Academic Website II: Choosing a Custom Domain | Hendrik Erz

Abstract: In the second installment of my academic website article series, I walk you through the intricacies of a custom domain. It is a very powerful tool that you can use to create a brand for yourself, but there are a few pitfalls associated with this. After reading this article, you'll be able to register your very own domain name.


Welcome to the second part of my article series on academic websites. In the first part, I gave a rundown of why a personal website is a great idea for people in academia (and beyond). In this second piece I want to talk about the possibly most important choice before actually creating such a website: choosing a custom domain name.

I will go through why you may want a custom domain name (you don’t strictly have to), what benefits it brings, and, most importantly: how to do so without getting scammed.

That being said, as I already mentioned in the last article: Do not search for a domain name until you have read this entire article. Thank me later.

But now, let’s get started!

Why Even Buy a Custom Domain?

The first question you may have now is: why even buy a custom domain name? Buying a domain is associated with yearly costs which are very small (mostly in the ballpark of $10-$20 per year) but nevertheless real. Also, it requires some thought beforehand.

The truth is: You don’t necessarily have to buy a custom domain. When you create a personal website with one of the options I will be going through later in this series, you mostly get a domain included. Specifically, it will be https://your-name.wordpress.com (if you register a WordPress blog), https://your-name.github.io (if you create a GitHub page), or similar.

As you can see: without spending a single Dollar, you can get a website for free and it is even reachable. However, there are some drawbacks to this.

To give you some technical background, every domain – from Google through YouTube to your favorite journal – has three components: a subdomain, a domain name, and a top-level domain (TLD), which are ordered like this: https://<subdomain>.<domain name>.<TLD>. Fun fact: This means that www in front of many websites is actually just the “default” subdomain. It is simply a convention that emerged after people have decided that there should be three parts to a domain. You can completely leave that out, or – in the case of free domains – choose the username to be the subdomain instead of www.

But, as I said, there are a few drawbacks to this:

First, it will always be only a subdomain. This means that everyone who visits your website will see that you picked the free version of WordPress.com. Also, your name will always be followed by the company that gave you your free website, e.g., github.io. Strictly speaking, this is not too shabby, and there are quite a few academics who do this.

Second, because you do not control the domain name, you can’t take with you said username that is the subdomain. If you, say, switch from https://my-name.wordpress.com to GitHub, you cannot simply assume that https://my-name.github.io will be available when you make the switch. There is always some volatility involved.

A custom domain solves many of these issues. Imagine that like a post box that you rent at your local post shop: people can always send post and packages there and as long as you pay the monthly rent for it, you can even move out of the country, yet people will still be able to send you packages there. The only benefit of a domain is that you can even manage it when you leave the country since there is no physical location involved.

Such a custom domain has a few other benefits associated with it:

First, you have the ability to create email addresses with that domain. This may or may not make sense. For me, for example, it doesn’t really make sense because I used my full name as my domain, and to me, hendrik@hendrik-erz.de doesn’t sound right – so I don’t receive any emails at my domain. But if you have a “unique-enough” surname, you can decide to choose only that one. Say, for example, your name is Jane Doe and you somehow manage to secure the domain doe.dom (it’s taken). Then you could create an email address for you (jane@doe.com) and even your husband/brother/father (john@doe.com). I know of a few friends who do that, and it is honestly a super smart idea, especially if you want your family to benefit off of your endeavor as well.

Second, this domain name stays permanent (as long as you pay for it, that is). Remember that a domain is only used to map an easily rememberable name (hendrik-erz.de) to some difficult to remember IP address (e.g., 43.167.12.56). This IP address is where your website is at. If you decide to move, or switch to an entirely different system, the only thing you have to do is exchange the IP your domain points to. In other words, as long as people remember your domain, they don’t need to care about which IP address your server is at. They may not even realize when you moved from one place to another!

Third, this domain name is truly yours, and you can use it to represent yourself across the internet. No matter where you switch institutions to, your domain remains the same. And if you leave academia, guess what? Your domain stays. This makes even more sense if you decide to get back into academia after some years out of it – because people will still know the domain, this can help make the transition back in easier (no guarantees, though)!

Fourth, the costs of a custom domain are ridiculously low. Since there are not many costs associated with maintaining a domain (again, it is just a simple row in some database) and companies haven’t yet jumped on commercializing it (because it requires some technical understanding), it is dead cheap. Domains cost something between $0.50 and $500 per month, and those of interest to you will not exceed $5-$10 a month. I will introduce them further below.

