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The Complete Guide to Domain Names: What Are They and How Do They Work

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To completely understand the internet, you need to have a pretty solid background in computer science, but to know how it works on a functional level, you don’t need that much and a good place to start is understanding domain names

By Ivy Stone

“The internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.”

This statement, made by US Senator Ted Stevens back in 2006, was an attempt to help clarify to the American public how the internet works to help pass a bill to regulate internet traffic.

However, despite Stevens’ comment about the internet as a series of tubes being comically inaccurate, it points to an important issue: very few of us actually know how the internet works. And considering how much we depend upon the internet for both work and entertainment, this is pretty shocking.

Consider another technology we use frequently – the automobile, for example. Most people don’t know all the specifics, but almost everyone who drives has a basic understanding of how the internal combustion engine works.

But for the internet, this is most often not the case. To many of us, this internet we depend on remains the work of some dark magic, some supernatural phenomenon that makes videos, articles, and photos of your entire social group having more fun than you right to a device we keep in our pockets.

It’s not dark magic, but it is pretty remarkable.

To completely understand the internet, you need to have a pretty solid background in computer science, but to know how it works on a functional level, you don’t need that much and a good place to start is understanding domain names.

Domain names play a pivotal role in ensuring the content you seek is the content displayed on your web browser, and if you run a business, organization, blog, or any other online entity, they can also have a significant impact on your ability to reach people and be successful, something that has helped change the registration of domain names into big business.

To clarify all this, here’s everything you need to know about domain names.

A Brief History of the Internet and How it Works

Although the average person didn’t have access to the internet until the 1990s, the internet has been around since the 1950s. It was started as a way to connect computers at different universities so that professors and other academics could more easily share their work.

By 1969, the computer scientists working on this got pretty good and managed to connect computers located at two totally different universities (UCLA and Stanford).

After this, many different networks developed that all did more or less the same thing, but they failed in one very critical way: different networks remained disconnected from one another, meaning there was not just one internet but rather many different, independent internets existing side by side.

This changed in 1974 when computer scientists Robert Kahn and Vinto Cerf developed what’s called “packet network communication.” Without getting too technical, this was essentially a way for computers on different networks to send information to computers on other networks so that both sides could understand it. In the paper published by Kahn and Cerf, the term “internet” was used for the first time. It comes from “inter-networking,” meaning the combination of different networks.

Fast forward to 1989 and we have the internet as we know it. Tim Berners-Lee invented the “world wide web” and the first web browser, both of which we still use today (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.).

All of this meant that computers could now talk to one another despite being connected on entirely separate networks. This was something never before possible and was considered truly groundbreaking. In its simplest terms, a browser acts as a portal to the internet. You type in a request, and the browser then goes and finds it, and then it displays it on your screen.

However, for this work, the browser needs to know what you’re looking for and also where to find it. And to do this, we need domain names.

What is a Domain Name?

In practical terms, a domain name is everything that exists between the https:// (which is always there but not always displayed) and the first slash, if there is one. So, if you look above, you’ll see the web address for a typical article on this blog is https:// (not shown) broadbandsearch.net/blog/keep-home-internet-safe-secure.

The domain name in this instance is “broadbandsearch.net.” Everything else is considered a subdomain, which will discuss later on.

Going beyond the practical and diving a bit into the technical, a domain name is a “human-readable identification string.” We say human-readable because it is made up of letters and numbers which a human can not only read and understand but also remember. And because the primary function of a domain name is to direct traffic to your website and your website alone, every domain name in the world is 100 percent unique.

After all, if you typed in a website and there were two identical versions, how would your computer ever know which one to display? It would be confusing for everyone, to say the least.

How Do Domain Names Work

At its most basic level, a domain name tells your browser where to look for a piece of information on the internet. To understand how it does this, it’s useful to know what each part of it tells your browser what.

