(This is the twelfth in a series of postings about citizen media business issues. See the introduction here. All of these entries are considered to be in “beta” and will be revised and refined as they find a home on a more permanent area of the Center for Citizen Media web site. To that end, your comments, additional examples, and criticisms are welcome and will be invaluable contributions to this process.)
The first step to establishing a website is registering a domain name. This will be your address-and to some extent, your identity-on the Internet.
A domain name’s function is to neatly label a computer on the web, so that someone looking for a website doesn’t have to remember a string of numbers (the IP address) in order to find it. To make this process work without conflicts, domains are registered for periods of 1-10 years at a time. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers manages this structure, known as the Domain Name System (DNS), and keeps it stable, overseeing registries (directories) and accrediting registrars (those with access to registries). In effect, the registrar acts as an agent between you and the registry and will generally collect a fee for doing so.
Naming Your Domain
Though there some exceptions, an ideal domain name is short, catchy, and intuitive. It looks good written down and sounds good when vocalized. It also helps if it is the same as the name of the site itself. If there is a business, product, print newspaper, or other specific entity that the website will be supporting, it probably makes sense to pick a similarly named domain.
Beyond the basic name, you also have to pick a Top Level Domain, the most popular of which are .com, .net, .org, and .info. In most cases, .com is best. If someone tells you to visit a website called “CityNews,” odds are good that the first thing you enter into your browser will be “CityNews.com.” It’s so popular that the term “dot com” has become synonymous with “website.” An exception to the preference of .com may be the use of .org when you want to put emphasis on the public service nature of your work (nonprofits, community organization, and so on).
If the domain you want is available, grab it ASAP, but be prepared for many or all of the first names you think of to be taken-especially if you’re looking for a .com. Along with this bad news, most registrars will show you whether or not other Top Level Domains with the same name are available. For example, if CityNews.com isn’t available, it might offer you CityNews.info. If you end up going with an alternative like this, make sure to visit the existing .com of the same name first. You wouldn’t want a misdirected potential reader going to the wrong place and finding something unrelated and offensive.
If you’re stuck and looking for name ideas, you could do what the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship did: enlist the help of a name generator like MakeWords or NameBoy. These tools don’t just rearrange the keywords you feed them, but provide all sorts of new ideas and allow for a bit of flexibility, allowing you to specify how you want the domain to start or end, whether or not it can use hyphens, etc. The generated ideas are accompanied by charts that give you a pretty good idea what’s currently available to buy. When I go to NameBoy and enter “news” as my primary keyword and “city” as my secondary, it returns, among hundreds of other available options, newscitycenter.com, updatecity.org, newsmetropolis.com, newsandcity.com, and infocitiez.com.
Choosing a Registrar
A key informational website, InterNIC, is home to the accredited registrar directory, which lists hundreds upon hundreds of places to get your domain name. Beyond these, you can get a domain through a reseller-a company that has partnered with a registrar in a sort of affiliate program so that it can sell registrations to its customers. So how does one choose from these thousands of possibilities?
As it turns out, there aren’t a whole lot of differences.
DomainTools has compiled a size-based ranking of all registrars with at least 1,000 domains as of the end of 2007. This may be useful if you want the to compare the established big-name services.
One other factor to consider is how various registrars deal with matters of free speech. The world’s two largest registrars, GoDaddy and eNom, have both been in the news in the last year or so for suspending accounts based on content (see here, here, here, and here). News.com surveyed 12 large registrars as to their suspension policies and found the “most extensive guarantees against unnecessary domain name suspension” with Gandi and DirectNIC. You can find the completed surveys (only 4 of the 12 actually responded), at the bottom of the News.com story.
Registrars, Hosting, and Ownership
A Web host is where the data of your site is actually stored. Hosting will be covered more thoroughly in the next Business Issues post, but I mention it here to make the point that registering your domain name and finding a host are two distinct steps. Some registrars offer hosting in order to sell a complete website package.