How to Get a Custom Domain

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that a custom domain is a good idea, let’s talk through actually doing so. In this section, I will first finally explain why getting scammed when buying a custom domain is very common and how to avoid that. Then, I will walk you through the necessary steps of deciding which domain name is the best for you.

How to Avoid Getting Scammed

I now mentioned several times that there is some realistic chance that you may get scammed when trying to buy a domain if you are not careful. Now it is time to explain why.

The main reason why this is even possible is that, in order to buy a domain, you need to go through a middle man. You cannot just go to ICANN and ask them for a domain, you need to use a provider for that. There are tons of providers out there that all allow you to purchase a domain via them. They then take the role of maintaining the database entries that link your domain to wherever your website is.

Most of these companies are trustworthy – so don’t get me wrong. It is very easy to find a good, reputable company to purchase your domain through. The reason I was so adamant on preventing you from just going and buying a domain is that a single scammer suffices to ruin your day.

Here’s how the scam works: You just google for “buy a domain” and click on the first search result – maybe it’s even an ad. Then you will need to enter your wanted domain in some search box which will ask the corresponding domain name authorities whether the domain is already taken. Reputable companies do that, too, so having to search for your domain is something perfectly reasonable. If the domain is not taken, the provider will give you the option to purchase the domain if you want to.

This is where scammers will now start to scam you: If you entered your wanted domain, you have basically told them “This is a domain that someone actually wants to own.” And, if you do not immediately buy the domain through them, what they will do is simply buy the domain themselves. If you then return to the website at a later point – or to any website, that is – the domain will be taken, and you cannot buy it again.

There is a way to still buy the domain, however: by paying the provider that just bought the domain whatever price they want so that they release the domain and transfer it to you. And that price can be hefty. I have seen several hundred, maybe even several thousand Dollars. You see, buying a domain is very cheap, and once a domain is taken, there is no legal recourse for you to claim that domain other than the owning party voluntarily giving it to you.

There is no right to a certain domain name. Even Google of all kinds had to experience this, since they allegedly once forgot to renew their domain name, and some smart guy quickly bought the domain before they realized their mistake. It is said that the domain switched back to Google within the next day – for quite a reasonable sum.

Therefore, please follow my recommendations in the rest of the article to buy your domain from a reputable provider that does not engage in this behavior. That being said, let me warn you of GoDaddy up front. Whenever I saw their name in the past ten years, it was always in the context of them extorting prospective users for money by buying a domain in the background and selling it back for unreasonable amounts of money.

But with this advice out of the way, back to the domain.

Choosing a Domain

There are three choices you will need to make when buying a domain name:

  1. Which Top-Level Domain (TLD) do you want?
  2. What should the domain itself be called?
  3. Which provider should you use to buy it?

The first choice regards the TLD, the last part of any domain. There are three types of TLDs that you can choose from: Organizational, country-level, and “special”. Organizational TLDs are meant for organizations. Among those are .org, .net, or .com. Then, each country on earth has one TLD for it, for example .de for Germany, .se for Sweden, .us for the United States, or .uk for the UK. Lastly, there are “special” TLDs that have seen a surge in recent years, such as .rocks, .social, or .win. In principle, you could even register your very own TLD – but that is probably a bit expensive, since ICANN expects you not just to pay upwards of $180.000, but to also take over responsibility for actually managing that TLD.

Now, while there are organizational and country-level TLDs, these are just descriptions: A .org-domain is intended for an organization, but nothing stops you from buying it just for yourself, if you fancy that TLD. My supervisor for example uses a .net-TLD.

Lastly, there are a few TLDs that you cannot choose, for example .gov (U.S. government websites), .mil (U.S. military websites), or .edu (U.S. educational institutions). Those are reserved for people with the correct credentials which you probably don’t have.

That being said, which TLD should you pick for a website that is meant to represent you as an individual?

In practice, there are three options: First, the TLD of your country of origin (in my case: .de). Second, the TLD of your current country of residency (in my case: .se). And third, if those don’t suit you, the generic .com. The TLD will determine the final price of your domain the most. Normally, country-level TLDs are cheap, organizational domains are a bit pricier, and some special domains that are really en vogue will be prohibitively expensive. (.io-domains have seen a surge in recent years, and these are insanely expensive right now.)

Next on is the actual domain name. That can be (relatively) freely picked by you. You can use Latin letters, numbers, and dashes. Since a few years it is also possible to use Umlauts or special characters. I discourage you from using those, however, (a) because not everyone can type them, and (b) they still need to be translated into the allowed characters, which can make the URLs look ugly.

