Domain vs URL: What’s the Difference?

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Are you trying to determine the difference between a domain vs URL? You aren’t alone. Even veteran internet surfers will use the two terms interchangeably. 

If you’ve landed here, it may be you’re looking into starting your own website and you know that the first thing you need is a website name and you may not know the difference between a domain vs URL. Or it may be that you’ve been on the World Wide Web for some time and your curiosity got the better of you today.

Either way, we’re glad you are joining us today. In this guide, you’ll learn all of the ins and outs of what a domain name is, how to secure one, and what the difference is between a domain vs URL. Let’s dive in!

In this guide

    What Exactly Is a Domain Name?

    Starting off your journey as a website owner means that you’ll need to purchase a website address. This is also called a domain, and relates directly to a URL (Uniform Resource Locator).

    To define the term domain, simply think of a website name as a home address. When you invite friends or family over to visit, the first thing you do is give them your address. The same principle applies to your domain name.

    But what are the origins of domains and how do they work?

    How Domains Work

    Your website domain is a unique set of characters. These characters identify your specific website. Every website page on the Internet is identified with its own dedicated IP address. This address is a unique series of numbers pointing users to your specific site.

    For example, an IP address will look like this:

    61.144.70.230

    Of course, you’ll notice an issue with this right away: Very few people would ever know how to find your website address if they needed to memorize your IP address.

    Domains: Better Than an IP Address

    This is where domain names enter the picture.Essentially, a domain name makes it exponentially easier for users to find your site without needing to remember the random strings of numbers in an IP address. Instead of users typing your IP address into their browser’s address bar, they type in your domain which points directly to your site’s URL.

    DNS and Nameservers

    When a user types in your domain, their browser searches the web through DNS (Domain Name System) and locates the name servers that are associated with your website’s hosting provider.

    In other words, if you’re using HostGator as your site host, the name servers look like:

    ns1.hostgator.com

    ns2.hostgator.com

    When the files that are stored on your host’s server are requested by a user, the server recognizes the request and sends your website files to the user to display on their device’s screen.

    domain vs URL

    Domain Classifications

    Domains are classified into two different levels:

    • TLD, short for top-level domains
    • SLD, short for secondary-level domain

    TLD and SLD Domains Explained

    Domains are comprised of the TLD (top-level domain) and the SLD (secondary level domain). No doubt you’ve seen these before, even if you weren’t aware of what’s going on behind the scenes.

    A domain name’s TLD, or the name extension, points to the classification to which the specific domain belongs to.

    TLD Extensions

    The most common of these domain extensions are:

    • .com for commercial businesses
    • .org for organizations and nonprofits
    • .edu for places of education
    • .net for network organizations
    • .mil for military sites
    • .ca for Canadian websites (every country has its own extension)
    • .gov for government institutions  

    Although those extensions are the most recognized, there are now nearly 13,000 other TLDs in use, like:

    • .tv
    • .blog
    • .io

    Many of the newer TLDs were reserved for specific companies at some point, but can now be used by anyone who wants to purchase a domain.

    SLD Explained

    An SLD, or second-level domain, is the specific website name that you choose, and the exact URL that your site visitors will use to access your site.  

    An SLD consists of literally any name or combination of numbers and letters that you choose, provided that the domain name isn’t already in use by somebody else.

    When choosing your domain name, try to only use two or three words together when you create it. It’s best to avoid long domains that are confusing or that people can’t easily recall.

    For example, on this website, the SLD is iThemes and the TLD is .com. By putting them together and typing ithemes.com into your browser, this website is returned to your screen by our servers.

    That’s simple enough, right?

    Now let’s dive into subdomains.

    What Is a Subdomain?

    A subdomain is an alternate to the original domain you’re using. Think of a subdomain as a child, and the main domain as its parent. A subdomain is its own unique website, completely separate from the main domain, but remains a part of it.

    Imagine that you wanted to create a second blog but wanted the new blog under the main domain that you’ve already chosen. Although that blog would still be connected to the main domain, it will have its own unique directory and pages that are stored within the subdomain.

