Getting the right domain name for your blog or website is critical. In this guide you’ll find everything from how to pick the best domain (that’s actually available) to where and how to buy the domain. You’ll also learn how to value a domain name and which add-ons are worth the price and which ones to avoid.
Buying my first domain name was a frustrating process. First there was coming up with one for my personal finance site that I liked. Then it was hoping and praying that the domain wasn’t already taken. As I share in my story about building an online business, I settled on doughroller.net. Probably not the best domain, but I’m not complaining.
I’ve learned a lot about domains since 2007. I’ve registered dozens of domains, bought a few, and sold a few. Based on this experience, this guide walks you through everything you need to brainstorm a great domain, check to see if it’s available, and then to buy it before somebody else snaps it up.
Table of Contents
- What is a domain name
- How to pick a domain name
- What’s the value of a domain
- Where to register your domain
- How long should you registered your domain name?
- Should you buy add-ons
- Final Thoughts
What is a domain name?
Let’s start with the basics. A domain name is what users type into a search browser to find your website. Also referred to as the url (Uniform Resource Locator), few people give much thought to the components making up a url. Pro bloggers, however, need to know how domains work.
Let’s look at an example: https://www.example.com.
https://: The Protocol
example: Domain Name (also called the Second Level Domain)
com: Top Level Domain (TLD)
There are a few important observations about the above example.
First, when selecting a domain, you must pick both the domain and the TLD. Don’t worry about the protocol or subdomain. You control both of these once you have your domain and TLD.
Second, there are countless options when it comes to the TLD. Without question a .com is the most popular. In addition, .net and .org are common TLDs. You’ll also see .biz and .info from time to time. Today it’s even possible to create your own TLD, but the cost makes it impractical for most.
Third, subdomains are controlled by the owner of the domain. Once you own a domain, you can create any subdomain you want. For one site I owned I create a tools subdomain where I built financial calculators.
Finally, the protocol above has an ’s’ at the end. That stands for “secure” and indicates that the domain is using a technology called secure socket layer, or SSL for short. SSL encrypts communications between the user’s web browser and the website’s server. A protocol of http (hyper text transfer protocol) without the ’s’ indicates that the communication is not secure.
As you’ll learn in my guide to setting up a blog like a pro, every WordPress environment should have an SSL certificate and use the https protocol.
How do pick a domain name
Here we need to consider both the domain name and the TLD. Let’s start with the domain.
As you sit in front of your laptop searching for domains that aren’t already taken, some crazy ideas enter your mind. Just remember this—one seems cute or funny at 2 am in the morning isn’t so funny when you are trying to get the attention of the New York Times. Pick your domain name with care. It’s the one thing you can’t easily change once you’ve built a successful website.
Here are my 7 Rules for Picking a Domain:
- Shorter domain names are better than longer names;
- Easy to spell domains are better than those with tricky spellings;
- Easy to remember domains are better than those that aren’t;
- Easy to pronounce domains are better that those that aren’t;
- Domains without hyphens are better than those with hyphens;
- Avoid using numerals in your domain;
- Branding is better than keyword based domains, but it can be a close call.
Number seven is worth spending some time on. What do I mean by branding versus keyword based domains? Here are some examples in the credit card space:
- Creditcards.com (keyword based domain)
- Nerdwallet.com (a little of both, but primarily branding)
- Comparecards.com (a little of both, but primarily keyword)
- Valuepenguin.com (branding)
Think of keyword based domains as domain names that contain generic words people search for in Google.
Here’s the thing to remember. Keyword based domains are great if it’s an exact match to the niche you’ve selected and it’s short (e.g., creditcards.com, cars.com, rothira.com). As you might imagine, however, most exact match domains of any value have already been registered.
Finding a balance between keywords and branding is your best bet. Here, nerdwallet.com and comparecards.com are good examples. The names relate to the subject matter of each website, are easy to spell and pronounce, and are memorable (at least Nerd Wallet is).
Now to the Top Level Domain (TLD). Without a doubt .com TLDs are best. That said, I built a multi-million dollar blog (doughroller.net) on a .net extension. My good friend J.D. Roth built a very popular and profitable blog with a .org extension (getrichslowly.org).
Still, the .com TLD is what most people type into a web browsers by default. Over the years running my .net blog I had countless people tell me they had trouble finding the site because the assumed it was a .com.
Once you’ve got an idea of the domain you want, it’s time to register it. Here’s where one big problem will likely arise. You’ve decided on the perfect name only to find out it’s not available. It will happen. Guaranteed.
How to Get an Available Domain Name You Like
When this happens you have several options:
- Pick a totally different domain name;
- Try to buy the domain from the current owner;
- Get the same name with a different TLD; or
- Modify the domain name in some way until you find one that’s available.
Option #1 is self-explanatory. Let’s take a closer look at the other options.
Buying a Domain
Buying a domain name is intimidating for beginners. I didn’t know what I was doing when I bought my first one. I paid $15,000 for it. In the end, it was a painless process and well worth the cost. More recently I bought this domain, robberger.com for $250.
The process is easy if the domain is owned by a service that’s in the business of buying and selling domains. They advertise a price, and you buy it or not. Of course you can negotiate as well. But they are in the business of selling domains. I bought this domain with a few clicks of the mouse.
If the domain is owned by an individual, as was the case with my $15,000 purchase, it can take some time. It took my over a year. Seriously. At first he claimed it was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It took him a year or so to come back down to reality.
Anyway, the point is you can buy a domain if there’s one you just have to have. For beginners, I’d avoid this approach if at all possible.
Use a Different TLD
It’s tempting to get the domain you want but with a different TLD. Today there is an explosion of TLDs. Here’s my advice. If you can’t find a .com domain you like, try again. If that fails, try at least five more times. Only then consider .net or .org. Don’t bother with other TLDs, like .co. Before you move away from a .com, however, consider modifying the domain name.
