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Selecting the Perfect Domain

The hazards and pitfalls of your choice of domains.

Selecting a domain is your first step to creating your online identity. What you choose will often be the first impression others have of you, and can make or break your online business before you put a dime into it. No pressure, though.

  1. Why bother with a domain name?
  2. But I already have webspace with my internet service provider!
  3. Domain selection advice

Why bother with a domain name?

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

No. Don't believe me? Take a big whiff of "http://hometown.aol.com/~username/" or "http://yourname.bravehost.com/", and let me know how you like those thorns. Hosting with your ISP (like AOL) can be a very bad idea, as the "Hometown Crisis" of November, 2008 demonstrated with clarity. AOL decided to turn off their users' hosted websites with little or no advanced notice (depending on the user).

Your domain is how you will ultimately be known online. This decision will brand you as either "that cheapskate on AOL" or "Joe from example.com".

But I already have space with my ISP (or Geocities)!

Please reconsider. You can get a "real" domain for about $13 and hosting can be obtained for anything from free to $100/yr. The most important thing you lose - time - by initially using a free-space provider under their domain (like Geocities, BraveHost, or your ISP space) cannot be reclaimed.

Years of work sometimes is lost with this one decision. As one of those "other webhosts", however, please don't just take my word for it - listen to the other people that have been through the transition when they finally decided the "free" host didn't do what they needed. And then experienced the horror of not being able to abandon the old site without losing all of their existing visitors, links, traffic - or worse, that they simply could not move their content from one to the other. There is no way to "simply" migrate from your ISP space or free space provider to a real domain.

Don't use Geocities, Bravehost, 8M, 50meg, the space that comes with your ISP or any of the other hundreds of hosting providers that give you space under their own root domain (either "yoursite.example.com" or "example.com/yoursite"). This will serve only to limit your sites availability and tie you to their services. From that point on, if you want to create other features or services, extend the capabilities or complexity of your site - you're sorely limited to what the host provides in their plan or when you ultimately decide to plop the $13/yr for your own domain all the work you've put into the initial site via marketing, linking and even just learning their proprietary interface - is gone. This doesn't even get into the length of the URLs, which can be very long and complex.

And if you've bound your "website" to your ISP space, what do you do when you change ISPs? When they reorganize their client naming structure and all of the URLs to their clients sites change (AOL has done this)? What will you do when you need space or functionality that exceeds their abilities? You cannot move that name - it is tied to the provider. Domains, on the other hand, are intended to be portable with the expectation that people not be bound to any individual service provider. If you want to change - do it. Ask any AOLer that had their site forcefully disposed of on October 31st, 2008 how much control they had over their site. Make sure you're standing a few feet away though, since they're likely to be violent.

Even if you don't intend to ever make the switch to a "real" host today, someday you will be facing it and you don't want your very first step into the scene to be the one that set you on a path that forces you one way or another later on. I'd rather not, but I don't have any reservations from telling you "I told you so."

That "I told you so" thing convinced me. Now what?

This is my standard advice for domain selection. Keep in mind that you'll need to be able to relay the domain quickly and easily to someone either on a cell phone with bad reception or at a noisy party where your counterpart may be distracted.

With that in mind:

  1. Spell it correctly. It's just bad business to rely on anyone else to be as wrong as you are.
  2. Make it memorable. You don't want to miss out on a single client/visitor just because he couldn't remember your name.
  3. Don't use any strange characters. Explaining what a hyphen is to someone that isn't technically literate can be a full-day exercise. Imagine, "it's the one next to the 'plus' key."
    "What's a 'plush key'?"
  4. Make it short enough to write on a napkin or the back of a business card without wrapping (and then trying to explain what to do with the wrapped text). Three or four syllables is usually best.
  5. Avoid anything that has multiple or awkward spellings or that a 6-year-old couldn't spell blindfolded.
  6. Avoid domains that are remarkably similar to another known domain or business. Especially if that other entity is "undesirable."
  7. Don't unnecessarily tie your domain name to a specific product or market.
  8. Use the best TLD for your situation.

Splel ti hte rghit wya, pelase

It's just bad business to rely on anyone else to be as wrong as you are.

As a general rule you want your domain to be simple enough for everyone to spell it correctly even if they are not very skilled with typing (or spelling!). The situation I give people to consider when they're comtemplating a domain name is how you will share it with someone at a party or a busy event. It's loud, there are children running and screaming everywhere and the person you're talking to is distracted by other things. You need to be able to relay to them the name of your site without having to explain what a hyphen is, which word you mean when you say "to, two, too or 2" or which characters are numbers.

Perhaps the most well-known misspelling is the ever-popular Google, which was a lousy attempt at googol - the name of the number with a one in the most significant position, followed by a hundred zeroes.

No, I'm not telling you "not to be another Google", but rather, don't make yourself a fool. Spellcheck the domain, too.

Deja vu... and stuff

No doubt you've been to as many sites as I have where you want to go back again the next day but forgot to bookmark it, can't remember exactly how you got there - and the domain was something you'd never guess in a millon years. Branding is the solution for this, by providing a single and memorable point of reference for your content. When they leave, if they took anything else with them, they should remember your main colors and what your logo looks like. That way they can find you next time, when they want to share your site with others.