    Let’s look at an example.

    Imagine that iThemes has decided to branch off and begin a blog about fitness and health. In such a case, we might launch a subdomain such as:

    Gethealthy.ithemes.com

    This subdomain would now have its own site under the parent name of ithemes.com.

    Some real-world examples of subdomains include:

    • Developers.facebook.com
    • Support.google.com

    Free subdomains are used extensively by many of the common website builders, such as wix.com, shopify.com, WordPress.com, and Squarespace.

    When you create a site on any of these website-building platforms, you’ll typically be given an immediate subdomain for use until you buy your own unique domain and connect it to your site.

    In other words, if you’re naming your site on Shopify “ShoesForGuys,” Shopify will provide you with a free subdomain:

    Shoesforguys.shopify.com

    What’s nice about subdomains is that you don’t need to buy additional domains when it’s time to create a needed division on your site. Using a subdomain is a great idea for new campaigns you create or breakout products that you’re looking to promote in a more visible way.

    Why Domains Are Important

    When learning the difference between domain vs URL, understanding what domains are and that they have different levels is great. But why does it matter?

    Prior to using a unique domain name or having it pointed to your site, there’s one important thing you need to do: Get the domain name registered.

    When you register a domain, it locks you in as the sole owner and it’s taken off the available market from being used by any other website owner. But not only do you have it locked in for as long as it’s registered in your name, you now have a much more professional appearance no matter if you’re operating a small business or you simply want to stand out from the crowd with your own domain as your email address.

    For example, if you purchase the domain shoesforguys.com, you can set up an email address such as owner@shoesforguys.com

    All you’ll need for this, after registering your domain, is to secure an email host. Email hosting will typically be provided by your web host. Of course, a simple Google search will turn up stand-alone email hosts that you can use as well.

    But none of this will matter until you purchase your domain.

    Where Do You Purchase Domains?

    The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is the organization in charge of domain names. ICANN grants domain registrars (the different places you go to “buy” your domain) with the authority to register unique domain names.

    Many websites are out there that will allow you to register your domain name. In reality, there are so many of them that it’s a bit overwhelming.

    The best places to start are:

    • Nexcess.net
    • Domain.com
    • Namecheap.com
    • Bluehost.com
    • Hostgator.com
    • Godaddy.com

    Not only do these sites offer domains, but many hosting companies do as well. 

    You can expect to pay around $12 – $20 per year for a domain name at any of these registrars. Some will even include a free SSL certificate to help secure your site once it’s live.

    An SSL certificate is what gives your users that green “lock” icon next to your URL, and changes your site from an http:// to an https:// prefix.

    Choosing a Domain Name

    After making your choice on a domain registrar, it’s time to dream up the domain name you’re going to use.

    If your plan is to create a personal online portfolio or blog, a lot of people will use their name. This will typically be available unless you have a common name such as Becky Smith.

    If the domain name you want to use is in question, simply use the section within the registrar that allows you to see if the one you want is available for purchase and use.

    Most registrars will also suggest alternate available domain names based upon what domain you want, even if the exact one you wanted isn’t available.

    If you’re stuck on what domain name you want to use, you can also use some of the available domain name generators for inspiration.

    Domain Wheel and Shopify Name Generator are good tools for this purpose. You’ll simply need to provide a minimum of two different names, at which point the generator mixes and matches them to find new and creative domain name suggestions that might work for you.

    If that doesn’t work, try brainstorming some ideas with family or friends, then see which of the ideas are available to purchase.

    Domain vs URL: What Can You Do With a Domain?

    After you’ve purchased your new and shiny domain, what do you do next?

    The first thing you’ll need to do is to secure website hosting with a company, like iThemes Hosting or Nexcess.

    There are many other options. Just remember that the best websites don’t run on $4 per month hosting platforms.

    It’s important to know that having your web hosting and domain name with the same company isn’t a requirement. It can, however, make the process of managing your website a bit simpler.

