what is top domain level

The main building block of your website address is none other than the Top-Level Domain (TLD) – or, commonly, the last segment after the dot sign, consisting of three or more characters. This domain extension identifies your website as a particular type, directing visitors more effectively.

This article answers questions related to the definition of TLDs, their variations, their importance in domain registration, and how they affect SEO and website credibility. You will also learn about terms like second-level domain (SLD), which is invaluable to the intricate dynamics of internet addressing.

Now, let us begin.

Definition of a top-level domain (TLD)

Your website’s internet address is a part of your online identity, serving as your unique identifier and ushering guests to your virtual doorstep. The TLD has a direct impact on traffic from the right geographical area so that you can target your audience more effectively.

Still, what is a top-level domain, put more precisely? That is the part of the website address that follows the final dot. For instance, in www.example.com, the TLD is .com

In technical terms, TLD is the highest level of domain names in the so-called domain name system (DNS). The DNS is a decentralized system for managing TLDs and translating them into IP addresses, which computers use to find each other online.

Examples of popular TLDs (.com, .org, .net, .gov, etc.)

Some popular TLDs include .com, .org, .net, .gov, and country-code top-level domains like .uk or .de

Each TLD has a purpose – a community theme concept around which it operates:

  • .com is intended for commercial sites but can be registered by anyone;
  • .org is intended for organizations (typically non-profits);
  • .net was initially designed for technology-related production networks but can now be registered by anyone;
  • .gov is reserved for US government agencies, though its variations like gov.uk and gc.ca can be seen for government agencies of specific countries;
  • .edu is reserved for educational institutions.

We look at the different TLDs in one of the following sections after explaining how these domains are used in creating website domains.

How TLDs are used in domain names

Top-level domains are used to denote the category or country in which the website penetrates. 

We see several things if we look at NEXT BASKET’s domain name, www.nextbasket.com:

  • The domain name is set to NEXT BASKET, indicating it is related to some sort of shopping; in this case, ecommerce, and more specifically, the provision of an ecommerce platform for business owners.
  • Then, we see the top-level domain, which is .com. By default, the language of the site is set to English, so for the UK and USA, there is currently no country code assigned.
  • Finally, if you were to view, say, the Bulgarian version of the website, you would have the full country code top-level domain, which will consist of /bg after the TLD. This website version will open automatically for users whose geographic location’s primary language is English.

It ought to be noted that your top-level and second-level domains should be differentiated from the country codes, which can be used as language versions of the same website.

Types of TLDs (generic, country-code, sponsored, etc.)

You will encounter several TLDs – generic, country-code, and sponsored top-level domains. You can also find others like infrastructure, geographic, thematic, brand, reserved, and internationalized.

We have decided to focus on the main ones, which are the most common. Let’s look at each one separately in the paragraphs below.

Generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs)

Generic TLDs are highly recognized domains open to general registration, meaning any individual or organization can do it. That makes these the most common TLDs of the bunch.

Widely recognized examples of the generic top-level domain category are .com (used by commercial websites), .net (originally used by local networks), and .org (used by organizations). As part of an effort to broaden the domain landscape, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has been introducing new gTLDs like .app, .blog, .info, .ai, etc.

Country-code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs)

Those are two-letter domain extensions corresponding to countries, sovereign states, or territories. For instance, .us represents the United States, .jp – Japan, .uk – United Kingdom, .de – Germany, etc.

Country-code top-level domains are popular mostly around businesses and organizations targeting customers or audiences in a specific geographic region. 

However, because of territorial changes they can sometimes lead to conflicts, as was the case with the nominally assigned to the British Indian Ocean Territory .io ccTLD. In 2021 after the UK had gone through with Brexit, it became an object of dispute initiated by the Irish government.

Sponsored Top-Level Domains (sTLDs)

Proposed and maintained by private agencies, private organizations or international organizations that establish and enforce rules restricting the eligibility to use the TLD. Examples of sponsored top-level domains include .gov (government agencies), .edu (educational institutions), and .mil (military).

Test TLDs

As the name suggests, test top-level domains are a kind of reserved top-level domains, for documentation purposes and local testing purposes. They are not present in the root zone, so they cannot be registered. 

Some examples of test TLDs are the .test, .example, .localhost, .invalid domain names.

The rest of the TLD types are much less popular. Such is, for one, .arpa – an infrastructure top-level domain used for Internet infrastructure purposes. It is managed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) for the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which is responsible for global DNS coordination and TLD delegation.

You can notice similar trends with other types of TLDs that are not used as much. On certain occasions, they serve to expand the reach of a company with the goal of targeting their audience more effectively and improving ranking results. 

For creating a new TLD, though, there are always specific criteria to fulfill.