With that being said, it is now time to choose and find a domain. Since almost anybody can purchase almost any domain, there is some chance that your “dream domain” is already taken. But how do you find this out?

Well, do not search for your dream domain on shady sites to begin with. Instead, the first step is to just type the domain in your browser and see if it resolves to a website. If it does, you’re out of luck: someone has already registered the domain (and hopefully doesn’t use it for porn). If it doesn’t, and your browser tells you it couldn’t connect to the server, this is one indication that the domain is still available. However, domains can also “lay dormant” without pointing to an actual website, so the next step is to look it up.

You can look up whether domains are taken by, e.g., the lookup tool from ICANN. Some TLDs are not supported, however. I often use who.is, and it has worked comparatively well for me. I haven’t observed any shady behavior like buying domains in the background, although they also sell domains. (Should this change, please notify me, so I can adapt this section.)

Your Options if Your Domain is Already Taken

But what do you do if your name is James Smith (apparently one of the most common name-surname combinations in the U.S.) and the domain james-smith.com is already taken?

Then you have a few options. The worst one is to simply use numbers and register james-smith1.com (which somebody actually did, lol) or james-smith2.com (seems to be available).

The better alternative is to start thinking about potential nicknames or other words or phrases that are more recognizable but still can be connected to you. Remember that the more recognizable a phrase is, the easier it is for other people to remember it.

However, before choosing your old Battlefield online username and registering bloodsucker69.com (how is THAT gem of a domain still available?!), think about a few things. First, do you actually want to be associated with that other name or phrase? Some may like their old school nickname, but it could be detrimental in a professional setting. Maybe ask other people how they think about it. Second, do you actually want that other name to become public knowledge? Or should it remain something only your friends call you? And lastly, is it an appropriate other name that works in a professional setting?

One in my opinion great example for a nickname that ticks all these boxes is Roland Meyer’s social media handle. He has been doing research on operational images and has picked “@bildoperationen” as his Twitter handle, which uniquely describes his research area. I think this is a great example for an SFW (safe for work) name that combines his interests and his work perfectly.

You can get inspirations for what people in your field do by looking around: what types of domains do people in your discipline use who can’t or don’t want to use their name as their domain name?

How and Where to Purchase Your Domain

Now, after many explanations and descriptions, you are finally ready: You have a domain name that really rings well, and it is definitely not yet taken. So how do you go about purchasing it?

As I mentioned, you first need to identify a provider to register it with. If you already have decided on where you want to actually host your website, you can often simply buy the domain in addition to the web hosting package; many providers offer both as a bundle. If you haven’t (I will give advice on how to select an appropriate hoster in one of the next articles), try to search for a provider that also offers you to simply buy the domain and not yet anything else.

I personally can recommend Host Europe and Netcup. Both are German companies, but as far as I’m aware they also offer their services internationally. Their prices are fair, and they are competent in what they do. Also, as a bonus if you’re not in the European Union: Since they are, they are bound by the GDPR, meaning that even as a US citizen you can experience the freedom of not having to worry which Nigerian prince will lay hands on your personal contact information next.

But there are international ones as well. I have heard that apparently Cloudflare is also good as a domain provider, so feel free to check it out. Whatever you choose, here are some ground rules these providers need to give you:

  1. You need to be actually the owner of the domain. I haven’t seen a provider that doesn’t do that. But in principle, a provider is free to register the domain for themselves and then only give you access to it for as long as you are a customer with them. As an owner of the domain, you can request a transfer of the domain from one to the next provider, if you want to switch providers.
  2. The domain should be decoupled from any hosting package. This will come in handy if you want to switch what package you have from the provider. Some may limit your choices.
  3. You need to have the ability to edit the DNS/Nameserver entries for that domain. That may be irrelevant right now, but it is a super powerful ability that opens tons of amazing possibilities to you, and a few modifications are necessary when pointing your domain to your new website. I’ll go over the actual settings you’ll need in a future article.

Conclusion

And there you have it. As it turns out, there are a lot of decisions to make before you purchase your own domain, but this is a one-time cost. Once you purchase a domain, there is little you have to think about: You just need to pay the fees for keeping the domain, and ensure that you renew the domain every year (most providers do that automatically for you, but there may be exceptions).

Next, it is time to delve into how to actually plan your website, but that I will tackle in the next article. See you then!

Suggested Citation

Erz, Hendrik (2023). “Academic Website II: Choosing a Custom Domain”. hendrik-erz.de, 1 Dec 2023, https://www.hendrik-erz.de/post/academic-website-ii-choosing-a-custom-domain.

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