Anyone who spends time browsing on the Internet will inevitably use URLs and domain names to navigate between web pages. But, surprisingly, not everyone knows what these two terms mean.
So what is a domain / URL name? Simply put, it’s the address for different locations on the Internet. It’s analogous to the address of your physical home or apartment.
However, there is a subtle difference between domain and URL names, even though they are used similarly. If you’re a marketer or a business owner who has to register or maintain a website, this is essential information that you should know.
What is a Domain Name?
Websites and other locations on the Internet are identified by a unique string of four numbers called the IP address. The problem is that these seemingly random numbers are very difficult to remember and not very readable. That’s why a domain name is more commonly used instead.
A domain name uses human-friendly text to represent an IP address, much like a nickname is used instead of a person’s long name. A domain name like www.apple.com is way easier to remember than 220.127.116.11.
Not only are domain names shorthand for an IP address, but they’re also great for marketing purposes.
The Anatomy of a Domain Name
A domain name has two (sometimes three) parts separated by dots. They act as identifiers that describe the underlying website location, from the most specific (leftmost component) to the most general (rightmost component).
To help illustrate these parts, let’s use this domain: www.example.com
The rightmost part of the domain name is called the Top Level Domain (TLD), also called the domain extension. In our above example, the TLD is “.com.”
TLDs can give context to the nature of the website. For instance, “.com” is short for “commercial,” which means the website is for commercial or general use. Other popular extensions are “.edu” (for educational websites) and “.org” (for nonprofits). Domain extensions can also identify the country of the website, as in “.uk” (for the United Kingdom) and “.ca” (for Canada).
To the left of the TLD is the Second Level Domain (2LD), which is commonly the name of the brand or organization. In our domain example, the 2LD is “example.”
Some domain names also have a Third Level Domain (3LD). For example, on a URL like www.amazon.co.uk, the TLD will be “.uk,” the 2LD will be “.co,” and the 3LD will be “amazon.” Note that the brand or organization name isn’t always the 2LD, as this example illustrates.
Lastly, you have the server, which is almost often a web server for websites. This is denoted by “www” as in our above example.
What is a URL?
A Universal Resource Locator (URL) is also a text address representing a specific IP address and location on the Internet. However, when comparing domain name vs. URL, the latter is considered the complete address of that location. The domain name is just a part of a URL.
The Anatomy of a URL
Like the domain name, a URL has components that help describe the web location it’s pointing to.
As we did above, let’s use this URL as an example: http://www.example.com/category/page.html
The leftmost part of the URL identifies the protocol for communicating with the server. For webpages (and in the above example), it’s always http://, which stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Another common one you’ll encounter is ftp://, or File Transfer Protocol, used for connecting to file servers.
Next is the domain of a URL, which we’ve already discussed. In our above example, it’s www.example.com.
URLs technically must also include a port number, which is the specific endpoint in the server your computer connects to. This is specified right after the domain name, as in http://www.example.com:80. However, all web servers use port 80 when transferring web pages, so this is often omitted.
Lastly, you have the path, which specifies the exact location of the web page on the server. It’s made up of directories and subdirectories, much like in a computer. In the above example, the path is “/category/page.html,” where “category” is the directory where the desired page “page.html” is located.
Domain Name vs. URL: What’s the Difference?
Specifying the complete location of a web page or resource is the primary purpose of a URL. Domain name, on the other hand, represents only the specific IP address of the underlying web server. As a result, it’s much more flexible to use a URL vs. domain name.
One crucial distinction between a domain name vs. URL is that, since the domain name is shorter and readable, it’s more human-friendly. That’s why when people refer to websites, they use the domain vs. URL much more often (like how commercials tell you to “go to thiswebsite.com”).
On the other hand, URLs tend to be long and unwieldy, especially for websites with complicated structures. This makes them far harder to remember and less marketing-friendly.
But there’s a workaround that can make it far better to use URL vs. domain name. It’s by using a URL shortener like Bitly.
Bitly can compress a long URL into a link that’s shorter than even most domain names. What’s more, you can customize it with your brand or descriptive URL. For instance, you can turn http://www.yourbrand.com/brandcontest/registration/registrationpage.html into the shorter http://yourbrand.com/RegisterNow. That’s far more concise, descriptive, and easier to remember.