Domain names are supposed to be unique and some are now worth quite a lot of money. Stumble upon a cool name and it could be worth serious cash. On a more realistic note, if you’re planning to launch a website of your own, finding out your name of choice is taken can be frustrating. But, find out who owns it and they may be open to offers.
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So how do you identify who owns a domain name? You use WHOIS.
What is WHOIS?
WHOIS isn’t an acronym, it literally means who is. It is run and managed by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and its approved registrars. It is a decentralized database run by those approved registrars on behalf of everyone. The database includes every domain name ever registered and some basic information about who owns it and when they bought it.
Whenever you look for a domain name on a website, the search engine queries WHOIS to see what data is held, if any, on the domain name you chose. The site you use to look for domain names will query the database, find out if the name is available and whether you can register it or not.
When you buy a domain name, you are required to provide some basic information to be entered into the WHOIS database. You will need to provide:
- Your name or business name
- Physical address
- Email address
- Phone number
- Contacts for queries
This is all then entered into the WHOIS database next to your domain name. This information will then be accessible to anyone on the internet who queries the WHOIS database for your domain name. This can be for offers, complaints or filings against the name. You do have the option to remain private for a fee though.
WHOIS isn’t just about ownership. It can also be used to trace spam websites, hacked sites or websites that have had malicious code injected into them. It can also be used to track fraud, identify website owners who post illegal content or who participate in shady practices.
Identify who owns a domain name using WHOIS
Finding out who owns a domain name is simple. You just need to go to a web host’s website and select Domains. You should see a search box in the center of the screen where you enter your name of choice. It queries its WHOIS database to see if the name is available or already registered.
I’ll use Namecheap for this example but you can use any web host you like. You can also access the WHOIS database directly through ICANN.
- Navigate to the Namecheap website.
- Enter a domain name into the center box and click the orange button with the magnifying glass to search.
- Check out the returns on the next page and select the TLD (Top Level Domain).
- Click WHOIS under Make Offer if the name is taken.
The next screen will show you the details of the current domain name owner as reported by the WHOIS database. You can now contact them if you would like to buy the name from them or note the expiry date if you would like to take it if it expires.
Domain name privacy
As mentioned above, domain name registrant details are available to anyone who cares to look for it. If you’re not comfortable with your name, address and phone number being on the internet you can opt for privacy. Most web hosts offer some kind of privacy service that keeps your details off the internet.
This service is a paid-for service but if you like to stay private may well be worth investing in. There are moves to restrict access to this identity information but for now it is fair game.
Choosing your domain name
Selecting a domain name is tougher than it seems unless you plan to use your name or business name. As domain names have been around for so long, most of the good ones are already taken by existing websites. There are speculators roaming the internet too who buy up likely looking names and offer them for sale at many thousands more than they bought it for.
It is obviously best if you’re looking for a name for a business to replicate the business name. You can also buy other domain names that work and point them all to the same website. For example, Toms Plumbing Supplies could use; tomsplumbingsupplies.com, tomsplumbingsupplies.net, tomsplumbingsupplies.shop, tomsplumbingsupplies.store, tomsplumbingsupplies.trade and so on. As long as there is at least one TLD in the mix you’re golden.
If your name of choice has already been taken, you have several options. You can:
- Select a different TLD – Change .com to .ninja, .net, .org or something else.
- Change the name slightly so it is different.
- Add a hyphen into the name so it is unique.
- Add a geographical location to the end to make it unique.
Changing a domain name only slightly is a gray area, especially if you and the original domain name holder are in similar business. There have been a few lawsuits where big companies have sued smaller ones because their domain names were similar. Usually ICANN looks after the interests of big business over the small one so on your own head be it. If you’re in a different area of business or interest, you should be fine.
TLD choice is important too. Top Level Domain means the suffix at the end of the name like .com, .net and so on. The top level are those main ones, country and internet. Then there are other domains such as .co, .me, .rocks and so on. These are next level domains.
If you are running a business, a Top Level Domain is essential. Lower levels may look cool but are not yet fully understood, accepted or trusted by many internet users. It is far better to have a .com at the end for a business than a .website. You can always buy one of these other TLDs and point it to the same site.
If you’re an individual, you can use whatever you like. Choose what TLD you want and use it as you see fit!