Everything You Need to Know About .Gov Domains
Updated May 2018. Several years ago, we were writing about how to choose and buy a domain for your town. In this post, we are including additional information and changes in domain registration regarding government domain names.
The .gov domain is a prestigious top-level domain restricted to government entities. It comes at a price, and that price is increased from $125/yr to $400/yr on January 1st, 2017. The fee was the same for new registrations and for annual renewals. The fee increase takes account of the increased operational costs of maintaining the .gov top-level domain, which had not increased since 2003. Of course, towns are not limited to .gov domains, but they are often preferred for their official reputation.
What’s a Domain Name?
First of all, if you’re wondering what a domain is, here is a brief description. A domain name is the name that you choose for your website and is followed by .com, .org, .gov and other variations. Once you register it to your website, users can reach your website by typing this domain name into the browser's address bar (eg. www.townweb.com).
Only one person/company can own a domain name at any one time. So if you want ‘www.domainnames.com’ but someone else has it, you will need to either find another name or offer to buy it from them. Another option is to wait for it to expire and hope they don't re-register it, but you could be waiting a very long time!
The History of the .Gov Domain
The most popular web domain is the ubiquitous .com because it’s easy to remember and sounds legitimate. Other domain addresses, such as .biz and .net, can be difficult to remember or sound less professional. However, the .gov domain is a government-specific top-level domain which comes with the Federal seal of approval and inherent legitimacy.
The .gov domain name was first established in 1985 as a generic top-level domain (TLD) for government entities in the United States. The USA is the only country to have established a government top level domain. This is the direct result of the U.S. federal government’s role in sponsoring a research network to create the Internet. Other countries usually delegate a second-level domain for this purpose, such as .gov.co.uk in the United Kingdom. The website for domain name registration has been administered by the General Services Administration (GSA) since 1997.
In 2003, the GSA codified existing guidance and best practice methods for domain management and applied them across governmental and non-governmental bodies. They expanded the .gov domain to permit inclusion of state, local, and tribal governments (SLTTs). All governments in the U.S. were allowed to apply for delegations in gov before May 2012, but then the Federal Executive Branch changed its policy. Now it will only register second-level domains for its agencies on a case-by-case basis. Agencies are also prohibited from using other top-level domains such as .org and .com.
The first .gov domain name was registered to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA was responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. These technologies included the Internet and DARPA-funded projects have influenced many non-military fields like computer networking. These days, any government entity such as courts, police departments and local authorities can apply for a .gov domain.
Domain meaning of .Gov
As mentioned above, a .gov was restricted for use by government entities, and not to be used for commercial purposes. There are government agencies that do use a .com name instead of the .gov, such as the United States Postal Service (https://www.usps.com/) and that is presumably because they target primarily customers for commercial purposes.
While the Department of Defense uses a .gov domain name, the military branches underneath the DoD actually use the .mil TLD. For example, the US Navy's website is http://www.navy.mil/, but their recruitment uses a .com (https://www.navy.com/joining-the-navy)
By using a .Gov name, your municipality will have the prestige of a unique and government-only TLD. Although it is a bit pricier, it will brand your municipal website as official.
.Gov Domain Controversies
Domain misuse has long been a contentious issue. The .gov domain is more susceptible controversial issues, misguidance and public confusion. The problem stems from people's habit of searching for words with a .com suffix by default. If the government body doesn’t own both the.gov and the .com, then it’s a free-for-all and anyone can buy similar domains.
The most infamous example is that of the www.whitehouse.com debacle where a porn website was frequently confused with the official White House website. The website was owned by Daniel Parisi from 1997 until he eventually sold it in 2004 citing fears that his son’s peers might taunt him once he started school. In fact, he was right to be concerned; his site drew more than 2 million visitors each month and some of them were children who stumbled upon the website by accident when doing school projects.
It’s natural for internet users to type the more common .com than the official .gov of the www.whitehouse.gov and many web browsers simply add '.com' to the end of an address if no suffix is entered into the address bar. In the meantime, the website had earned Parisi a cool $1 million a year. Nowadays (as of Spring 2018) the www.whitehouse.com website is showing a news-like site on the page. It shows highlights of US federal government news, and it says that it is not affiliated with the Federal government.
The satirical whitehouse.org domain was a similar nuisance to the White House. Created by Chickenhead Productions in 2001, but first registered six years earlier, it parodied of George W. Bush and his administration – although it didn’t get any laughs from the White House. In 2018, the website is poking fun of Donald Trump and is sponsored by "Make The White House Great Again" PAC.
Another minor controversy occurred in June 2015 when Powhatan County, Virginia bought the domain PowhatanVa.com and citizens questioned the acquisition. Powhatan County won the auction on May 19 with a bid of $1,630 and defended the purchase by claiming that if they hadn’t bid on it someone else would have. The County had been inundated with complaints from citizens and others who had been confused because they thought the .com web address was the county’s official site. When the County acquired the new site, all traffic was redirected to the official www.PowhatanVa.gov site.
