Let’s start with the idea that the domain name should be memorable. Put another way, it should be easy to remember. What helps make a domain name stick in one’s mind?
For openers, size matters. You want a short domain name. Not everyone who visits your web site is going to bookmark it right away. Who will want to take the time to type out “myfabulousbusinessdomainsellingawesomebluewidgets.com”? That’s a permitted domain, by the way; it’s well under the limit of 63 characters. But I wouldn’t recommend that you register it.
A memorable domain name is also easy to pronounce. Even if you have your domain name printed on business cards and in your tag line in email and on forums, there will be plenty of times when you’re talking with someone on the phone (or in person), when you tell them your URL verbally. Also, when someone is trying to recall the name of a business, they’ll often say it out loud or to themselves. When you’re brainstorming your domain name, try saying it as you would to refer someone over the phone: “You can place your order through my web site at thecoolestsiteontheweb.com.” If your tongue trips over it, or you feel as if you have to spell any part of it, you need to brainstorm some more.
Speaking of spelling, you should also make sure your domain is easy to spell. I know that may seem less important with Google’s “Did you mean…?” feature, but trust me, it matters. For example, a number of people use their own names for their personal and/or business web sites. It’s a great idea for some folks, but it won’t work for others. I’m a good example of this, and it’s because of the spelling issue. There are at least two legitimate ways to spell my last name: Wells as in H.G., and Welles as in Orson. My first name is worse; I’ve seen Terri but also Teri, Terry and Terrie, and there are probably more variations out there. If a potential visitor is at all uncertain as to how your URL is spelled, he or she is a lot less likely to find your site.
Drop the question of whether you should have keywords in your domain name into any SEO forum and you’ll probably inspire some lively debate. It won’t reach the religious proportions of the Mac vs. PC vs. open source arguments we’ve all heard ad nauseum, but there does seem to be at least two schools of thought. One is convinced that Google gives extra weight to your domain name when they’re indexing your site, so you’re more likely to get into a top spot in the SERPs for your chosen keywords if at least one of them is in your domain name. The other thinks that other factors are far more important.
Certainly it isn’t an absolute necessity to put keywords in your domain name. Where, oh where, are the keywords in Amazon, eBay, Google, and many other top sites? That brings us to the opposite side of argument. There are those that insist that keywords don’t belong in your domain name; rather, you should try to create a name that can be branded. Build the appropriate content on your site, and you’ll soon be known for whatever you’re promoting; your name will eventually become synonymous with your business. The best example of this is Google itself; “googling” has been accepted into more than one dictionary as a verb meaning “to search for something online using the search engine Google.” But the word “google” meant nothing before the company was born.
It’s possible to find some middle ground, however. Think about what someone would expect to find on a site with your domain name. Certain well-known web sites do a good job with this; it’s pretty obvious that HotMail offers email accounts, CareerBuilder caters to job seekers, and LendingTree’s target market is people looking for loans (the “tree” part at least implies home loans). Each of those sites includes a keyword, but adds something to give it some branding potential – something to make it stand out a little from the crowd.
The key point is to make your domain name unique. If you want to stand out in your visitors’ minds, you need to be different – but not so different that your domain name seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with your site. Google’s name was inspired by the word googol, a term for a very large number, one followed by 100 zeroes. It was chosen to imply the immense amount of data that Google indexes – and it’s probable that the spelling was changed to make it easier to remember.
Hyphens and underscores both seem to have fallen out of fashion these days. That makes it particularly important that you look at several different ways of parsing your domain name, so you don’t accidentally spell out something you never intended. For instance, therapistfinder.com is a real site; it helps users find therapists located in California. Unfortunately, it also spells out TheRapistFinder, which is not exactly a positive association, especially for their target audience.
You should also avoid using numbers in your domain name unless they’re part of your business name. They lead to confusion. Likewise, try to avoid any unusual spelling. Yes, a site like “Flowers4U.com” can succeed, but setting it up that way can throw up unnecessary obstacles to your success.
Check for copyright infringement before you register a domain name. Don’t register a domain name that infringes on someone else’s copyright. You should be especially careful to not register a domain name that infringes on someone else’s copyright in bad faith. That’s illegal. If you want to avoid doing it accidentally, visit the U.S. Copyright Office‘s web site for copyrights registered in the United States. Not everything is a registered copyright!
Don’t go for anything other than a .com extension if you’re serious about creating an online business. It is still by far the most popular domain extension; people will automatically assume your full URL is your business name followed by .com. Some less savvy web surfers hardly realize there is any other domain extension. It is getting to be more commonly known that .org is often used by not-for-profit organizations, and .net is slowly gaining in popularity. Country code top level domains are often popular in their own country and may do well online (I see a lot of .co.uk and .com.au web sites). They may also help you get into the right databases, as Google seems to divide their data centers by region, and there is some evidence that someone doing a search on Google in the UK is likely to see more sites with .co.uk extensions. But going for the .com is still a good general rule.
Okay, so you think you’ve settled on a domain name. You may even have broken out your old Scrabble set so you have a bunch of tiles to manipulate while you figure out what looks and sounds right. You’ve considered what associations the domain name brings to mind, and you’re all ready to buy it. So it’s time to make the purchase, right?
Not so fast. You might want to try searching for your prospective domain name in Google. It’s not to see whether someone else already has the domain name, or something similar, though you may have already checked that by this time. You need to see how Google treats your domain name. If you’re using more than one word, put both the phrase and the single word versions into Google. With an earlier example I gave, the site owner would have put “therapistfinder” and “therapist finder” into Google, without quotes.
Does Google consider your domain name to be a typo? If it does, you could be in trouble before you get your business off the ground. If a visitor puts your domain name in Google (and many people will do this) they may get confused when they see Google’s “Did you mean…?” typo message. So you just might lose that visitor. Here’s a point to keep in mind, though: once your site makes it into Google’s index and starts getting external links, Google may no longer consider it a typo. I’ve read information online from site owners who have had both experiences.
Does Google turn up a lot of sites that are much better branded than yours is likely to be? Look at the top results when you put your domain name into Google. SEO Smarty uses the example of “tourwiki.com.” Put “tour wiki” without quotes into Google, and the top site is Wikipedia. That’s not a site that a business just starting out will be able to beat in the SERPs easily.
I’ve already mentioned that you should parse your domain name several ways to see whether it has any bad associations. You should also check such things as the Urban Dictionary online, or ask Google to define the word, or even do a search on eBay. SEO Smarty notes that “lex” means Rolex in street slang – an association I personally never would have made. (Words are my living and my passion; to me, it’s obvious that “lex” is short for “lexicon”!).
Finally, you may want to consider registering both the singular and plural versions of your domain name, just to be on the safe side. You don’t want traffic that is trying to reach you to go somewhere else – especially if that somewhere else is a competitor’s site.
None of these tasks will take very long, but they’ll go a long way toward giving you peace of mind. They should also help you create a memorable domain name that will stick in visitors’ minds and help them return to your site again and again. Good luck!