For starters, all domain names belong to a Top-Level Domain (TLD), which are administered by the Domain Name System. TLDs are the .com, .org, .net, .edu, .gov, etc. extensions we see at the end of most domain names. Every domain name on the internet will “belong” to a Top-Level Domain. For example, the “broadbandsearch” domain name above is a part of the “.net” TLD.

So, when you enter something into the URL search bar of your browser – let’s use https:// (not shown) broadbandsearch.net/blog/keep-home-internet-safe-secure , your browser will see it is part of the .net TLD, so it will ask the servers in charge of this TLD where it can find the “broadbandsearch” domain, and then it will ask the servers where the domain is held where it can find the “blog” subdomain and then the exact page you’re asked it to display.

This all happens instantly, and your browser will by default store what it’s learned from this exchange of information so that the next time it’s asked to retrieve it things happen even more smoothly.

As we’ve mentioned, no two domain names can be the same, and now you should see why. If your browser found two pieces of information, it would never know which one to retrieve.

In this sense, it might be helpful to think of a domain name as a digital piece of property. When you purchase the rights to it, you become the one who controls the content that gets displayed on the domain and all its subdomains. And until you relinquish that control, no one else can change what’s associated with it.

Domain Names vs. URLs

You’ve no doubt heard the term domain name interchanged with URL on more than one occasion. Yet while they’re related to one another, they are not the same thing.

The domain name is in reality just one part of a URL, which stands for Uniform Resource Locator, sometimes referred to as a Uniform Resource Identifier (UFI).

But no matter which name you choose to use, the URL is the specific address of a piece of content that’s been uploaded to the web, including the TLD, domain name, and any other subdomains. It both identifies and locates the content, which is why when you type in a URL you can only ever go to one place on the internet.

So, you can see why it’s inaccurate to use domain name and URL interchangeably. A domain name only gets you in the neighborhood of the content you want, whereas the URL gives you the specific address.

Hosting and Domain Names

Owning a domain name is not enough to get a website up and running. To be visible to others connected to the web, a domain name needs to be hosted on a server.

Most hosting companies will allow you to purchase a domain name along with your hosting subscription, which makes it easier to get set up right away.

However, if you buy your domain name somewhere else, such as from a domain name registering company such as Go Daddy, or by negotiating the sale of a domain name privately, you will need to work with your hosting provider to make sure the domain you own is associated with your hosting account.

Domain Names and Your Website

As you can see, from a technical standpoint, the domain name of a website is important because it is how browsers find the content posted on the web and display it to eager users, viewers, workers, etc.

But beyond that, domain names play an important role in our online society. They are a powerful tool for building a brand and attracting visitors, and it’s for this reason we see some domains sold for such large amounts of money. It’s not just about having a place on the web but rather the place.

Here are a few reasons why this has become the case:

Name Recognition and Recall

One of the major reasons why domain names are valued as much as they are is because some are much easier to recognize, remember, and share.

In the early days of the internet, specific locations of pages were identified using numbers. But as the internet grew and became mainstream, this became impractical – too many numbers. And while at their core domain names remain just a series of numbers, to us they are made up of letters and numbers, which means we can remember them.

Of course, some words are easier to remember than others, which is why some domain names are quite valuable.

The role a domain name plays in getting a website’s name out there is why you rarely see websites with dashes and other punctuation, and also why many companies these days choose names that are slight misspellings of a word, either to help them stand out or because the domain name for that word was taken. A good example is Lyft.

Branding and Marketing

This characteristic of domain names comes in handy, particularly in branding and marketing. An easy-to-remember domain name can help get a name stuck in people’s heads, but perhaps more importantly, a domain name, or rather the TLD portion of your domain name, can tell people a lot about your company,

These affect perceptions because they used to mean something. For example, in the past, to get a .org domain name, you needed to be a registered non-profit organization, otherwise, it was off-limits. For-profit companies were assigned .com. Other TLDs, such as .gov and .edu, also had specific requirements, and still do. However, the other domain names have become interchangeable; one no longer needs to be a non-profit organization to get a .org domain name.

