A few hints and tips regarding domain names:
Registering a Domain
Domains under .com, .org, and .net (and some of the new TLDs too) can be registered via a number of registrars. In 1999, the InterNIC site (which formerly brought you to the site of the monopoly registrar, Network Solutions) was redesigned to provide a list of current accredited sites where you can register a domain, so it's a good starting place. Check out the various registrars; they offer a wide variety of prices and plans. In some ways, domain registration is more confusing than in the days when Network Solutions had a monopoly, but on the other hand, in this competitive market, the registrars have been lowering their prices and making the process of registering and updating domains more convenient.
Be sure you go to a legitimate registrar. There have been some scams and rip-offs in domain registration. For a while there was a "fake InterNIC" at internic.com, which suckered lots of people into registering domains with them with a huge surcharge over the real InterNIC's $70 fee. Legitimate Internet providers may charge a small surcharge to cover their labor in getting the domain registered and set up on their server, but internic.com charged $250 per domain, much higher than most providers, and didn't even provide as much service as a normal provider (they don't host Web sites, for instance; customers must still find another provider for that), and, even worse, they always put themselves as Administrative Contact on all the domains registered through them.
What does it cost?
The cost of registering domains with InterNIC was originally $100 for the first two years and $50 a year afterward. (Well, actually, it was originally free, but once they started charging in 1995, those were their fees.) Later, when an "infrastructure fee" imposed by the U.S. government expired, it went down to $70 for the first two years and $35 a year afterward. Now, with competing registrars, it can be even cheaper, depending on which registrar you use and what special deals are in effect.
What's a "DNS Server"?
Before registering a domain, check with your hosting provider or ISP about what servers to enter in your registration. The "DNS Servers" are the servers which handle requests for the domain and tell the browser where to go to find your Web site (and also tell e-mail programs where to send mail to your address). Usually, your Web hosting provider handles this service, so their servers are what need to be placed in your domain registration record. You could just let the provider do the registration for you to make sure the technical stuff is done right but it's not really necessary; the process of registering a domain has been made simpler and less "techie-oriented" over the years. While most hosting providers offer domain registration services as well, it may be for a higher cost than you can get by going directly to a registrar yourself, and give you less control over the process. But be sure to find out what server hostnames and IP addresses to enter in your registration, and let your ISP know you're going to be registering a domain to be hosted there, as they might not like you registering a domain using their servers without their knowledge or permission. Their cooperation is needed to get the domain to work, since they must enable domain name service at their end. Also, if you mistype the name and IP address of your ISP's servers, your domain could fail to work. Many of the registrars will now let you register a domain using their own servers if you don't have another host, but this service generally does not include Web hosting or e-mail forwarding unless you pay an extra charge.
Get Those Contacts Right!
Be sure that you, or whoever registers a domain for you, puts your name as Administrative Contact; this indicates who is authorized to act on behalf of the actual owner, as opposed to the Technical Contact, which is usually somebody at the ISP who's responsible for maintaining the name servers. There are quite a few providers that put their own people as Administrative Contact on the domains they register, and that is a bad idea from your standpoint: it means that only the ISP can approve or disapprove of changes to that domain (such as moving it to a different ISP), and some providers could try to hold your domain hostage if they claim you still owe them money, for instance. With yourself as Administrative Contact, you can change providers without the approval of your previous provider. On the other hand, somebody at your ISP should be listed as Technical Contact so they can make technical changes (such as updating the address of the servers) when necessary.
Also, be sure to get your organization name correct (in the "Registrant" field) when you (or your provider) fill out the registration form. That's a big pain to change later (even to fix a typo), since some registrars want to be sure to get a new registration fee from the new owners if you sell the domain. So changing the owning organization's name requires jumping through all sorts of hoops. Avoid it by getting it right the first time (including spelling, punctuation, and capitalization). The Registrant should be the actual owner of the domain, so if the domain belongs to a company or organization, use the organization name, not the individual name of an employee or partner; that might be stuck permanently in the domain record after your company's staff or ownership changes. (Note that some of the new registrars now let the registrant be changed without an additional fee; this is one of the advantages gained by the new competitive market.)
Keep Those Contacts Right!
If you change your e-mail address from whatever you've included in your contact record for the domain(s) you registered, be sure to submit a contact change request to alter this contact to your new address before your old address stops working. If you wait until the old address is "dead" before trying to change your contact to the new one, you'll have a lot of trouble completing the change, since registrars want the change request to either originate or be confirmed from the current contact address. (This might not apply with some registrars who make password-protected Web forms available for domain changes. But if you forget your password, you might be in trouble if your e-mail address is no longer reachable.)
Long Domains: Are they a good idea?
Most registrars now accept domain registrations for names longer than the traditional 25 character limit. This has caused some of the online marketing newsletters to hype this and encourage people to grab all the long domains they can. However, such long domains are likely to require too much typing to be very good as addresses. Actually, the main use proposed by those marketing newsletters is for "keyword spamdexing," where sites would supposedly get indexed better in search engines if lots of keywords are in their domain. If this speculative concept is actually correct, you can probably get similar results by using keyword-laden hostnames and subdomains in your existing domain, like here.are.some.neat.keywords.yourname.com. But if lots of people try this, the search engines are bound to re-tinker their algorithms to disregard it, anyway.
