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What is a top-level domain (TLD)?

A top-level domain (TLD) is the last part of a website address that comes after the dot. Some well-known TLDs include .com, .org, and .net, as well as country-specific ones like .nl and .de. You can see a top-level domain as a suffix at the end of a word that gives you information about the website. TLDs are used to categorize and organize websites on the internet.

In the example below, .com is the top-level domain extension.

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Why are top-level domains important?

To understand why top-level domains are important, you need to know how the domain name system (DNS) works. Computers can only recognize numbers, not names. The true “names” of websites are their IP addresses, not their domain names. The DNS was invented to make browsing the Internet much easier. After all, you likely can’t remember “185.87.187.6”, but you can remember openprovider.com!

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All IP addresses on the internet are connected to a unique domain, just like addresses in the real world are connected to particular houses or buildings. After you type in a domain name in your browser and hit Enter, your computer will connect to the DNS to retrieve the IP address of the website you want to visit. Your browser will then lead you to this website. This article about the technical side of DNS is a great resource to learn if you want to know more about this.

What are the different types of top-level domains?

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Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs)

You are probably already familiar with the domain extension connected to your country, such as .de for Germany, .in for India, and .uk for the United Kingdom. These country-specific domain extensions are called ccTLDs (Country Code Top-Level Domains). An important difference between ccTLDs and other types of TLDs is that ccTLDs always consist of two characters, while other TLDs are made up of three or more.

As of 2024, there are 308 different ccTLDs in use. In some countries, however, they are in wider use than in others. .cn (China), .nl (Netherlands), and .de (Germany) are some examples of domains that are very popular in their countries of origin, often much more so than generic top-level domains like .com.

While ccTLDs are all connected to a particular country, you usually do not necessarily need to live here to register one. Anyone around the world can register these ccTLDs. Some of these ccTLDs are particularly well-suited for an offbeat website name! 

For example, .tv is a well-used ccTLD in the media industry, while originally it was the country code for the small island of Tuvalu! Meanwhile, .co started life as the dedicated domain extension for Colombia but gained popularity as an alternative to .com. And many other companies have gotten creative with .me (Montenegro), .ai (Anguilla, and “artificial intelligence”), and .io (British Indian Ocean Territory, and also shorthand for the term “input-output”, which is used in the software industry). 

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Generic top-level domains (gTLDs)

Most domain extensions that are not ccTLds are called gTLDs (generic top-level domains). gTLDs are the most popular type of domain extension, and also the first ones to be available for Internet users to register. The first gTLDs became available for public use on 24 February 1986: .com, .net, .org, .gov, .edu, and .mil. ccTLDs would arrive a few years later.

Besides these classic extensions, you can also find a host of “newer” generic top-level domains on the Internet these days. In 2011, ICANN, the authority that oversees domains, launched a plan to introduce more gTLDs to the Internet to diversify the number of domain extensions. After all, as the Internet is growing all the time, the number of websites online will likely continue to expand.

This “new gTLD program” has received over 1900 applications for new extensions. Out of these, ICANN approved over 1200, and most of these are now open for registrations. Some popular examples of new gTLDs are .xyz, .online, .top, .site and .shop.

One particular subset of generic top-level domains that has been rising in popularity over the past years are geographical ones, associated with particular cities and regions. From .abudhabi to .yokohama, a growing number of large cities around the world have their own domain extension, which makes for great options for local businesses and entrepreneurs.

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Sponsored top-level domains (sTLDs)

Sponsored top-level domains (sTLDs) are top-level domains sponsored by private agencies and organizations. Their use is reserved for particular groups and organizations. Two examples of sTLDs are .gov and .edu, which can only be used by official government agencies (.gov) and official educational institutions (.edu).

Infrastructure top-level domain (ARPA)

There is only one infrastructure top-level domain on the Internet, which is .arpa. This top-level domain is used exclusively for Internet infrastructure purposes, and regular Internet users can't register a domain name with this extension. The name of this TLD comes from ARPA, the organization responsible for developing ARPANET, a precursor to the Internet as we know it today.

