Every website you visit has a name, and that name always ends with a dot and a suffix: .com, .net, .org, etc. That suffix is called a Top-Level Domain, or TLD. The TLD is sometimes known as the domain suffix.
It’s called the top-level domain because it’s the highest level of a hierarchical structure. If you consider a website called example.com, example.com is the domain name,.com is the top-level domain. There are other domain levels; “example” is the second-level domain.
You can request example.com through your browser, either by keying it into the search field or clicking a link. When you do so, your request ignores all the .org and .net websites in the world. It looks only at those that end with the correct TLD, namely, .com.
What’s the Purpose of TLDs?
A TLD has two important jobs. It not only helps direct an internet search but also tells the world something about what kind of website the domain name belongs to.
Describing the site
The top-level domain name communicates something about the site. When you see .edu, you know it’s a school. With .gov, it belongs to some kind of government agency. There are also country-based TLDs such as .uk and .us.
.com is the most popular TLD for commercial businesses. .org was originally intended for non-profit organizations, and .net for organizations that provided IT services, especially internet services. However, these days there’s some crossover in the use of these three. Some companies try to stand out by adopting their own TLDs. Examples are .google and .oracle.
Still, when you see .com, .org, .net, or .edu, you have a pretty good idea of what sort of website you can expect to find.
The TLD is an important factor in DNS, which is critical to locate the website you’re looking for and giving your browser the information it needs to find it. When you request a website, you specify a domain name. However, the domain name isn’t how the site is known on the internet. It’s identified by its internet protocol address or IP address. The IP address is a pattern of numbers and dots such as 126.96.36.1999.
The DNS, or domain name system, maps the domain name to the IP address. It takes the domain name from your browser’s request and makes a series of queries until it locates the corresponding IP address. It returns that IP address to your browser so that your browser can request the site in a language that the internet understands.
There are more than 300 million sites on the internet, so DNS needs some ways to narrow down its search. The first level of refining the search is via the TLD. If you ask for the website example.com, DNS looks at the domain name and sees that the TLD is .com. Therefore, the first query is to a TLD server. Specifically, it’s to a .com TLD server that carries information for .com websites only.
There are other steps that narrow down the DNS search, but the TLD query is the first. It eliminates all the sites in .org, .net, etc., and looks only for websites that end in .com.
How did TLDs originate? Who assigns TLDs?
As the internet began to grow, it soon became obvious that was unrealistic to expect users to memorize IP addresses. ARPANET, established by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense, created the domain name system, including TLDs, to address this issue.
Today, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the authorizing body for TLDs. However, ICANN delegates the responsibility. For instance, VeriSign, an American company, controls .com and .net TLDs.
There used to be a small, limited number of TLDs, However, over the past decade, ICANN has relaxed its control, and there has been an increase in the number of TLDs, especially those used for company trademarks or other special purposes.
A few TLDs remain untouchable by outsiders. .edu is still restricted to educational institutions and .gov may be used only by government entities.
Types of TLDs
Different types of TLDs include generic, country-code, sponsored, and infrastructure TLDs. In addition, there are reserved TLDs that will never be allowed.
Generic TLDs (gTLDs)
Generic top-level domains are the most common and widely used. The best known gTLDs are .com, .net and .org. At one time it was difficult to create new gTLDs because ICANN didn’t often allow it. However, they changed their policy in 2010, and since then gTLDs have proliferated, and now there are over 1,000. There are several varieties of these new TLDs
- .biz was established well before the ICANN policy change as an alternative to .com for businesses. .xyz is another gTLD that’s truly generic and can be used for almost any purpose.
- It’s not just tech companies that have chosen their own gTLDs. In addition to unsurprising ones such as .google and .oracle, there are others as diverse as .oldnavy and .mitsubishi.
- There are non-business organizations that have registered gTLDs. These include .mom, .money, .republican, .democrat, .realestate and .motorcycles.
- There are geographically oriented TLDs. Sometimes they’re called GeoTLDs. For example, .nyc is open only to residents of the Big Apple. There are also .berlin, .istanbul and .paris.