Having both in the same place may make things a little easier for you in terms of setup and getting support, but in the long-term it’s advisable to separate the two. Some companies will register the domain in their name, giving it to you as a “feature” of their web hosting or as a package deal. This could mean that you have no rights to the domain should you want hosting elsewhere or if the company goes under.
If you do decide to use one company for both domain registration and hosting, be sure to get in writing a guarantee that you will be able to transfer your domain without fees should you choose to go elsewhere. You can follow up on this by doing a WHOIS query through InterNIC or EasyWhois, which publicly display who a domain is registered to.
On a related note, some registrars offer a feature known as Private Registration for those who don’t want their personal information available through a WHOIS. This can shield you from spam and other unwanted contact and can help to prevent people from knowing your online activities (for example, business competitors who might be interested in the domains you register). To do this, the registrar completes registration under its own name and sets up a written agreement with you to ensure you retain ownership rights. While this is normal practice and there is always some sort of legal agreement involved, it’s a good rule of thumb to retain as much direct control as possible (like having your name on ownership documents).
Domain forwarding is the simple act of pointing your domain name to another location on the Web. There are generally two reasons to do this. First, many people don’t want to bother finding hosting and designing their own website, content to instead use a simpler service like Blogger, Geocities, or LiveJournal. Addresses for sites like these usually look something like http://yoursitename.blogspot.com or http://www.geocities.com/yoursitename. This sort of URL is harder to remember than a dedicated domain name and can make it harder to separate yourself from the crowd. People often have preconceived notions of cookie-cutter designs and content based on which of these popular sites you use. There is an air of credibility and professionalism that you get with your own domain name that is lost when you’re piggybacked on someone else’s.
With domain name forwarding, people visiting it might not even realize they were sent somewhere else. This is especially true if your registrar has a service called “masking,” which keeps your domain name in the user’s browser address bar even after forwarding. This, however, only works for the main page. So if, for example, a user were to click an “archives” link, the true URL will be revealed.
The second reason for domain forwarding is to direct traffic to your site from alternative spellings, incorrect top-level domains, and typos. For example, Google.com has also registered Google.biz, Google.net, Gogle.com, and Gogole.com. These are not independent sites, but rather redirect you to the main site. Even still, Internet marketers have made millions registering misspelled domain names like Giigle.com, Goggle.com, and Guugle.com. The same is true for alternative spellings. Rhode Island newspaper the Providence Journal made sure to forward providencejournal.com to their online presence, projo.com, but they missed theprovidencejournal.com, which has been exploited via ads and news-themed affiliate links.
This practice of registering alternative spellings, called cybersquatting, used to be a much bigger business. In 1999 it was made illegal in cases that met the following three criteria: the trademark owner’s mark is distinct or famous, the domain owner acted in bad faith to profit from it, and the domain name and trademark are either identical or confusingly similar. Unfortunately, since these three criteria all have to be satisfied, cybersquatting can be a tough case to make, so do register as many alternatives as you can.
*Keep your whois data up-to-date. You don’t want a notification that your domain is about to expire or was suspended sent to the wrong address.
*Register the domain under your name, not an employee’s, not the registrar’s, and not a pseudonym. The name on the page owns it.
*Do a WHOIS query through InterNIC or EasyWhois when you register and after each renewal to make sure the information is correct. In particular, look for your name and the expiration date. Some registrars have conducted transactions through which you pay them for an extended period, but they only register you for one year at a time, keeping the rest effectively like a loan. This makes for a big problem if you stop doing business with them and they stop renewing.
*Keep your login information secure. This is obvious, but your domain could potentially be your livelihood.
*Unless you’re in the middle of transferring it, “lock” your domain. This prevents you from accidentally falling prey to one of a multitude of transfer scams (a fake notice to renew actually transfers it to someone else).
(Ryan McGrady is a new media graduate student at Emerson College where he is studying knowledge, identity, and ideas in the information age.)