Better way to purchase and redirect a domain

Often, picking a project name seems to boil down to “find a .COM domain name that hasn’t been taken and name it that.”  There should be much more to it than that, but this is a part of it.  It is fairly easy to buy a domain name and point it at your favorite host, and it costs only on the order of $20/year, so I find myself accumulating domains even for potential future projects.

Plan ahead.  The instructions say that it can take up to 3 days for the registration to complete.  I’ve never seen it take that long, but be prepared in case it does.

Step 0: Hold off using the domain

The Domain Name System (DNS) caches information about domain names, both on your local computer and on the various computers that help with the lookup.  This means that if you go looking for a host, a lot of information is retained for up to several hours.  So don’t go looking for your host until you’ve gotten the redirect set up.  And expect it to take a while when you change the redirect before you see the change.

Step 1: Pick a provider

This has turned out to be the most challenging step for me.  And it actually matters because the different providers have very different offerings.  Also, you can’t change your provider for at least 60 days, so you end up stuck with your first choice.

I started with godaddy.com, who had excellent pricing, intuitive user interfaces, rapid response, great tech support, and is in almost all ways an ideal provider.  Then I realized that their funky name actually refers to an activity that is both demeaning to women and morally bankrupt.  This prevents me from being able to to recommend them.

My second attempt, 1&1, also has low prices and has no discernible negative corporate or branding connotations.  Unfortunately, I have had several extremely terrible interactions with all operational aspects (slow and confusing interface, poor customer support, incorrect billing, and shutting down my domains right before closing for the weekend which made it impossible for me to reinstate them).  Don’t get me started.

Amazon Web Services has opened its Route 53 services, which include the ability to purchase domain names.  I’ve had good experiences with other AWS services, so I had high hopes for this one as well.  When I actually went to try and configure the domain, it was more complicated than the other providers, and when I went to forward email addresses for it, I ran into huge complexity (setting up your own mail server) or fairly large expense ($4/month/user).  They aren’t quite there yet.  I very much recommend using them (https://aws.amazon.com) for hosting your web server.  As a new account, they give you one year of free server time (this will let you prototype your new project and make sure it is going to be worthwhile before having to pay to host a server online).  You’ll still need to pay for the domain name up front, but you don’t have to buy the domain from Amazon to make use of an AWS server.

It turns out that Google has also gotten into the domain-name business, so we’re going to try using them as our provider of choice for the domain names and email forwarding at Urbana ’15.  Let’s get started…

Step 2: Get an account

Buying a domain requires signing up with a domain-name service provider.  I’ll walk you through doing this on Google Domains here, but any provider will do for just forwarding a domain.

(Somewhere along the way, you’re going to have to log on with a Google account.  I was already logged in when I started, so I’m not sure when this will happen.  If you don’t have a Google account, you’ll need to create a free one.)  I have found it to be useful to make a new account for each new endeavor rather than piling a bunch of domains into my personal account — splitting them out later is more challenging.  To do this, you’ll need to log out of your Google/Gmail account before starting the process.

Step 3: Purchase a domain

Now comes the hard parts: (A) Finding a great domain name that has not yet been taken.  (B) Deciding what top-level domains (TLDs) to register for.

B: Starting with the second one first.  Way back when, there were three generic TLDs: .com (for business), .org (for nonprofit organizations), and .net (for networking providers).  Most of the world only grokked .com, so pretty much everyone wanted a .com domain even if they were not a company.  Basically, you now want to own the .com domain along with any others if you want to communicate with other than geeks.  There were also various country domains (the most famous of which is Tuvalu because they own the TLD .tv).  But now, the powers that be have decided to open up a bunch of new TLDs, and more are being auctioned off all the time.  So now we’re in the middle of DNS confusion and speculation, with domains going to the highest bidder, who then sells off subdomains for whatever they think they can get for them.  This produces a ton of different domains with different rates charged per year.  Start with the .com domain if you are not sure what you want, then decide how much you are willing to pay to keep others from buying up the other domains and then trying to sell them back to you.

A: Now to the first. After picking the TLD you want (maybe .com), you start putting names into the box on the left and trying them until you find one that matches your project and that hasn’t already been taken.  Don’t even bother trying 1-3 letter names, they have surely all been taken.  Since this is such a populated space, you’ll find that the domain provider will offer a bunch of suggestions on other TLDs, other spellings, and such when it can’t give you the one you want.  I don’t have much advice to give on how to find a good one that is not already taken.  For example, someone already has Urbana15.com and Urbana2015.com (not InterVarsity…).  On the other hand, nobody owned hack4missions.com or hack4missions.org, so I went ahead and purchased them defensively and plan to point them at a reasonable place and then see if Intervarsity wants to take over the domains before they expire in a year.

Once you have an idea for a name, head over to https://domains.google.com and type it into the search box and then click on Search.  I already purchased hack4missions.com and hack4missions.org as part of my earlier blog post, so this time I went looking for hack4missions.church.  That was going to be $40/year, so I went with hack4missions.net for $12/year.  Click on the little icon for add to cart for all the ones you want, and then on proceed to checkout.

Fill in a name, organization, address, phone and an email address to be associated with the new account and click on the public or private radio button, then unless you have a problem with the payment being non-refundable, check that box and click on Continue.  Put in your credit-card information and decide whether to un-check the box where they send you email offers, then click on accept and continue.

Now would be a good time to put a reminder on your calendar for 11 months from now reminding yourself to cancel the account, so that you don’t end up getting charged for renewal if the domain is no longer useful to you.

Along the way, you will have gotten a few emails from Google letting you know about your progress signing up with them.  One of them may have asked you to verify your email address.

Now you wait.  Some sites say that it can take up to 3 days for the registration to complete.  I’ve never seen it take that long, but be prepared in case it does.  In this case, it took less than half a minute to complete.

Step 4: Redirect the domain

Once the domains have been registered, you can go back to your account. (For Google Domains, this means going to back to https://domains.google.com.  At that point, the domains will be listed in a table on the bottom of the page).

The most challenging part of forwarding a domain is setting up a place to forward it to.  This will be covered in a separate post.  For me, I wanted to point the hack4missions domains at the main Hack4missions site at https://urbana.org/hack4missions.

To forward the domain (not emails associated with the name, that comes in another post), use the DNS link.  It will bring up a large array of options.

  • Leave Use Google’s name servers checked.
  • In the Synthetic records box, choose Subdomain forward from the pull-down.  Fill in @ for the subdomain name, and point the destination URL where you want (for me, this is urbana.org/hack4missions for some of the domains and is the IP address 52.26.137.130 for hack4missions.net to point it at a configured WordPress server).  Then click the Add button.

Now that you have created the forward, go ahead and try it out.  Open a web browser and type in the name of the new domain (for my example, hack4missions.net) and you should be redirected to your host.  It may take a while for this all to become active, so give it a while.

If you’re at Urbana ’15 and this didn’t work after waiting 20 minutes, come find me and we’ll figure it out.