What Makes a Good Domain Name

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Your site’s up and running, so you don’t need to worry about your domain name, right? Think again. A few simple rules can help you get more value out of your site’s address.

For most of us, the domain naming process is an exercise in frustration. With most of the good domain names already taken, finding a name that works for your company can be a tedious trial-and-error process. If you’ve ever spent an hour drilling through names at a registration site, like WhoIs.net, you know how bad the process can be. As a result, many Webmasters are happy to grab the first name vaguely like their company’s name.

That’s too bad, because it leads to a proliferation of bad domain names. For example, suppose you’re the Webmaster for a company called Three Letter Acronym, Inc. You’d like to register the name “tla.com” but, like all the three-letter combinations, it’s already registered. Hmmm…Aha! It looks like “tla-inc.com” is available, so you grab it. Too bad, you just registered a truly awful domain name. With a little more work, you might have registered something better.

Before we look at what’s wrong with a name like “tla-inc.com,” it’s worth asking whether your domain name matters at all. In our experience during nearly six years online is that, yes, it definitely matters, but in ways that you may not expect. The real value of a domain name isn’t helping people find your site the first time; it’s helping them find it the second time, after they forgot to bookmark it.

Odds are that most visitors come to your site from another Web site, either by clicking on a banner, following a link on someone else’s site, or drilling through results in a search engine. If they like your site, that’s great; maybe they’ll bookmark it. Then again, maybe they won’t. Lots of people bookmark sites until their list of favorites becomes an unwieldy mess, then they stop bookmarking. To find your site again, these people have to remember how they found it the first time. In a situation like this, a good domain is worth a lot.

In fact, it may be worth more than you realize. The hard part about domain name problems is that you can’t tell when you have them. You can’t look in your server logs and see the domain misspellings and mistakes that keep people from finding your site. As a result, it’s hard to put a value on the business lost due to a bad domain name.

So what exactly is wrong with “tla-inc.com?” Well, about the only thing that’s right about it is that it’s available. In nearly every other way, it breaks these basic rules of a good domain name:

  1. Don’t be cryptic. Use the name by which people know your company. In practice that usually means don’t abbreviate, unless the abbreviation is your company’s trademark. Since many hi-techcompanies are better known by their three-letter abbreviation, most of them are forced to register an alternate domain. That’s the case with our mythical company TLA, Inc.

If that’s the case, it’s better to register “threeletteracronym.com,” instead something like “tla-inc.com,” or “threeletterac.com.” At least visitors have a chance of correctly guessing your domain name if it spells out the company’s name. If you’re not sure what people might guess, take a poll: ask your co-workers what domain name they’d expect your company to have; ask your customers; ask your friends; ask everyone you can.

Also, keep in mind that domain names can now be 67 characters long, instead of the old 26 character limit, so you should be able to get your full company’s name. Typing a long domain name may seem undesirable, but if your company name requires that extra space, it’s worth considering.

The easiest way to follow this rule may be this: consider how your domain name sounds when you have to read it over the phone to a customer. If you have to explain special characters, abbreviations, or spelling, then you’ve got a problem.

  1. Avoid dashes. With the number of good domain names dwindling, dashes will eventually become commonplace, but at the moment they’re anything but that. People simply don’t know that domain names can include dashes.

Wal-Mart, the big American retailer, learned that lesson the hard way. The company first launched its e-commerce site as “wal-mart.com,” the company’s official name. They lost millions in sales before registering “walmart.com.” Now both domain names take you to the same Web site.

  1. Register multiple versions of your name. When you poll your customers and friends about your domain name, don’t let the majority decide your domain name. Instead, try to register every name that’s mentioned. Someone, somewhere will use that name to find you. It only costs $70 to register a domain name, and that’s not much of an expense to avoid losing a customer.

If your company’s name is hard to spell, register every common misspelling of its name. Unfortunately for Wal-Mart, a domain speculator has already registered “wallmart.com.” Too bad, since that’s the way many people spell the company’s name.

Register every domain people might use to find your company. That includes products and services your company offers. Then point all these domains to your home page. It’s easy to do. Register.com offers URL forwarding services that will tie additional domain names to your Web site for $50 a year. Just register the new domain through their service; visitors will be automatically redirected to your home page.

Finally, no matter what your name is or how many domains you’ve registered, it’s a good idea to support the domain name. Reinforce it by incorporating it into your site’s logo. In addition, put your domain name on all company collateral materials, like your business cards and stationary. That last part is an easy step, yet it’s surprising how many companies forget to do it. In a digital age, your company’s Web site is its electronic business card.

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