Country-code TLDs (ccTLDs)
Country code top-level domains are, as the name implies, assigned to countries, including sovereign sates and territories. Some familiar ones are:
- .us United Sates
- .uk United Kingdom
- .au Australia
- .ca Canada
- .de Germany
- .cn China
- .jp Japan
- .fr France
- .in India
- .ru Russia
- .es Spain
- .br Brazil
- .pr Puerto Rico
There are over 300 ccTLDs in all. A subsidiary of ICANN, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) chooses which organization will manage the ccTLD in each location.
ccTLDs can be internationalized when the country code is displayed in a native language such as Arabic or Cyrillic. These internationalized country-code domains are also known as IDN ccTLDs.
The managing organizations vary in how rigorously they control the use of their ccTLDs. In some countries, only residents can purchase a domain in the ccTLD. Others open up their ccTLDs to users from all over the world.
Among the ccTLDs that are open to anyone, some are widely used for purposes other than identifying the country. For example, .io is assigned to British Indian Ocean Territory. However, because it’s open to anyone, and because the name sounds “techie,” it has become popular with startups and technical service providers.
Sponsored TLDs (sTLDs)
sTLDs belong to specific communities. These can be professional groups or government organizations. Each of these has a sponsor that represents the community and controls the use of the sponsored top-level domains. For example, .gov is sponsored by the General Services Administration of the U.S. government. .app is sponsored by Google for the benefit of the developer community.
The “big three” sTLDs are:
- .gov. Sponsored by and for the U.S. government
- .mil. For the use of the U.S. military
- .edu. Used for post-secondary institutions as accredited by the U.S. Department of Education.
There are a number of lesser-known sTLDs:
- .app. For the developer community
- .jobs. Sponsored by the Society of Human Resource Management for managers in that field.
- .travel. For travel agencies and travel-related businesses
- .post. Sponsored by the Universal Postal Union.
- .aero. Sponsored by SITA for the air transport industry
- .xxx. Pornography sites.
There’s only one infrastructure top-level domain; it’s .arpa. It’s named for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which was instrumental in getting the modern internet up and running. .arpa was the first TLD created. These days it’s used for internal tasks involving DNS lookups.
There are a few TLDs that will never be made available for use. Examples are .localhost, which may be used only in local computer environments, and .example, which is reserved for demonstrations.
Choosing a TLD
Most people starting new blogs or websites choose .com (or .org if the site is for a non-profit). While this is the right choice in many cases, there can be reasons to choose an alternate. For example, if most of your business is done in a country outside of the United States, you might consider using a country code TLD. Many Canadian users, for example, prefer to see .ca rather than .com.
If you’re in a business that has its own TLD, you might consider using that one. Examples are .travel, .film (movie production) and .jobs (HR).
You might be tempted to use a little-used TLD to make your website unique. While that seems to be of value to large organizations that are already well-known, it can backfire for a small site trying to get started. There’s evidence that domain names ending in .com are easy to remember and that the majority of users don’t trust TLDs they don’t recognize.
Can I change my TLD?
Yes, but you’ll have to purchase a new domain name and migrate your content. You should also use the Google Search Console to tell Google you’ve moved, and you’ll need to create redirects from the old to the new name.
If the purpose of your site has changed, or if a name you really like has become available, it’s something you might consider.
Do TLDs affect SEO?
A big concern for most website developers is search engine optimization (SEO), the art of crafting sites and their content so that search engines (mainly Google) will rank the site high on its results page. People familiar with Google search contend that Google just looks for the best content no matter what TLD it’s under. From an SEO perspective, there’s no advantage or disadvantage in choosing .com or some other TLD.
What is the most popular TLD?
It’s .com, and the competition is not close. More than half of domain names use .com. .org has just over four percent and .net has about three percent. Various ccTLDs make up the rest of the top 10.
How often are TLDs created?
New TLDs took off in 2012 when ICANN started soliciting applications. There have been over 1,300 new TLDs since then, but the pace has slowed in recent years. In 2021 there were only 13 new gTLDs.
Can I create my own TLD?
Any public or private organization can apply for a new TLD, but with the power comes responsibility. You must show that you’re technically, financially, and operationally able to support a registry. Applications are submitted to ICANN.
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