Domain names serve to identify Internet resources, such as computers, networks, and services, with a text-based label that is easier to memorize than the numerical addresses used in the Internet protocols. A domain name may represent entire collections of such resources or individual instances. Individual Internet host computers use domain names as host identifiers, also called hostnames. The term hostname is also used for the leaf labels in the domain name system, usually without further subordinate domain name space. Hostnames appear as a component in Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) for Internet resources such as web sites (e.g., en.wikipedia.org).
A domain name consists of one or more labels, each of which is formed from the set of ASCII letters, digits, and hyphens (a-z, A-Z, 0-9, -), but not starting or ending with a hyphen. The labels are case-insensitive; for example, 'label' is equivalent to 'Label' or 'LABEL'. In the textual representation of a domain name, the labels are separated by a full stop (period).
Many desirable domain names are already assigned and users must search for other acceptable names, using Web-based search features, or WHOIS and dig operating system tools. Many registrars have implemented domain name suggestion tools which search domain name databases and suggest available alternative domain names related to keywords provided by the user.
Registries and registrars usually charge an annual fee for the service of delegating a domain name to a user and providing a default set of name servers. Often, this transaction is termed a sale or lease of the domain name, and the registrant may sometimes be called an "owner", but no such legal relationship is actually associated with the transaction, only the exclusive right to use the domain name. More correctly, authorized users are known as "registrants" or as "domain holders".
During the 32nd International Public ICANN Meeting in Paris in 2008, ICANN started a new process of TLD naming policy to take a "significant step forward on the introduction of new generic top-level domains." This program envisions the availability of many new or already proposed domains, as well as a new application and implementation process. Observers believed that the new rules could result in hundreds of new top-level domains to be registered. In 2012, the program commenced, and received 1930 applications. By 2016, the milestone of 1000 live gTLD was reached.
For special purposes, such as network testing, documentation, and other applications, IANA also reserves a set of special-use domain names. This list contains domain names such as example, local, localhost, and test. Other top-level domain names containing trade marks are registered for corporate use. Cases include brands such as BMW, Google, and Canon.
Second-level (or lower-level, depending on the established parent hierarchy) domain names are often created based on the name of a company (e.g., bbc.co.uk), product or service (e.g. hotmail.com). Below these levels, the next domain name component has been used to designate a particular host server. Therefore, ftp.example.com might be an FTP server, www.example.com would be a World Wide Web server, and mail.example.com could be an email server, each intended to perform only the implied function. Modern technology allows multiple physical servers with either different (cf. load balancing) or even identical addresses (cf. anycast) to serve a single hostname or domain name, or multiple domain names to be served by a single computer. The latter is very popular in Web hosting service centers, where service providers host the websites of many organizations on just a few servers.
Critics often claim abuse of administrative power over domain names. Particularly noteworthy was the VeriSign Site Finder system which redirected all unregistered .com and .net domains to a VeriSign webpage. For example, at a public meeting with VeriSign to air technical concerns about SiteFinder, numerous people, active in the IETF and other technical bodies, explained how they were surprised by VeriSign's changing the fundamental behavior of a major component of Internet infrastructure, not having obtained the customary consensus. SiteFinder, at first, assumed every Internet query was for a website, and it monetized queries for incorrect domain names, taking the user to VeriSign's search site. Unfortunately, other applications, such as many implementations of email, treat a lack of response to a domain name query as an indication that the domain does not exist, and that the message can be treated as undeliverable. The original VeriSign implementation broke this assumption for mail, because it would always resolve an erroneous domain name to that of SiteFinder. While VeriSign later changed SiteFinder's behaviour with regard to email, there was still widespread protest about VeriSign's action being more in its financial interest than in the interest of the Internet infrastructure component for which VeriSign was the steward.