Test top-level domains (tTLD)

There are four test top-level domains on the Internet: .test, .example, .invalid, and .localhost. These extensions are used for testing and development only, offering a safe and controlled environment for developers to work on projects, without the risk of conflicting with existing production domains. Just like .arpa, regular users can’t register a domain with tTLDs.

Unofficial top-level domains

Unofficial top-level domains are not regulated or managed by ICANN, the governing body of the domain name system. This means that they are not part of the DNS and can only be used within a certain network or using a private DNS. With the rising popularity of Web3 and blockchain technology, there has been an influx of unofficial TLDs that are associated with it, such as .eth, .crypto, and .metaverse.

How many top-level domains are there?

As of February 2024, there are 1,450 top-level domains approved by ICANN, the official organization that is responsible for managing and overseeing domain names. However, not all of these TLDs are available for registration by everyone. Some have very strict registration requirements. Others, like .netflix and .nokia, are brand-specific TLDs that are only used for the websites of these particular companies. 

This list does not include second-level domains, such as .co.uk, as well as unofficial TLDs, such as .eth and .crypto. These TLDs use blockchain technology to provide a decentralized way to register and manage domain names. Because of this, they are not governed by ICANN and not offered by typical, ICANN-accredited domain registrars, such as Openprovider

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Who is responsible for managing TLDs?

All TLDs are officially managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN manages domain names and IP addresses, ensuring that when you type in a web address, your browser gets directed to the correct website. Registrars, like Openprovider, need to be accredited by ICANN to be able to sell domains. ICANN is also responsible for the approval and launch of new TLDs. 

The daily operations of individual top-level domains are in the hands of domain registries. Domain registries organize and manage the ownership and details of different individual web addresses on the internet. Each registry keeps a large database of all domain names that are registered with their particular TLD(s), together with the data of the registrants that are connected to these domains. While some registries only have one TLD under management, others manage hundreds of domain extensions at once. This is especially the case for new gTLDs.

Do top-level domains affect SEO?

As a general rule of thumb: no. Most domain extensions are not going to have a positive or negative impact on your SEO results. A website with a popular TLD like .com does not necessarily rank higher than niche gTLDs, like .amsterdam or .agency. Using a niche domain extension, like these latter two, can be more beneficial for your SEO results than a .com domain if (part) of your business name or location is reflected in the domain extension. For example, if you are creating a website for a marketing agency, or for a restaurant in Amsterdam, using .agency or .amsterdam could give a positive boost to your ranking.

In 2022, Google executive John Mueller made some enlightening comments about domain extensions and their relationship to SEO results on Reddit. As a Google Search Advocate, he is one of the few people in the world who has concrete insights into the mechanisms that determine how Google ranks websites in search results.

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On the thread, Mueller advised against using free or extremely cheap top-level domains that are overrun with spam. Using these will likely not be beneficial for the SEO results of a serious website. He also discouraged people from using ccTLDs to achieve “domain hacks” (such as nationwi.de), stating that it is not a recommended choice if you are not targeting the associated country at all. However, ccTLDs that are used as gTLDs, such as .co, .ai, .io, and .tv, are in fact treated as gTLDs by Google. This means that using these domain extensions will not negatively affect your SEO results.

It is important to remember that an effective SEO strategy takes considerable effort and includes many small building blocks, of which choosing the best domain name and extension is only one. Factors such as technical SEO, high-quality content, page speed, and metadata play a much larger role than your choice of domain extension.

How to choose the best TLD for your website?

With so many different choices available, it can be hard to pick the best top-level domain for your website. Here are a few tips to choose the best one for you:

  • A classic gTLD like .com or .net: Classic generic top-level domains are intuitive picks. A plus of these domains is that they are very well-known, which makes your domain name easier to remember for your prospective visitors and customers. However, a downside of these TLDs is that there are already millions of registered domain names with these extensions, which can make it difficult to find a memorable and suitable name that is still available. 

