Creating Your Domain Name

With the Internet now a staple of our society, it seems as if everyone wants a web presence. If you dream of owning your own online business, you need to create a domain name. That’s a lot more complicated now than it used to be, but you can still craft a winner if you keep a few points in mind.

I nearly titled this article “It’s the Brand, Stupid,” because most of the articles I read on domain name selection focused on that point. If you’re already selling a particular product or service – or you want to, and that’s why you’re starting your web site – you should include its name in your domain name. Obviously, if someone else owns the trademark, you can’t use it without permission (don’t even think of including Coca-Cola in your domain name!). But if you own it, by all means go for it.

Say your name is Sam Goldstein, and you make really gorgeous outdoor fountains. You could try for a number of different domain names, depending on which one was most evocative of your business and most likely to appeal to your customers: goldsteinfountains.com, thatfountainguy.com, fantasyfountains.com, and I could easily go on. Brainstorm and see what works.

In fact, if you’re known for a particular product, but your company’s name is something else, you might want to register two domain names: one for your company (mycompanyname.com) and one for your product (myproductname.com). You may have to watch out for duplicate content issues; in this case, I’d suggest having the two sites link to each other for the specific information each contains. For example, you might have a link from mycompanyname.com with the name of your product going to myproductname.com, and a link from myproductname.com labeled “Our Company” or some such going back to mycompanyname.com. This way, you’re covered whether your visitors remember your company name or your product name.

I’ve also seen a recommendation that individuals who run their own businesses should register their own names as domain names. Whether this is important probably depends on the type of business. If you’re an artist trying to get your name out there, it may be a good idea. But don’t let that keep you from coming up with something really imaginative to attract customers.

Like brand names, domain names should stick in a site visitor’s mind, so they’ll be able to navigate directly to your site. For example, Michael Devine, an artist who uses polymer clay to create really cool sculptures of people and fantasy creatures, keeps a photo gallery of his work at makemyclay.com. He could have gone with devinesculpture.com, perhaps, but that would convey the wrong attitude as far as the kind of work he does (and would be too likely to be misspelled as divinesculpture.com). Besides, what could be a better name for a site featuring clay sculpture from an artist who got into it as a way to unwind from his stressful “day” job on the midnight shift in NYC?

If you’re trying to come up with a memorable domain name, keep these two points in mind: the name should stick in a person’s mind, and it should NOT include elements that will make it hard to remember. That may seem obvious, but putting it into practice is trickier than it appears. You may also find yourself unable to do exactly what you want with your domain name, so it’s important to be flexible.

Okay, now that we’ve covered some of the “forest” aspects of choosing a domain name, it’s time to get to the trees. You’ve already seen that I recommend going with a brand name as opposed to a generic name. That’s because the brand name is usually easier to remember, especially if it’s evocative of the product. Just ask any crafter: which is easier to remember, Sculpy or polymer clay?

Now I’d like to point out that Sculpy is shorter than polymer clay, which brings up another point: shorter is usually better than longer. You’re allowed to register a domain name that is up to 67 characters long, but how many people can remember something that long? There is an exception to this rule: if you would otherwise register a shorter but meaningless set of letters (like cgeoyc.com), spell it out for your visitors instead (CantGetEnoughOfYourCrafts.com).

Please notice that I used camel notation in my example; I capitalized the start of every word even though it was all bunched together. URLs don’t have spaces, though you can use hyphens. The question is, should you? There are advantages and disadvantages. Visitors tend to forget hyphens when typing URLs into address bars, and when they recommend sites to friends, they don’t include the hyphens. Hyphens are annoying to remember, and you’re trying to be memorable. Also, spammy web sites tend to use hyphens in their domain names because it’s believed that search engines can better distinguish keywords in URLs if they’re separated in this way.

If you use a URL without hyphens, however, you need to be extra careful that it doesn’t spell out something you don’t intend. Many of the classic examples of this have changed or no longer go to “real” web sites (if they ever did), but you can still find out which agents represent particular celebrities at whorepresents.com, locate a California therapist through therapistfinder.com, and find designers awaiting your latest project at speedofart.com. If you MUST get a URL with that kind of double entendre, make sure that you use camel notation in all of your advertising. This is also a very good idea if you’re using a non-hyphenated URL composed of three or more words (or even just two words if you really want to be careful). URL formatting itself is not case sensitive, so it won’t make any difference as to how a visitor types it in as long as it’s not misspelled and doesn’t contain characters that aren’t in your URL (such as hyphens).

Some people advocate buying both the hyphenated and non-hyphenated versions of your domain name. Stephanie Frank, founder of the Balanced Wealth Network, suggests that “buying multiple domains and pointing each one of them to a specific, product-related page on your main site can ultimately help you make more sales in the future. Be sure not to point multiple domains at the same page, though – that will get you dropped from most search engines.”