Criteria for creating new TLDs

Domain suffixes vary, and it might seem easy to create one, but a set of rules regulates them. Whenever a new top-level domain is introduced, it must first be graded rigorously.

An applicant can be any organization, business, or government that applies to introduce a new TLD. Most commonly, those are domain registries, multinational corporations, cities, regions, or cultural community groups that wish to establish a TLD related to their brand, location, or interest area.

The Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) works in coordination with IANA and the IETF to manage domains in a just and equal manner for all users, following strict criteria, including:

  • Technical requirements. Applicants must demonstrate technical competence in running a domain name registry, such as having the infrastructure to support the operation, the ability to ensure the security and stability of the independent registry, and the capacity to handle local networks.
  • Financial requirements. Running a TLD registry requires a heavy wallet; therefore, applicants need to provide evidence of their financial stability and ability to maintain the registry operations over time.
  • Operational requirements. A plan is also necessary, so applications must address customer support, dispute resolution, and technical operations.
  • Purpose definition. New TLDs should have a clear mission or purpose. Take .edu, for example – it targets all educational institutions and can be widely used by more than one specific entity.

At the end of the day, the ideal TLD serves a purpose and contributes positively to the structure and reliability of the internet before it even has to be managed.

Domain name registration process and TLD selection

Domain name registration

The process of registering a domain name and selecting a TLD involves five steps that can be broken down further if necessary:

  1. Domain name selection: Pick a name that represents your brand, is easy to remember, and communicates your site’s purpose.
  1. TLD selection: Pick a TLD that aligns with your mission, target audience, and geographic location. Generic top-level domains are ideal for businesses, while country-code TLDs are suitable for geo-specific organizations and enterprises.
  1. Domain availability check: Use a domain registrar’s search tool to see if your chosen domain name and TLD are available.
  1. Domain registration: If your chosen domain is available, you can proceed with its registration, which will involve providing some personal information and payment details. If it’s taken, start again from step 1.
  1. Domain configuration: Once registered, you can configure your domain to point to your website. Contact the domain registrar’s support team if you have trouble with this step.

Remember, your website’s top level domain and brand name can have a greater or lesser impact on user perception. It’s not everything, of course, so if you want to go through something more challenging to implement as a brand image, plan carefully and execute boldly.

Importance of choosing the right TLD for your website or business

Generally, based on your site’s purpose, you determine which top-level domain extension fits it most.

An emerging trend among businesses, especially tech companies and commercial businesses, is using multiple TLDs. This strategy provides a brand protection buffer, capturing common misspellings, preventing competitors from registering similar domains, and catering to businesses operating in multiple regions or sectors.

If we look at a company with different websites across multiple countries, it can have a specific country-code TLD, while a tech company might own both the .com and .tech versions of its domain. For instance, Google owns Google.com and Google.net, among others.

Still, this should be taken with a grain of salt, as having multiple domains can dilute the website’s total inbound links because those spread over various domains. In other words, the fewer inbound links a domain has, the better. Or just have one domain redirect to the other, as is the case with the earlier example of Google, where the .net address redirects to the default .com address.

Thus, herein come several principles to keep in mind when choosing the right (and main) TLD for your website or business:

  • Trust and credibility: We will talk more about this later, but the kind of TLD you choose generally determines the type of people visiting it. Sponsored TLDs are seen as more trustworthy for apparent reasons, but the most popular generic and country-code TLDs are also. Put simply, the more unfamiliar you are with a TLD, the less credible it is likely to seem to users who see the address. So, best to choose more widely recognized options.
  • Brand recognition: Your brand can be more easily recognizable because of its TLD, which is a nice segway to branded URLs that aim to boost brand recognition through the sound and look of the domain address. If the whole website address (when read out loud with the dot before the TLD) has a rhythm to it, that makes it more memorable. When the TLD acts as an extension of the company name, it somehow feels even more approachable.
  • SEO: Search engine optimization is everywhere, and while TLDs don’t directly influence it, they do indirectly influence it under certain conditions. For instance, a ccTLD can help a website rank higher in country-specific search results.
  • Audience targeting. When your target audience is into what you are doing, you have a higher chance to target them with the appropriate TDL. Any ccTLD and sponsored TLD can be taken as an example here. Nowadays, many .ai extensions are also being used, targeting artificial intelligence enthusiasts.

You should know all about TLD by now, but you might still be wondering – how are addresses like .co.uk and .co.jp, for example, different from a regular TLD? If so, read up and see!

Differences between TLDs and second-level domains (SLDs)

When a TLD and an SLD are put together, they make up the primary DNS of a website, which is the full URL, such as www.example.com, needed to access the site that users can input into their browser instead of memorizing IP addresses – long strings of numbers that computers use to identify websites.

