This is part of an introductory guide to buying and owning domain names, written by Mary Gardiner for LinuxChix in 2004. It is no longer being updated but is available for modification and republication under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike licence.
This lesson will discuss the pros and cons of "registering" (getting the right to use) a domain name, as opposed to having email, web and other services located in someone else's domain (often an ISP's). Keep in mind that I'm not an evangelist: if the benefits of a domain name don't sound worth it to you, you're probably right.
Throughout this lesson, I'll talk about owning "example.com". example.com isn't actually available for registration, it's set aside specifically for use in examples like these. Similarly, I'll use "example.net" to refer to an imaginary ISP, and occasionally "example.org" as another example of a domain name.
These are the most common reasons to consider owning a domain name. Not all of these will apply to everyone, in particular points 4 and 5 apply more to businesses:
One common approach to email and web hosting is to use your ISP's (normally free) web space and email address associated with your account. In some cases your "ISP" may be an employer or educational institution who gives you access.
Typically you'll end up with a URL like http://example.net/~username/ or http://users.example.net/username/ and an email address like firstname.lastname@example.org.
This email address will be associated with your Internet service. If you switch ISPs (or employers!), you change email addresses, with all the associated hassle of letting everyone know your new email address, changing mailing list subscriptions and often, if you had a lot of correspondents, keeping your old account open for six months or so to try and catch mails to your old address.
The same logic applies to your webpage. http://example.net/~username/ will be normally be taken down when you cease paying example.net for Internet service.
The entire idea of the domain name system is that your domain name can change hosts, and do so transparently. If you change your domain name host, you can set up your domain name on another host on the other side of the world and keep your email address. The links to your website will not break. You can often set things up so that users won't even notice the actual period of the move.
hotmail.com is the canonical example of a cluttered namespace. If you go and sign up for a hotmail.com account today, there's a reasonably good chance you'll end up with an address like email@example.com because simple @hotmail.com email addresses had all disappeared by about 1998. ISPs tend to have less customers than Hotmail and don't suffer so badly, but it's still pretty common that you end up as firstname.lastname@example.org or something of the kind.
Once you own example.com, you are free to choose any @example.com address you like (actually, by custom, a few like email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org have specific uses — see RFC 2142 — but that's still a lot of freedom!)
Once you own example.com, you can do things like set up a number of email@example.com email addresses for different purposes, and a number of something.example.com subdomains for different websites. I create a lot of 'junk' email addresses, for example, to give to people who I suspect may hand my address on to spammers.
Similarly, once you have a domain name, you can create subdomains (domains like subdomain.example.com and anothersubdomain.example.com and yet.another.subdomain.example.com are all subdomains of example.com) at will. The "www" that goes in front of many domain name's website domain is in fact a subdomain like any other, although it's so universal that many people don't realise that's it's just a convention.
ISPs generally set a limit on the number of email addresses and web spaces you can associate with a given account -- that limit is often equal to 1, especially for webspaces. Domain name hosts often will too, but you can increase this limit arbitrarily by switching hosts.
Once you have a domain name, the possibility of a more or less unbounded number of websites and email addresses opens up. If your company grows from 10 to 1000 employees, you can add email addresses for them as needed. If you become addicted to web publishing, you can set up a new subdomain for every new project. Moreover, you can host these email addresses and subdomains on a common server and exert control over all of them from a single point.
If you're running a business, particularly a computing business, a URL like http://example.net/~businessname/ and an email address like firstname.lastname@example.org can be off-putting for customers. They're not very well branded, they're difficult to remember, and they're difficult to dictate over the phone. It's a pain to associate an email address with a task (compare email@example.com with firstname.lastname@example.org).
Finally, Internet literate customers will be suspicious because ISP hosting or free services like hotmail.com are:
Internet literate customers will most likely be familiar with the high level of "rot" associated with ISP accounts and free accounts, and associate that transientness with your business, especially now that it is becoming positively rare to encounter a business online without its own domain name.
See, for example, Kirrily Robert's guide to hiring web people, which suggests that you avoid hiring:
Anyone who attempts to present themselves as a professional web consultant but does not have a business card, letterhead, or their own domain name and web server.
3. A domain name is distinctive name, such as "mycompany.com" which represents a business on the Internet. Companies usually have their own web server located at an address like http://www.mycompany.com/. Any business which does not do this is being incredibly cheap; the cost of a domain and web server address can be as little as a couple of hundred dollars. Be particularly wary of any web business that has a web page on GeoCities, Angelfire, Xoom, or other free web hosting services.
[Note that "a couple of hundred dollars" is an over-estimate these days unless you're running your own server in a colocation facility. See the "Cons" section for more details.]
Here are some potential downsides to owning a domain name. Again, not all of these will apply to everyone:
Unless someone gives you a subdomain of their domain, you will normally need to pay a domain registrar for your domain. This is not a once-off cost: they generally require that you renew your domain on a yearly basis. Expect to pay about US$15 per year per domain. Sometimes it's a bit cheaper per year if you're prepared to register or renew a domain for a number of years upfront, but the saving isn't dramatic.
Many ISP accounts come with free webhosting and an email address, and there are lots of free webmail providers around. However, most ISPs do not offer a free "virtual hosting" web service (the ability to host your domain on their machines), nor do they commonly offer a service allowing you to receive mail for email@example.com in their mailboxes. Likewise, the free email providers expect you to use their domain names.
There are many services that have fairly cheap domain hosting facilities (I will mention some later in the course and others will have suggestions too), and the occasional free service. However the free services will almost always have restrictions on the number of subdomains and email addresses they will host for you, and their business model tends to rely on inserting advertising material into your site.
Domain name hosting is perceived as a service which users will pay for. As an estimate, for reasonably unrestricted hosting for a low bandwidth (not very popular) site expect to pay US$3 - US$10 a month, more if you host it in a country where bandwidth is expensive (like Australia).
Back when people were snapping up simple @hotmail.com addresses, many simple domain names were vanishing too. It's nowadays quite an achievement to manage to register a .com , .net or even .org address which has a single English word as the second level part of it (the bit before the .). In fact, it was an achievement back in 2000 when I registered puzzling.org
The problem is nowhere near as bad as it is for @hotmail.com addresses, but you will probably have to do some hunting for a short, memorable, and meaningful domain name.
Many people are used to sending email entirely to @yahoo.com and @hotmail.com. For a long time after I stopped using my @hotmail.com address, my mother kept trying to mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org@hotmail.com.
This is especially a problem if you don't get a .com address. ("I'm mary at example dot org." "What?" "mary at example dot o-r-g" "Oh! mary at example dot o-r-g dot com?"...)
This is less a problem on the web, as people will normally find your web page by clicking on links or doing web searches.
This one should be fairly self-explanatory: moving from email@example.com to firstname.lastname@example.org isn't made easier by the fact that you control example.com.
Buying and owning a domain name: Why own a domain name? by Mary Gardiner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.