Modify the Domain Name
Some great domains are a combination of a keyword with a memorable modifier. Imagine you want to start a blog about student loans. I guarantee you that studentloan.com is already taken. So one entrepreneur landed on studentloanhero.com. I interviewed one of the founders of Student Loan Hero, Andrew Josuweit, back in 2016. LendingTree acquired SLH in 2018 for a cool $60 million (I’m sure my interview of Andrew had nothing to do with it).
The point is they took a keyword, student loan, and added hero to create a meaningful, memorable domain. It’s a great recipe for finding a solid domain that’s still available.
Here are a few examples to help spark your inspiration:
And then there’s the totally creative angle:
To see if a domain name is available, you can use this free tool from Bluehost:
What’s the value of a domain?
There’s one final consideration. Some attempt to assess the value of the keywords an exact match or near exact match url. Frankly, I’m skeptical that this is a good approach. Still, there are many tools available to estimate the value of a keyword.
Let’s using moneysavingmom.com as an example. What’s the value of the keyword “money savings”? Using a tool like ahrefs, we can estimate the cost to bid on that keyword through Google Adwords.
Simply type “money savings” into the keyword tool at ahrefs, and here is some of the data you’ll see:
You could then compare the value to other similar keywords you were considering. For example, savingmoneymom.com. By simply reversing the order of the keyword, the value changes:
You’ll notice that the estimated search volume is notably higher for “saving money” than it is for “money saving,” which makes sense. How much this influence your selection is up to you. I focus more on branding than keywords. Still, it’s useful to understand the search volume and potential CPC (cost per click) of any keywords you may include in a domain name.
Where to register your domain
Once you’ve found a domain, it’s time to register it. That raises the question of where you should register your domain. Price is certainly a consideration, but so is the reputation of the registrar and ease of use of their website.
Here it’s important to distinguish between a domain name and hosting. You don’t have to host your blog at the same place where you register your domain. I have all of my domains registered at GoDaddy and Bluehost. Yet I don’t host any websites at GoDaddy and most of my sites are hosted at WP Engine.
ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, regulates the registration of domain names. They maintain a registry listing of companies through which you can register a new domain name. It’s longer than Sunday morning sermon.
Rather than wade through it, I suggest registering your domain with Bluehost. If you host there you get your domain for free for the first year. They also throw in a free SSL certificate. If you choose not to host with Bluehost, the cost is just $11.99/year for a .com.
I’ve also found the way Bluehost organizes your domain names to be simple and easy to use. You can quickly move from one domain to the next to make any changes to nameservers or other settings. I’ve also transferred domains to and fro Bluehost without an issues.
There are of course many other options. Google offers domain names for $12 a year. The domain comes with free privacy. As I mentioned, I’ve also used Godaddy and very much like its interface.
How long should you registered your domain name?
A common question I get is whether you can register a domain name for life. The short answer is no. There is no option to permanently register a domain. There are, however, some workarounds that will effectively enable you to buy a domain name forever.
First, you can register a domain for multiple years at one time. The longest I’ve seen is 10 years, which is how long I registered my flagship site back in the day through Bluehost.
Second, you can set your domain to auto-renew. When your registration is about to expire, the registrar will automatically renew it. Here it’s important to keep your credit card on file updated. Also, I set reminders as I don’t want to risk losing an important domain because the hosting company’s auto-renew functionality doesn’t work for some reason.
Should you buy add-ons?
Regardless of where you buy your domain, you’ll be offered add-ons. One such add-on is privacy protection. At Bluehost, it costs $11.88 per year. Privacy Protection keeps your personal contact information private. If somebody tries to reach the contact information associated with your domain (all domains must have contact information), it will go to Bluehost. Bluehost will then in turn send it to you.
The big question is whether you need it. My rule of thumb is that it’s best to have publicly available whois information. Studies suggest that it can be a positive factor for both SEO and email deliverability. I’m not convinced it’s a significant factor, but why take the chance.
That said, what you don’t want to do is make public your personal address, telephone number and email address. It will open you to spammers and potentially worse. If you are just starting out, haven’t formed a business, or work from home, pay for the privacy protection. Once you have an office or at least a business address you can use, make your information publicly available.
Some companies will try to sell you on extra security. They offer malware scans of your site, for example. They may also try to sell you on automatic renewals of your domain. Pass on all of these.
A good host should cover much of your security needs, and plugins (e.g., Sucuri) can handle additional security needs. As for automatic renewals, just about all registrars offer this for free (they want the revenue, after all).
You may want to buy multiple TLDs to protect your brand. If you register yourgreatsite.com, you may not want somebody else snapping up yourgreatsite.net. In the past I’ve purchased the .com, .net and .org of a domain for just this reason.
In some cases you’ll be offered a free website. While it may sound like a good deal, it’s better to pass. Keep in mind that WordPress is free. What registrars are offering in this case, however, is a “free” website on their own platform. You’ll be beholden to their platform, and the free typically goes away after the first year.
You don’t need to buy an SSL certificate with your domain name. You’ll get this as part of your hosting package (at least with the hosting companies I use and recommend).
Finally, you may be offered email. If your website is yourgreatsite.com, for example, you could set you an email address of [email protected] You should pass on this, too.
The best way to get email setup for any site is to use Google’s G Suite. It’s very inexpensive, Google has the best spam filter, and you won’t be tied to a specific hosting company.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Buying a Domain Name
This video walks you through the steps to register a domain name:
A good domain name is the foundation for any blog or website. It gets harder and harder each day to find a great domain that’s available. Yet with a little creativity, you can find a domain name that will suit your blog or company well and registered it for just a few dollars.