    If you need to transfer your domain to a host that didn’t register it, there are a few different requirements:

    1. At least 60 days have gone by since you registered the domain or last had it transferred.
    2. The domain can’t be in Pending Delete or Redemption status.
    3. The ownership details of the domain need to be valid.
    4. You must disable the privacy protection services if enabled.

    It can take a little time to transfer a domain, so be ready to wait a couple of days for the process to complete.

    If you want to keep your original domain registrar and use a different host, another option is to change the name servers.

    This process points your chosen domain to the website hosting server you choose. You’ll be able to manage all DNS records of the domain right from your host’s control panel without having to perform a full transfer.

    If you have questions on how to do this, the process should be covered in detail within your host’s documentation.

    What’s the Difference Between Hosting and a Domain?

    Remember, a domain is similar to a physical address. This makes a host similar to the house that’s sitting at that particular address. When it comes to hosting vs domain, it’s important to note how they’re different.

    A web host is the actual home of the servers that store your website files within a network. When a request for your site is made by a user to your domain, your host immediately serves the user all of the information on their server that is associated with the particular domain.

    Choosing a Domain Name

    Aside from using tools such as Shopify Name Generator and Domain Wheel mentioned earlier, what are some other tools you can use to help you find the perfect domain name for your site’s URL?

    Let’s look at a few right now.

    1. IsitWP

    The WP in this name is referring to WordPress. WordPress is a free and open source content management system. It’s the platform that around 60% of the sites you see on the Internet are built on.

    The site called IsitWP was originally built to help people analyze other people’s sites to see if they were running on the WordPress platform. 

    Knowing this makes the name “IsitWP” make a lot more sense.

    But this site also offers other free tools, including a domain name generator. IsitWP is a solid resource for people that are just getting into developing websites on WordPress.

    2. Bust a Name

    Originally landing on this site might throw you off a bit due to aesthetics. But don’t run away quite so fast.

    Bust a Name is a lot more about delivering good domain names than it is about graphic design. Although, you must admit that a well-designed site does make you want to use it a bit more (remember this when designing your own site!).

    Nevertheless, Bust a Name is very functional for the purpose of choosing a domain.

    All you need to do is input a few words in the first search box. The more descriptive words you put in, the better.

    Bust a Name will then generate suggested domain names that are currently available for purchase, based upon your input.

    You can then save the suggestions you like into a section where you can eventually choose the one that stands out to you the most.

    After your selection is made, you can purchase the domain name from them, or from any other registrar that you choose.

    3. Namesmith.io

    This site comes with great design and functionality. The design is sort of big and in your face, yet not overly obtrusive. In fact, it’s pleasing and feels welcoming.

    The primary focus of namesmith.io is to provide you with creative business names. When you’re feeling stuck on a domain or business name, they’ll offer you random names when you click a button.

    Although you may not choose to use the exact names they suggest, most often the suggestions will help inspire you to choose the name that’s best for you.

    Of course, namesmith.io is completely free to use. They make their money off of affiliate partnerships with domain registrars and various web hosting providers.

    What’s the Difference Between a Domain vs URL?

    At this point, you should have a much better idea of the difference between domain vs URL for the website you’re looking to create. Now it’s time for you to lock in your chosen URL before it’s taken by someone else.

    Even if you’re not ready to use the domain yet, why not register it for later use so that you’re guaranteed to have it available when it’s time to start building your site?

    As mentioned earlier, the WordPress content management system is one of the best ways to build a highly professional site, even for novices. But once your site is live, it’ll be time to take on-site security.

    Fortunately, iThemes Security has an easy-to-use WordPress security plugin that can take care of this for you. If you plan to manage multiple WordPress sites, you’ll also want iThemes Sync in your arsenal.

    But beyond that, keeping your site backed up at all times will help save you from tech headaches down the road. The WordPress backup plugin called BackupBuddy is your best solution for this.

    If all of this talk about domain vs URL sounds a little bit intimidating, the iThemes WordPress training courses will get you going faster than you may think.

    Get the bonus content: Getting Started with WordPress
    domain vs URL

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