So you want to be somebody.com but haven't a clue where to start. You're about to enter the zany Internet real estate market, in which a ''domain name'' is a unique, valuable address on the World Wide Web. You can buy one for as little as $15 -- that is, if somebody hasn't already snapped up the name you want. (Otherwise, you might be squeezed like Bank of America, which forked over $3 million last month for loans.com.) But just try to use the darn thing and you're likely to grow frustrated.
While the basic price to register an Internet address has tumbled since last summer, when Network Solutions Inc. lost a government-sanctioned monopoly, domain names still aren't easy to manage. Creating a Web site at SusiesDayCare.com or receiving e-mail there requires more steps than simply registering the name.
And choices for staking a claim to your name grow more bewildering each month. Network Solutions remains the industry leader, registering more than 8 million of the roughly 9 million domains in existence. But competing registrars are slashing prices, countering the $35 a year Network Solutions and No. 2 player Register.com charge with rates ranging from $15 to zero.
First, the basics: In the same way a street address means people don't have to list their latitude and longitude, a domain name saves people from having to remember the numerical address of each computer online. So, for instance, you can type in ''www.washingtonpost.com'' instead of ''22.214.171.124.'' This routing happens automatically whenever you type in a Web address or send an e-mail; it's called ''domain name service,'' or DNS.
The vast majority of domain names end in .com, but .net and .org are growing in popularity. There are also about 250 country-code domains, such as .co.uk for the United Kingdom; although many U.S. registrars don't sell those, U.S. citizens can often register addresses under them. (For instance, Moldova markets .md addresses to doctors.) With your .com, .net or .org domain, you can use a moniker of up to 67 characters.
While you can register almost any name if it isn't taken, Congress passed a law last year imposing penalties on people who register trademarked names with the intent of profiting from them. Trademark fights can be fierce, so you should read your registrar's dispute-resolution policy before signing up. Another tip: Make sure your registrar requires a password for any changes to your domain registration; domains have been hijacked by outsiders who forged e-mails that appeared to come from legitimate holders of the name.
The next step after registering the domain name is doing something with it. Think of this name as a vacant lot, on which you can build a house (a Web site) and put up a mailbox (an e-mail address at the domain). Traditionally, people have paid their Internet providers to ''host'' their domain names, but these days the trend is to pay the registrar to provide the mailbox or forward the mail to your regular address, which often costs much less. This way, everything sent to helloSusiesDayCare.com would automatically appear, say, at SusieRogersaol.com. You can also have visitors to your Web address automatically transferred to another spot -- that's called Web address forwarding. For instance, visitors to www.lesliewalker.com wind up on my page at washingtonpost.com.
Costs for this vary. Some registars charge nothing for it, but Network Solutions will do Web address forwarding only as part of a $119 bundle of services, and each e-mail account costs an additional $60.
Network Solutions winds up costing more than most registrars even for the basic name registration, because its minimum price is $119 unless you pay your own Internet provider to host the domain directly, then provide Network Solutions with the proper technical information. Network Solutions says it charges extra to ''park'' domain names because it requires more work to change registration data later.
Register.com and competitors, by contrast, park names for free. Among the several dozen companies selling domain names, the cheapest I've found are TotalNIC.com, based in Australia (it registers names at $35 for two years) and Longview, Wash.-based Dotster ($25 for one year, discounted to $150 for a 10-year registration). These companies are chartered and overseen by a nonprofit group, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (http://www.icann.org).
The rock-bottom price is zero (this is the Internet, remember?) from a company that recently renamed itself NameZero.com. It gives free domain names to customers who agree to have an advertising toolbar appear on their NameZero-hosted Web page. I recently registered a name through NameZero.com and found the pages a tad clunky. But at zero cost -- vs. $119 from Network Solutions -- what's to lose for a vanity address?
Most businesses will want a classier look, without other companies' ads, for their Web sites. They may also need help as their Internet operations grow. Network Solutions says that's one reason it hasn't cut prices to match competitors; it has 250 people working in its customer call centers and is one of the few registrars to advertise a toll-free telephone line.
''Ninety percent of our business comes from small business,'' said Network Solutions spokesman Chris Clough. ''Am I going to put my business online -- paint my trucks with my domain name, get business cards with the address, do my brochures and all my marketing -- and then not have a phone number to call if I change my hosting information or have a technical problem?''
He has a point, and smart consumers will read the ''about the site'' information carefully before registering through any company. If I were Ford Motor Co., would I trust my trademark names to a start-up in Australia? I'm not sure. On the other hand, Network Solutions was a start-up once, too. And if I wanted to buy a name for a child and take it off the market for the next 10 years -- the maximum length you can reserve a name for -- paying $150 to Dotster is a lot cheaper than the $350 and up Network Solutions charges.
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