When you purchase a domain name to set up your website, your website may not appear immediately. Why? It all has to do with how domain names and DNS work. Below you'll read about concepts that website owners need to know, including domains and DNS.
What Is a Domain Name?
Most people use the terms "domain" and "domain name" interchangeably when discussing websites. Either way, a domain name is a human-friendly address that visitors use to get to your website instead of the IP addresses computers deal with. So instead of having to remember and type a complicated set of numbers into your address bar, you visit our website by typing "elevationweb.org". Domain names are essentially shortcuts when you think about it.
Organizations choose domain names when registering their websites. The chosen name (or abbreviation) helps indicate to website visitors who you are and what you do. The domain name can also help reassure visitors that you're the nonprofit they're searching for and not an organization with a similar name in a different sector or location.
When it comes to nonprofit websites, the extension after the "." is also instructive. This extension is known as the top-level domain (TLD), and ".org" TLD tells visitors that the website they're on belongs to an organization. Of course, you could buy a ".com" or a ".net" domain name if the ".org" is unavailable and you don't want to change the main part of your domain name.
You could also choose a domain name with a country-specific extension to emphasize that your nonprofit serves a specific area. Some large institutions set up their websites to redirect to different domains based on location. For example, users in the US looking for the Salvation Army's website will be directed to https://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn, while those from the United Kingdom will go to https://www.salvationarmyusa.org.uk based on their location.
On the front end of the URL, you'll see "HTTP" or occasionally "HTTPS." The addition of the "s" indicates that the site is secure and required by many internet browsers and search engines in order to display properly and appear in results respectively."For your website to correctly appear as secure, you need to have an SSL certificate. Think of SSL as scrambling the information you send, so even if someone could get their hands on that information, they wouldn't be able to decode it.
Some website hosts might provide SSL certificates for free, while others might require you to buy them for an additional fee. Fortunately, you can purchase an SSL certificate after the fact if your website isn't already secure. To understand which type of SSL certificate to buy, read our post on SSL certificates.
When you put all this together, you get a website address or URL. Your domain name might be the URL for the front page of your site, but each page has its own URL.
Your Site "Lives" on a Hosting Server
Once you have your domain name and SSL certificate, you're setting the foundation to help people find your website. But you're not yet ready to open the doors to the public. Websites consist of hundreds or even thousands of files that create the appearance and function you want to give your visitors. These files are stored on a server (a powerful computer connected to the Internet), and you pay the hosting company that owns the server for this service.
You can buy website hosting, domain names, and SSL certificates from the same company. Using the same company for all your needs requires minimal setup, but that convenience may cost more than buying your domain name and hosting separately.
If you use different providers for your domain name and hosting, you must connect them so that when visitors go to your domain, it loads the files from your host's server. To do this, you create a website with your domain name under your hosting account and enter the DNS information from your host into the appropriate fields in your domain provider's control panel.
What Is DNS?
DNS stands for domain name system, and it essentially consists of databases of all the human-friendly domain names and their corresponding computer-friendly server addresses. When you use the same company for hosting and your domain name, these are automatically associated with one another, so you don't have to do anything. Fortunately, many hosts send automated emails that contain information such as DNS addresses, also known as nameservers, when you sign up. You can also find your DNS information in your hosting control panel or contact your hosting company to get this information.
Once you have the DNS information, you can log into the control panel of your domain name provider, select the domain name, and find the option for DNS or nameservers. Generally, you need to add two nameservers, a primary and a backup nameserver.
How Domain Propagation Works
Your website won't show immediately after you update your domain account with nameservers from your hosting company because the domain must propagate. Propagation is the process where all the domain databases across the globe update with the new information about your domain's servers. It's like a game of telephone where word spreads that there's a new domain name, and it can be found on this specific server.
Many Internet service providers have their own DNS database, and they may not update simultaneously. So you might not see your nonprofit's website immediately while someone else can access it. This is normal, and no reason to worry. Domain propagation can take up to 72 hours but is often much quicker.
If your website is finished when you submit your host's nameservers into your domain control panel, it should work perfectly when your first visitors arrive (which won't take long if you use SEO correctly). Luckily, website hosts offer live previews of files on their servers, so you can work on your site before the domain propagates or even before you enter the nameservers, to begin with.
With this information, you're set to launch a successful website for your nonprofit