It’s worth considering owning both the .com and .gov domains to prevent copycat websites that could damage your brand or spread misinformation. However, some smaller municipalities might not have the budget to acquire the .gov domain name. Having the .gov domain is the "gold standard," because it is not possible for anybody to buy the dot gov version.
Pros and Cons of a .Gov Domain
The big advantage of a .gov TLD is that it adds legitimacy and credibility to your website. The gov TLD is associated with well-known federal agencies like NASA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and USA.gov. Visitors know that it can be trusted because of its bureaucratic classification and inherent official backing. The branding can help the web user easily identify what you do or the county in which you do it. For example, a private company with the same name as your town could have a .com website but they couldn’t have a .gov one.
As mentioned earlier, similar-sounding domains could be used for nefarious or unethical purposes. Citizens could be misled to visit the wrong website, which would not only divert traffic from the official one but could potentially undermine your reputation. Another disadvantage is the relative expense and the more complicated paperwork. Buying other domains is a simple 5-minute process of registering your details and adding your credit card information.
How to Register a Dot Gov Name
The General Services Administration’s website administers .gov registrations at http://www.nic.gov, which is the official domain name registrant. At the Network Information Site, you will need to create an account with your contact details and those of your authorizing authority. It’s possible to search for available domain names by entering your desired name and seeing if it’s available. If that name is not available, consider variations using ‘village’, ‘county’ and ‘town’, such as townof[name].gov.
Towns must submit a letter of authorization to the GSA. All the relevant instructions, rules, and forms can be found here but the actual registration can be done here (https://domains.dotgov.gov/dotgov-web/).
Domains for cities require authorization from the mayor or equivalent official. Counties need authorization submitted by county commissioners or by the highest-ranking county official. After receipt of the authorization letter and DNS test pass (each domain must have at least one domain name server), the GSA will send you an email with payment instructions. The billing point of contact must then pay for the domain with a credit card.
As long as all the submitted information is accurate, the process can be completed within 48 hours. The GSA send a registration confirmation notice within one business day after you register your domain name. If your information is accurate and complete, you will receive a second notice on the same day or one business day later informing you that all of your information is in order.
The majority of requests take up to 30 days because the Chief Information Officer (CIO) needs time to approve them before handing them back to the registrar. Confirmation will be sent to you once your domain name has been activated.
In case you sent the wrong information or the registrar deems you ineligible for a .gov domain, your registration will be rejected. The GSA will send you a notice stating the reason for rejection.
If you have any questions throughout the registration process, contact the .Gov Helpdesk at [email protected] or (877) 734-4688.
Renewing a Dot Gov Domain Name
As of 2018, the cost for renewing a Dot Gov domain name is the same as the 1st year's Registration fee (currently $400/yr). According to the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations §102-173.45, the cost for a dot gov domain name will not exceed $1,000 and the price for renewal will not exceed $500/yr.
xxx§102-173.45 Is there a registration charge for domain names?
The General Services Administration (GSA) reserves the right to charge for domain names in order to recover cost of operations. For current registration charges, please visit the GSA Web site at http://www.nic.gov. GSA does not currently charge a fee. GSA has the authority to employ a system of collection that includes a one-time setup fee for new registrations, which will not exceed $1000, depending on the level of assistance that may be provided by GSA, and a recurring annual charge that will not exceed $500 for all dot-gov domains. The fees are based on anticipated costs for operating the registration service.
How to Get Dot Gov Branded Email Address?
Getting a dot gov branded email address is actually easier than you think. To start you first need a dot gov domain. After that, your website provider or IT Specialist can set up the mail services needed to connect your dot gov name to an email service provider. This set up entails adding the MX records in your domain so that new email accounts can be created. Emails can then be sent and delivered through your email provider's servers. We have a more in-depth article about the advantages of branded email addresses for your municipality here.
And if you ever need help setting up dot gov branded email addresses, please do not hesitate to reach out to Town Web!
Whois DOTGOV Lookup
In case you do not know what a "Whois Lookup" is, it is a search for the owner/registrant of a domain name. When you perform a Whois search, you can see when the domain was originally registered, who registered it, and the mailing address of the registrant (if the domain is not set up with privacy). Unfortunately the Whois search for a Dot Gov domain is less informative. This is partly due to the fact that a Dot Gov will be registered by the official government agency that it represents.
To do a WHOIS look up, you can visit the official Whois DOTGOV and enter in the domain name. In this example below, the search for ElPasoTexas.gov reveals only that it is not a Federal agency, and that it is registered to the City of El Paso, and that the domain name is Active.
Need Help Getting a Dot Gov Name?
If you never need help getting a .dot gov name for your municipality, just contact us! We are happy to help.
Dustin Overbeck, President
Call Toll Free: 877-995-TOWN (8696)