At the top of the domain name system (DNS) are top-level domains (TLDs) and second-level domains (SLDs) – components that are closely related but play distinct roles and carry unique characteristics.

Top-level domains come after the final dot in a website address, and they reside at what could be called the apex of the DNS hierarchy. ICANN is responsible for the categorization, and it manages top-level domains alongside IANA.

Contrarily, a second-level domain exists directly below a TLD in the DNS structure or, more specifically, to the left of it in a URL. That’s also why users often regard it as more important because it is the first thing they see.

In www.example.com, the TLD is .com, and the SLD is example. Users are likely to remember the SLD before the TLD, provided that it usually reflects the business’s name. This part of the domain name is commonly treated with even more care than a TLD might be.

In some cases, you will also see a third-level domain, which is a sort of subdomain to a website. These are used to organize and navigate different sections within the site structure, such as www.blog.example.com, where blog is the subdomain or third-level domain.

Some other differences between TLD and SLD to keep in mind are:

  • Naming options: TLDs are limited in number and are controlled by the global DNS, while SLDs are virtually unlimited because any domain owner can freely use a non-taken SLD.
  • Parameter area: TLD servers hold the information about which servers are authoritative for the SLDs beneath them, while SLDs hold information about subdomains and hostnames within their purview, which makes this a significant difference in the routing parameter area.
  • Registration process. TLDs are established by ICANN and IANA, following a specific protocol, while an SLD involves selecting an available domain name through a domain registrar.

As a curious finding, among the many kinds of SLDs, there are also those that consist of no more than a single letter. For instance, x.com.

A site with only one TLD is a common thing, but there are also many sites with single-letter SLDs, including Amazon (a.co), Google (g.co and g.cn), Visa (v.me), and more. 

Even the WordPress site’s TLD has a single-letter SLD registration – w.org.

TLDs and search engine optimization (SEO)

Search engines treat TLDs equally when it comes to organic search rankings, though using multiple TLDs, for instance, can create a diversified online presence.

There are additional factors that can indirectly be connected to better SEO performance:

  • Local SEO: Country-specific TLDs signal to search engines that a website is meant for the audience in a specific geographical location, and that can improve visibility in local search results.
  • Brand and trust signals: A reputable TLD like .com, .edu, and .gov can enhance user trust, potentially improving click-through rates and reducing bounce rates, which are considered valuable in SEO.
  • Keyword-rich TLDs: Some businesses use TLDs like .law or .ai as part of their branding, and while these don’t provide a direct ranking boost, they, too, can improve click-through rates by conveying relevancy to users.

How TLDs impact website credibility and authority

Before anything else, a TLD impacts the website’s credibility and authority because user perception drives everything – from the CTRs, leads, conversions, and, eventually, the business’ ROI. 

In that sense, there are more preferable options for a TLD when discussing businesses than educational institutions or government agencies. We already mentioned that the original gTLDS like .com, .org, and .net are a great pick because they tend to be viewed as more credible than new or niche TLDs.

However, you are not obliged to go by that rule. Always follow a plan that gives you a clear vision of your business and how you aim to execute it. If the TLD aligns with your website’s purpose, audience, and/or location, you may have no issues with whatever TLD you choose.

However, difficulties are not uncommon if you pick a non-mainstream TLD. Creating a brand image that turns an unusual TLD into a memorable one is possible, but that might take time and cost resources. 

Search engines might sometimes be programmed to favor certain TLDs, affecting visibility and credibility. However, the effect of such a potential scenario should not be expected to have much of an influence compared to keyword optimization, for instance.

As long as your broader digital strategy includes high-quality content, robust SEO practices, and a positive user experience, your pick of a TLD will act as a supplemental element unless you rely on it to target more specific groups like certain geographic regions. 

Website credibility and trust are built, and while the role of TLDs should not be understated, it should be accompanied by long-term, high-value operations that will bring you customers, even if you choose a less common top-level domain.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why would I choose anything different than cc top-level domains, gTLD, and sponsored TLDs?

It’s all about the way you target your audience, demonstrating your commitment to the brand and its followers. Nonetheless, if you already own gTLDs, ccTLDs, and/or sTLDs, then it’s unlikely you’ll need to narrow down further, though it’s still something that can be utilized for creating a certain effect. 

Why might a business use multiple TLDs?

To protect its brand, cater to different markets or countries, or provide services under various domain names.

How can local testing be conducted for websites with specific country-code top level domains?

ccTLD tests are best conducted using VPN or proxy servers. That way, you can simulate accessing the website from different geographical locations that align with the specific TLD.

Can a TLD be changed after a website has been established, and what are the implications?

It can be changed, but it could require changes to marketing materials and potentially confuse users if not adequately managed and redirected (from the old TLD to the new one).