A number of the items I read while researching this article recommended buying popular misspellings of your chosen domain name as well as your intended spelling. That could easily be taken too far and end up costing you more money than you want to spend. On the other hand, there are cases where you would want to consider a spelling variation.

For example, if you do search engine optimization and you want to attract clients in both the United States and the United Kingdom, you might want to keep in mind that we spell it “optimization” here in the US, but it’s “optimisation” in the UK. So if you’re using the word “optimization” in your URL, you can see where you might run into some issues. This is far from the only example of regional differences in the use of the English language! Check these issues before you buy a domain name.

Looking at regional issues actually brings up another question. Throughout this article, I’ve used the .com ending. Does that mean you should not consider .net, .org, or even .info? Or even more broadly, should you only use top-level domains and avoid country code domains such as co.uk? Well, there was a time when you weren’t anything if you weren’t .com. Search engines tend to treat all domain endings the same, but web savvy users will automatically type in .com when they put something into the address bar.

That’s somewhat less true today. And it very much depends on what you’re trying to achieve with your business. If you want to emphasize that you’re a local business serving local customers, you might consider going for the country code. Of course, if you serve more than one country or region, you might not want to do that, since your customers might come to the false conclusion that you do.

If your web site is for a non-profit organization, use .org rather than .com; it hasn’t lost its original association, unlike .net (which used to be associated only with large networks, such as cable and telephone companies).

In part, it boils down to how important it is that you get exactly the domain name you want. I know of one business that was in existence for decades before it got a web site. It couldn’t get its business name as a .com URL, so it went with a .net, because the name was so well-known among its customers. However – and this is an important caveat – the owner makes sure that the web site’s .net status is very clear in all of her promotional material.

By the way, if you can’t get the .com URL for your business, it would be wise to check out the web site that’s actually at that address – even if you didn’t want the .com to begin with. Your customers are likely to mistype, and you don’t want to send them to a competitor – or worse. Jennifer Slegg, a search engine marketing consultant, tells this cautionary tale: “Many years ago a friend started a business targeting moms and their kids and went and registered her website with a .ca extension. She had the URL advertised on her vehicle, on mail outs, on her business cards…people kept forgetting it was .ca and went to the .com version instead, which happened to be a spyware ridden hardcore porn site.”

You may find yourself buying a domain name that someone else already owns, if it happens to be perfect for your business. That can be easier in some ways, but you may need to take some extra precautionary steps. After all, you will probably be paying more than you would for a brand-new domain name, so you want to make sure you’ll be getting your money’s worth.

Obviously you’ll start by going to whois and finding out who owns the domain you want. And you’ll probably go to the web site to see what it is right now. But what did it USED to be? For that information you’ll have to go to archive.org. You might be horrified to learn that it used to host tons of doorway pages or spam or even worse things. If the URL’s history is checkered enough, you might want to come up with a different domain name. As it is, you may have to send Google a reinclusion request if there are any particularly egregious offenses in its past.

Slegg advises that you do this for domain names that you purchase brand new as well. It’s possible that the “brand new” domain name you just bought was owned previously, but the owner let it expire.

There are other things you should check for domains you’re purchasing from someone else. Do they infringe any trademarks? You can search the US trademark database for any issues; presumably at least some other countries have similar databases. Keep in mind that one reason the current owner of the URL may be willing to sell is that his domain name has legal issues that he or she doesn’t want to deal with any longer.

On a more positive note, a domain name with a history may actually be indexed in the search engines, and for things that would help your purposes. For example, if Shepler’s didn’t already own westernwear.com, you can bet that someone else wanting to build something related to cowboy-inspired clothing would. As a related note, you should check your potential domain name’s back links. You might find some good ones – or you might find causes for concern. Slegg notes that incoming spam links or hate links could make you think that there might be cause for concern about the domain, but those aren’t the only types of links that might make you worry, so be thorough in your investigation.

Domains with a history do have one advantage over brand-new ones: Google seems to give them a small edge in the search engine results pages. Apparently anything that’s been around for at least a year registers as a bit more trustworthy than something brand new, and assuming you do everything else right, that trustworthiness goes up slowly with the age of your domain.

Here is one last bit of advice for you, when you’re trying to create a memorable domain name, whether you’re trying to buy one that’s already out there or come up with one on your own. It comes from Emilia Johansson, director of an affiliate marketing site, and it’s a great way to try before buying. “To test if your chosen domain name is creative enough to be remembered, simply mention it casually to  a few friends and check back with them after a day or so. If they still remember the domain name – it’s for sure a keeper.” Good luck! 

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