Other TLDs once considered out of fashion, such as .net, have become more mainstream, and others, such as .co or .io, have become trendy, indicating to visitors that they’ve reached the site of a forward-thinking body.

Of course, it takes a lot more than just registering a domain name to enshrine perceptions in the eyes of your site’s visitors, but it is an important piece to that puzzle.

Search Engine Optimization

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of designing content for the web specifically to reach the number one position on a search engine’s Search Engine Results Page (SERP). The main target of SEO is Google, but Bing and Yahoo! remain relevant.

For SEO to be successful, you need to know roughly how Google and other search engines work.

In short, they use bots to crawl the web and search for new pages. When they find something, they scan (reads, analyzes for images, investigates for backlinks, etc.) to determine relevance and authority. When it finds something highly-relevant to a particular search term and also an authoritative enough source to be trusted, the algorithm promotes the page until it reaches the front page, which we all know is the only page of Google search results that actually exists.

Many different factors go into Google’s algorithm for determining relevancy and authority, but some of the most significant include the actual content itself and links pointing to that page. But there are a whole host of other factors that, when combined, have a dramatic effect on search results. Included in this list are domain and subdomain names, as search bots use these to help index the page and determine the relevance of the page to the search term in question.

Domain Names and SEO

Having a domain name that is related to the topics for which you’re hoping to rank is quite important. For example, if you were trying to rank for men’s health supplies and your domain name is ryans-shop.com, this doesn’t tell a search engine much about the contents of the site.

Domains also help because they carry referring domains with them. These are the number of sites that link to another site, and it’s a huge factor in SEO because it counts as an endorsement for that content, which boosts its authority.

For this reason, older domain names that have been around for some time and have been receiving steady traffic, as well as links, are going to be significantly more valuable than a domain name that’s just been registered.

As with the other things we’ve discussed, just having the right domain name doesn’t guarantee good ranking results, but it certainly helps, and the SEO industry is helping to make domain names more important than they’ve ever been.

Frequently Asked Questions About Domain Names

Hopefully, we’ve covered most of the questions you might have about domain names, but here are some further questions you might have:

What is the average cost of a domain name?

There are often two separate prices when registering a domain name: an upfront fee and a monthly charge. The more valuable the domain name, or the more popular the register thinks it will be, the more expensive both with be. Prices can range from just a few dollars to thousands and even more, depending on the name you want to register. It’s best to compare what different registration services are willing to charge you.

Do domain names expire?

Not really. Not in the sense that they go away. But your ownership of the domain name is not permanent. In fact, when you pay for a domain name, it’s really a temporary contract that grants you the right to control the content hosted on that domain.

If we think of it this way, you can’t ever actually own a domain name, and this means that if you don’t renew your registration subscription when it’s due, you will no longer have access to the domain name you’ve been thinking of all along as “yours.”

Can I use a domain name that’s already in use?

If someone already has the domain name you want, you’re kind of out of luck. These are unique identifiers, which means there can’t be more than one. If you’re desperate for the one that’s taken, you can try to contact the site and see if they will sell it to you.

When considering buying a domain name, remember that you’re never really buying “it” since there is not an “it.” Instead, you’re buying the right to control “it,” which you will need to pay to maintain. So, when you buy a domain name, you are paying the person who currently pays to control it for the right to pay to control it yourself.

In some cases, this is totally worth it, but there are other options, such as using a different TLD or slightly changing the spelling of the name you seek, that might be cheaper, less hassle, and equally as effective.

How do you sell a domain name?

If you have a website with a domain name you think is valuable, but you don’t need it, you can sell it for some cash. You can do this by placing an ad on the site so that visitors know it’s up for sale, you can post it in domain name auctions such as Flippa, NameCheap and Sedo, or you can try to sell it online or with the help of a broker.

Conclusion

You probably never knew the whole world that exists behind domain names. There’s money, strategy, computer science, and much more.

They’re not just how we identify a website. In fact, one could even say they are a critical piece to the process that makes the internet run. Feel good you now know far more than you ever about how this age-defining technology works.

Source: Broad Band Search

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