Too much on the Internet is based on "trendy", flavor-of-the-week thinking, where everyone tries to pander to every momentary craze that comes along. People's choice of domain names often reflects this, with little thought of the long-term sense of what they're doing. When you register and use a domain name, you're adding to the permanent infrastructure of the Internet; you should think this way. Once a site is on the Web, there will be links to it forever, so you should try to put some foresight into making something that will be meaningful for a long time to come, not just for the lifespan of a mayfly.
One big benefit of the long-term approach is that you don't get saddled with heaps of no-longer-useful domains that you have to either keep paying renewal fees on until the end of time, or else face the indignity of possibly having a cybersquatter grab them after they expire and putting something embarrassing like pornography there to ensnare anybody who follows lingering links and search engine indices of your old site. This fate has actually befallen a number of organizations. If you stick to names with permanent significance, you'll have a much more manageable task keeping them renewed. And if you make effective use of subdomains instead of getting a new domain for every temporary gimmick, you'll have addresses that nobody can ever cybersquat.
Where should I host my site?
Whatever type of domain you get, if you want it to go directly to your Web site, you'll need to get "virtual server hosting," a service provided by many companies. This is not quite the same as Web space hosting, something which many providers do without you having your own domain name (for instance, free space at GeoCities or on your dialup provider). In the old days, virtual hosting required a separate IP address (the base numeric addresses of the Internet, invisible to most users) for each site, which limited the number of sites that could be hosted that way, but present protocols don't require this (though some really ancient browsers might not be able to reach sites that don't have their own IP address). Virtual hosting is the way to host your domain if you're serious about your site, since it results in all the pages of your site having URLs in your own domain. Other, cheaper forms of hosting may cause the domain to be redirected to an address elsewhere, or to bring up a frame that contains your pages from a different host, which looks less professional.
Watch Your Expiration Dates!
There are many people who have accidentally allowed their domain names to expire, and become available for registration by others, when they really wanted to keep them. Apparently, some registrars don't always bother to inform registrants that it's renewal time. You'd think they'd take every opportunity to try to get more money out of you, but sometimes they fail to. On the other hand, there are others that, when their domains neared expiration, they got spams from just about every other registrar trying to get them to re-register the domain there, it's still possible that you might not find out that your domain is about to lapse until it's too late.
Don't rely on your registrar (or competing registrars) letting you know when it's time to renew your registration. Keep track of your own domains and when they expire. It can be as simple as making a file of it and putting it on your computer's desktop so you can check it regularly -- it's up to you whether to do it as a plain text file, a spreadsheet or database, or integrate it into your computerized appointment book if you use such software -- just put it where you keep up with it and notice when a domain is coming due.
If you're thinking of saving money by switching your domain to a less expensive registrar, be sure to do it well in advance of the expiration date. Registrars will not let you transfer a domain after it's expired, so you have to complete a registrar switch before the lapse date, and the transfer process has enough bureaucratic hoops that it's best to start early.
Since there is competition in registrars, you have some choice of where to register a .com, .net, or .org domain (and also in most of the new TLDs, and in some of the country code domains). There is a lot of variation in price and in quality of service (e.g., how easy it is to make changes to your domain, what level of security is used to prevent unauthorized changes, and what kind of customer service they give you if there's a problem). You should shop around. But you may have settled on one registrar for your new registrations, but be stuck with some old domains that were registered with a different registrar that imposed high prices for lousy service (e.g., the old monopoly registrar, Network Solutions). But that doesn't have to be the permanent situation. You can transfer your domains to a different registrar.
To do this, follow the instructions on the site of the new registrar you're moving to. They usually have a form to apply to transfer a domain. You will then receive e-mail messages with further instructions; you might have to reply to a message or go to a Web site to confirm the switch with your former registrar. This is usually a reasonably easy process, but sometimes it can be a pain; especially if the previous registrar is Network Solutions, which has been adding hurdles to the transfer process allegedly to prevent domains from being transferred against their owner's will, but probably in reality to make it harder for their customers to ever leave them. This has prompted some battles, and a message from ICANN counsel informing registrars that it is in fact the gaining registrar rather than the losing one which has the responsibility of verifying transfer consent, and the losing registrar can't unreasonably hold up the transfer through its own verification process.
Pay careful attention to all the details of the instructions, because if you do something wrong the transfer will probably be denied. Also, be sure you do the transfer before the domain expires; you're not allowed to transfer a domain that is not fully paid up, so if you wait too long you'll be stuck having to renew it with the old registrar before you'd be allowed to transfer it. However, most registrars will let you keep the remaining paid period from the old registrar in addition to the new period (usually 1 year) you're required to purchase from the new registrar when you transfer.