If nobody can remember where they saw it when they did stumble upon it, they will never be able to recommend it to others.

To do this, your domain should be something remotely familiar or a mnemonic of some kind. Use a consistent color scheme and a logo consisting of your domain name or characteristic representations of the terms within it. If your domain represents your business make a strong effort to weave the business name around the domain.

Don't get funky wit' it

Be careful when you select words that have multiple meanings. "Plus", to represent "+", for example, can quickly confuse an otherwise reasonable domain. "Dash", "Quote" and other words that represent characters on the keyboard as well as words that have multiple meanings like "to, too, two, and 2". This can cause people to misunderstand the address if you are vocally telling them what it is.

Though cute and often intriguing, avoid using numerals in place of letters or sounds within a domain. Just because you've seen it done before doesn't mean it will work out for you. Commonly used are words like "cre8", "n0ne", "1der", and "4ever".

You should never use a word that is commonly or even remotely likely to be misspelled. For example, "curriculum" is one of the words you should really avoid, as are anything that requires the user to remember "i before e" rules, or other elementary reading and writing abilities. I'm not trying to be harsh, so please don't misperceive what I'm saying. It's as simple as the rule of idiocy: "If you make something idiot-proof, God will create a better idiot."

Never use a big word when a diminutive one will suffice

You'd be surprised how easy it is for the common user to misspell their own full name on their computer. Would you ever want to intentionally give them the extra opportunities to misplace or include extra characters in your domain name? The shorter the better. In fact, some of the best domains are only abbreviations. It's hard to misspell SBC or AOL. We innately know the letters mean something bigger, but that's not as important as the branding they've accomplished by these shorter domains.

When I'm digging for a domain I spend most of my time in a thesaurus looking for terms with broad appeal and simple spelling. The best ideas are the easiest to remember and that people are familiar with in everyday parlance.

Eye ill ave too of toes peas

Can the words you use in your domain be easily misinterpreted?

You will need to be able to relay to them the name of your site without having to explain what a hyphen is, which word you mean when you say "2, to, two or too" or which characters are numbers.

Take the time to review your domain for bozo errors. Stuff like placing two "s" together. Pluralized and possessive words are the bane of domain naming, since they confuse something that already suffers from usability issues. You don't want to use "Shawns Stuff" or "Wheres Shawn", since they double-up the "s" in the middle and complicate the domain.

You really should shoot for no more than about 3-5 syllables, and avoid hyphens and mixing numbers/letters when possible (unless they are specifically for a novel use).

Keep it to yourself

So you want to hop right out and register DollyParton.com or McDonalds.com? I'd recommend against it. ICANN has very specific rules against domain "squatting" which can be used to compel the registrar to give the domain to the "rightful" owner should it be determined, at their sole discretion, that it was registered maliciously or with the intent to abuse the identity of the original party.

And if that's not enough to discourage it, in the USA you can be sued for damages for trademark infringement, invalid use of a business name, or even libel.

The domain you're considering doesn't exactly violate trademark or impose upon the nature of others - so should you be concerned? If there's a potential for any misunderstanding I would skip it and get a different domain. It's not worth it.

The ceiling is the limit!

Do not tie your domain to the work you do - but make it a brand of itself or a representation of your business name. As an example, Ebay was initially a site about the Emerald Bay back in '97, and the auction service was just intended to be a simple local feature to play with. Fortunately, their domain was short enough that when they branched completely into the auction field, dropping their Emerald Bay content entirely, the domain, as it was initially obscurely - or even cryptically - named, didn't become a liability.

Who would have ever conceptually tied the word "Amazon" with books 10 years ago? Even now they're not "just" books - Amazon has branched into more product lines than Wal-Mart, ToysRUs and Target combined. And Google is the best example - it's misspelled. "Googol" is the correct spelling of the term they were after. Oops. But how is that for picking a name with a "lot" of meanings - ten to the power of a hundred to be exact.

Think of all the most common sites you actually visit and what their domains are. Yahoo, Google, eBay, Amazon... All sites that have significantly expanded their functionality and offerings over their lives and, coincidentally, the names are completely uncoupled from their content, in order to prevent limiting their scope and to help with branding. Branding, of course, is the most important part of your site because it will be the deciding factor in whether your most loyal and satisfied visitor of today will remember the domain tomorrow - enabling them to come back.

Lets use Books as a demonstration. First, it's a pluralization (as will be most vertical markets), but it's also limiting. What would have happened had Amazon labeled itself Amazon Books? Would they still be the largest online retailer? No. They'd have lost out to the next big thing. A big O or something. Don't allow your current conceptualization of your website limit your abilities to expand it at a later date.

Com-uh, Com-uh, Com-uh Chameleon

When people think "internet" they think ".com" - so unless the ".com" variant of your site is already taken, try to purchase the ".com" for best results.

Localized abbreviations are great if you only hope to market locally or within a specific community, otherwise the abbreviation will become a distraction or simply an annoyance as you later develop the site into broader categories or content.

<technical details>
In case you don't know, domains are formed from the right to the left. The right-most portion of the domain is the TLD (top-level domain) - this is the ".com", ".net", ".org" part. The next section to the left is the "root". If another section appears to the left of that it is a "subdomain".
</technical details>

When you're ready to get started, search for your domain.


Shawn K. Hall


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