vu Online website. This request is sent to a specialised computer called a Domain Name Server which is part of a network of similar computers. This network is called the Domain Name System (DNS).
  2. The Domain Name Server checks whether the domain name vuonline.co.uk is stored (cached) in its database. If it isn’t, it will forward the request to another Domain Name Server.
  3. When the request reaches a Domain Name Server that has our domain name cached, it forwards your request to the relevant name server. This is another kind of specialised computer that web hosts use to receive incoming requests.
  4. The name server passes your request to the computers (web servers) holding our website’s files.
  5. The content of our home page is served to your computer.

Now that we’ve covered ‘What is a domain name and how do they work?’ let’s move on to ‘Where do you get a domain name and how do you set one up?’

Where do you get a domain name?

The regulator of the DNS, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), allows businesses known as domain name registrars to sell domain names to individuals and businesses.

To get hold of a domain name, you can either set up an account with a registrar or, in some cases, you can buy a domain name through your web host (the company that holds your website’s files).

Setting a domain name up via your web host can be convenient as they will sort out the technical bits. On the other hand, buying via a registrar gives you more flexibility and control (plus, the technical bits are pretty straightforward anyway).

There are tons of registrars online, and they all provide a search box for you to check the availability of domain names.

Your domain name can be anything you can think of, but there is a caveat: if the domain name is already in use, you won’t be able to buy it. If your first choice domain name isn’t available, you may be able to pick it up under a different TLD, though. For example, if yourbusiness.com is taken, you may find that yourbusiness.net or youbusiness.co.uk is available.

Domain names usually cost from between £15 and £35 per year (.com domains tend to be the most expensive). You may also want to pay a small additional amount for domain privacy which will hide your address and phone number from the public. Registrars often try to bundle in add-ons with your purchase, so check your basket carefully before checking out!

Many registrars offer very generous discounts to new account holders. It is not uncommon to get your first year for free – or for just a pound or two.

How do you set up a domain name?

There is one simple but critical step you will need to take once you’ve secured your domain name.

We mentioned name servers earlier. In order for the DNS to connect your website to your name, you have to give your registrar the address of your name servers. You can get these details from your web host’s control panel or from simply asking your web host’s support team (they will generally begin with ns1, ns2, etc.)

Your web host will have assigned at least two name servers, and you can enter their details by logging in to your registrar account and looking for DNS settings, name server settings or something similar.

It can take several hours for these changes to make it through the DNS system, so you may need to be patient.

Hopefully we’ve fully answered your question, ‘What is a domain name and how do they work,’ and also given you some practical tips on securing your brand new domain name.

Are you planning to set up a new website for your business?

Starting a new website project is exciting, and we would love to discuss your vision and future plans with you. We have full information about our process and web design services on our dedicated Web Design page. Please take a look and contact us when you’re ready to move forward.

And if you have any more website-related questions similar to, ‘What is a domain name and how do they work?’ feel free to contact us about those as well.

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