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A Domain To Call Your Own

Staking out your territory on the Web is like one of those Old West land rushes. You dash in, find a scrap of free land, put up a signpost and a barbed-wire fence, and try to make something of it. The digital equivalent of that signpost and fence--also known as a domain name--is easily within your reach.

So how do you get your name in front of the .com? It all comes down to three steps:
  1. Figure out where your site will be hosted. All the pages and images that make up your site have to live on a server somewhere on the great electronic frontier, generally with your ISP or a third-party host.

  2. See if the domain name you want is already taken. If it is, then you'll have to negotiate with the current domain holder or think of another name. If not, then you're ready for step three. Register your new domain. This process connects the domain you've chosen with the server hosting your new site.

  3. If your budget is really tight, you can take care of all three steps in one fell swoop, without spending a penny. Then again, you often get what you pay for, and if your needs are more than basic, be prepared to pay for them.

The Free Approach

If you don't have your heart set on having your own domain name--www.yourname.com--you can spare yourself the expense and get the next-best thing: your own subdomain (yourname.theirname.com) on a free server. The catch: You'll have to live with someone else's name in the URL and put up with their advertising on your site.

Tripod (www.tripod.com) and Freeservers.com (www.freeservers.com) give away subdomains for free. You get 11MB and 20MB respectively to store your Web site, and both services let you sign up online. The process can take fewer than 10 minutes, and your new domain is ready almost immediately.

Free pointers to existing sites. If you already have a place to store your Web pages, web.com (www.web.com) will give you a subdomain--in this case, yourname.web.com--that points to it. In other words, if your ISP gives you free server space along with your Internet access account, you can build your site there and direct people to it with your web.com URL.


Find a Host

If you're absolutely set on getting a domain of your own, without anyone else's name or advertising getting in the way, you must first figure out where your site will be hosted--that is, where the files and images and all the rest will be stored.

Before you start looking for a host, find out if you already have one. Most ISPs give users a small amount of server space with their Internet access accounts. If your site is going to be relatively simple, you can probably make do with the space that your provider has waiting for you.

If server space isn't part of your current arrangement, it's time to find a host. There are two ways to go: free and for-fee. If your needs are very simple, free hosting might be just fine. But a willingness to pay can mean faster site response, more server space, and additional perks that nobody's going to give you gratis.

Freeservers.com, (www.freeservers.com) Web1000, (www.web1000.com) and WebJump (www.webjump.com) will all host your site without a setup charge or a monthly service charge. They recoup the costs of Web hosting by plastering banner ads on your pages. All three provide 20 to 25MB of storage and place no limit on bandwidth (meaning there's no limit to the number of times your pages get served to visitors). At Web1000 and WebJump, you can register a domain at the same time you sign up for the hosting service; there are blanks on the registration form for this purpose. With Freeservers.com, you need to register the domain yourself.

If you have from $5 to $40 a month to burn and need speedy, reliable, ad-free service, a fee-based hosting service is the way to go. Your ISP may offer hosting packages. If not, check out what other ISPs offer; prices vary depending on the amount of space your pages take up and the traffic they generate. For full-fledged Web hosting, including FTP drop boxes (for file transfers) and debuggers for your CGI scripts (the programs that make pages interactive), you'll be looking at $30 or so a month, usually with a surcharge on data transfers of more than 2GB in a given month.

Shop around! To compare specific Web hosting plans, search for ISPs. Visit the home site of each ISP that appears in your search results to find out exactly what it offers in the way of hosting--and for how much.

Want to build a free website right now? See our Free Website Hosting Guide to get started quickly and easily.


Picking a Domain Name

This is where the fun starts: After you've figured out the hosting side of things, it's time to grab a domain name. But before you can do that, the name must be available. You think you're the first to come up with a particular catchy name? Find out for sure.

The best places to research domain name ideas are domain registration sites such as Network Solutions (www.networksolutions.com) or Register.com. (www.register.com) Both services have domain-checking forms--simply enter the name you've thought up and click the Go or Check It button.

If a name is taken, Register.com provides a link to contact information for the domain holder (in case you want to negotiate with them for the name). At Network Solutions, it's a little harder--you must go to its Whois lookup form (www.networksolutions.com/cgi-bin/whois/whois) and enter your domain name idea in the box there.

A few details regarding domain names: They cannot contain spaces--only numbers, letters, and hyphens are allowed. They cannot have more than 22 characters total (not including the www or the .com). And although it may be possible to register a domain that contains someone else's trademark, you won't be able to keep it if the trademark holder demands it.

Real domains for free--but not with .com. You can register a real domain, not a subdomain, without charge--but the catch is, it won't end in .com. U.S. geographical domains (those ending in .us) are free to register, though you still need a server to host them. Such domains are most commonly registered by schools and local government agencies, but any U.S. resident is eligible for one--so long as they don't mind a domain like yourname.armonk.ny.us. To find out more about geographic domain registration, check out The US Domain Registry home page; (www.nic.us/) you can apply for a domain on the spot.


Register It Yourself

When you find a domain name that hasn't been snapped up, register the sucker! For do-it-yourself registration, you'll need a credit card, the available name, and (ideally) the names and IP addresses of two domain name servers controlled by the Web hosting service you've selected. (The hosting service should provide you with this information when you sign up.) You'll be shelling out $70 for the first two years of your domain's life.

Don't always go for convenience. Your ISP or third-party hosting service may offer to register your domain for you. But if you register the domain yourself, you are the sole point of contact for that domain, so if you decide to change hosts, you don't need to consult with the company you're dropping. For instance, let's say you have your site hosted by Freeservers, and suddenly you decide you need to start paying your ISP--Mindspring--for some advanced hosting services. You have to get your domain switched to the new host. The outfit handling the switch must send e-mail to all parties associated with the domain, and if you're the sole contact, nobody else can hold up the transfer. That isn't necessarily the case if you let someone else handle your domain registration.

There are several domain registrars accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (www.icann.org) (the nonprofit organization that is slowly assuming responsibility over the Internet's domain name system), but the best-known are Network Solutions (www.networksolutions.com/) and Register.com. (www.register.com/) Both handle .com, .net, and .org domains. Register.com can also give you overseas domains such as .co.uk (the British equivalent of .com) and .net.nz. They work somewhat differently.

Competitive registrars. If you're interested in using a registrar other than Network Solutions or Register.com, you can find a complete list (www.icann.org/registrars/accredited-list.html) at ICANN's Web site. This resource is particularly useful if you're registering a domain outside of the United States, as several international registrars are listed.

Network Solutions needs to know where your new site will exist, so to register a domain name at Network Solutions, you must fill in two domain name server addresses (they look something like ns3.freeservers.com) and their IP numbers (which look like 209.210.67.153). Once you've entered the information, you arrive at a secure server to pay your registration fee by credit card. (All registrations must now be paid for in advance, a new requirement as of October 1999.)

Register.com's process in my tests yielded results faster than Network Solutions'. You can register and pay for a domain without providing domain name server information, but your domain stays parked on Register.com's servers until you get your act together. Then you can log into Register.com's Manage My Domain (register.com/my-account/index.cgi?1|195080945) and click the Domain Name Servers option to change addresses.

Real names for free sites. If you've been happily maintaining a Web site at Tripod, (www.tripod.com/) GeoCities, (www.geocities.com/) or some other free hosting service, you can point your new domain to that existing site by signing up with a domain "forwarding" service like NameSecure. (www.namesecure.com/) For a $25 setup fee and $25 a year, NameSecure redirects e-mail and Web site traffic for your domain to any mailbox and Web site you choose. (Some ISPs offer similar services; check if yours does.)


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