  • TLDs based on your location: A ccTLD like .de or .es is an intuitive pick if you want to highlight your national identity or physical location in your website URL. For example, these would be great picks if you are running an e-commerce store that only ships to addresses in a particular country. Besides ccTLDs, there’s a wide array of location-specific gTLDs to choose from - from .berlin to .tokyo. And, if you don’t want to limit your domain to just one city or country, you can still be global with an extension like .asia, .world, or .earth!

  • TLDs based on your website or business type: If you want to branch out from classic extensions, there are many original top-level domains to choose from that tie in with the product or service that you are offering. What about .coffee for a cafe, .art to showcase your artist portfolio, .fm for a radio station, or .app for a website promoting an application you have created? 

  • Stand out with an offbeat gTLD: If you want something to make your website stand out from the crowd, there are plenty of options! They might not be a fit for everyone, but one thing is for sure: no one will quickly forget a domain that ends in .love, .ninja, .lol, .wtf or .meme. Don’t worry: as we mentioned before, using a gTLD like this does not hurt your SEO score.

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Which are the most popular top-level domains?

As of September 30, 2023, these are the ten most popular domain extensions on the Internet:

.com – 160+ million registrations 

If you think of a domain extension, chances are you think of .com. It is one of the oldest, most popular, and arguably the most well-known generic top-level domains in the world. .com domain names make up over 45% of domain names on the Internet!

.cn – 20+ million registrations

The next domain extension on the list, .cn, is used “only” 20 million times, showing how common .com truly is. .cn is the ccTLD of China, and the majority of websites that use this domain extension are connected to Chinese individuals and businesses. 

.de - 17+ million registrations

With over 17 million registrations, .de, the ccTLD of Germany, is the third domain extension on this list. Germany was one of the first countries to get its own ccTLD, and this country has always been at the forefront of developments in the technology industry at large.

.net - 13+ million registrations 

The second most popular gTLD after .com, .net is one of the oldest and most widely used gTLDs on the Internet. Originally intended for use by websites about network technology, this restriction has since been lifted. Nowadays, .net is a versatile domain extension used by websites of all kinds.

.uk - 11+ million registrations

The fifth place on this list is taken up by .uk, the ccTLD for the United Kingdom. Many of these 11 million .uk domains are actually registered under .co.uk, which is much more popular than its parent extension. 

.org - 10+ million registrations

Just like .com and .net, .org is one of the oldest domain extensions on the Internet, and consistently one of the most popular ones. This top-level domain is associated with non-profit organizations, making it a well-used choice among charities, libraries, and museums.

.nl - 6+ million registrations

Although the Netherlands is a much smaller country than the ones associated with the other ccTLDs on this list, .nl is a very popular TLD. For every three inhabitants of the Netherlands, there is one .nl domain!

.ru - 5+ million registrations

Looking at the size of Russia, it should be no surprise that the ccTLD for the largest country on Earth makes it into the top 10. In the past, .ru used to rank higher on this list, but in recent years this top-level domain has been going through a decline in use - although its use is still high enough to send it to the eighth place on this list.

.br - 5+ million registrations

While .ru is falling, .br is rising - and as Brazil’s economy is growing, the rise of the country’s ccTLD is expected to continue as well. Not a bad result for a top-level domain that “only” hit one million registrations in 2006!

.au - 4+ million registrations

Last on this list is .au, the ccTLD for Australia. According to an interesting survey from the .au registry, auDA, three out of four Australian small businesses use a .au domain for their website, and more than half of Australian consumers will only make an online purchase from an e-commerce site with a .au domain name.

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How to register a top-level domain?

You can’t exactly register a unique top-level domain of your own. However, you can register a domain name with all open, available TLDs through an ICANN-accredited registrar, such as Openprovider. Simply enter the domain name of your choice in the search bar below to see if it is still available. If it is, you can register it in just a few clicks!

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