Small Business

Finding Your Dream Domain Name


Not all the good ones are taken, but many are. Experts suggest you choose your company name first, and go from there

I am naming a Web startup company, but I'm struggling since so many dot-com domains are taken. I feel that an easy-to-find dot-com domain is critical to the success of my new business, and I also need to have a simple, yet unique name. I want to be easily "Google-able" but also to ensure that I can identify media coverage as it appears and not be confused with other businesses.

—M.S., Waltham, Mass.

You're right, it is getting more difficult to create business names that are free of trademark conflicts and also available as Web site domains, especially in the computer and consulting industries. The problem is that everybody wants the online equivalent of beachfront property, but "It's a little too late in the Internet land-grab to have such high expectations for an exclusive domain," says Steve Cecil, a business-naming expert with Wherewords.com in San Mateo, Calif. "All the common-usage dictionary words have already been registered."

But don't despair. Branding and naming experts suggest that you worry less about your domain name and more about finding the right name for your company itself. Your domain name can be any number of slight variations on your company name, or it can even be another string of words entirely. If it's properly optimized for the major search engines, and you're delivering good value to your customers, your business can still find success.

The Skype's the Limit

Finding a good domain name is helpful, but it won't make or break your business, says Michael Weiss, partner at Imagistic.com, a Southern California software and services firm. "Being able to have santabarbaraloans.com would be great for your branding and name recognition, there's no doubt about it," he says. "But sbloans.com is not bad, and neither is sbmrtge.com."

Cecil agrees, "If you can't afford to buy the beachfront property, another option might be ocean-view property instead," he notes. "Space.com, tube.com, and snap.com were not available—but myspace.com, youtube.com, and snapfish.com were. Google (GOOG), Cingular, and Joost were devised because googol.com, singular.com, and juiced.com were already registered. Skype (EBAY), Zillow, and Kazaa, on the other hand, are fanciful neologisms, which can be imbued with any meaning in the way an empty bottle can be filled with any liquid."

Internet business expert David Ross, of Oak Park, Calif., suggests that you start by choosing the best name for your business without worrying too much about the domain name. Once you've got a business name you're happy with, draw up a list of workable domain names. These may be plurals of your business name, or the name with hyphens, numbers or words such as "pro" or "online" added, suggests Caroline Melberg, founder of Small Business Mavericks. Most important, your domain name should be short, memorable, not easily mistaken for another popular domain, and tough to misspell, says Truman Hedding, vice-president for Internet marketing at Boulevard New Media in Los Angeles.

He Who Hesitates

"Your list should include names that might represent acronyms or abbreviations of your business name," Ross says. Put the best names at the top of your list, then go to WhoIs, which allows you to check whether various domains are in use. Once you find a name on your list that is available, Ross says, register it immediately.

"I like Omnis Network, as a registrar because it's cheap—$6.95 a year—and it accepts checks without any extra fee if you don't want to enter a credit card," he notes. You should also register the same name with a .biz extension, he says. "You don't have to use it, but you've preempted someone else from grabbing it and confusing your customers. And it's very easy to redirect traffic from your .biz site to your .com site."

Consider domain names that include keywords relevant to your company or industry. If you can combine those keywords with your company name, that will give you a boost when it comes to search engine optimization, Melberg says (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/6/06, "How SEO Upped the Revenues").

It Pays to Persevere

"Identify the keywords that are relevant to your Web site, the terms that your potential customers will type into search engines to locate you," she advises. Mike Silverman, managing director of Silver Web Solutions, based in Atlanta, concurs. "Look for keywords that come up on the bottom of the list. People are typing those in, but they're more likely to be available as domains." You can find relevant keywords and statistics on how often they are used at sites such as: http://freekeywords.wordtracker.com, http://www.keyworddiscovery.com/search.html, and http://tools.seobook.com/general/keyword-information/index.php.

Another option—if you've got your heart set on a particular business name and domain name—is to purchase it. "Some names are for sale. If they're within your budget, then make an offer to the seller. Even if it's beyond your budget, make an offer anyway," suggests Eric Swartz, president of TaglineGuru.com, based in San Mateo, Calif. "What's to lose? I obtained a name recently that I've been wanting for years because it was abandoned by the owner. I made a regular habit of checking on WhoIs.com and discovered it was available. And I didn't have to pay a premium for it."

Hedding suggests that you check in frequently at domain auction sites such as Snapnames.com, where you can bid on quality domain names. "Snapnames.com has an inventory of 1 million-plus domain names and is projecting up to 10 million previously registered domain names will pass through their auction this year," he says. "Aggressive Internet marketers go there to find expiring names that have a history and are already highly ranked at search engines. They research the domains and look at the links going to them to test their quality. Just be aware that if you try this, you'll have to bid against some savvy search engine marketers."

Watch for Predators

Other sites that list premium domain names available for purchase are: afternic.com, moniker.com, sedo.com, fabulousdomains.com, and domainaftermarket.com, he says.

Once you've decided on the perfect company name and domain name, don't forget to renew your registration. Individuals who frequent the domain auction sites often pounce on expired domains, register them, and then demand large fees to sell them, Ross notes. "You can register for more than a year at time, but I prefer one-year registrations. Just make sure your registrar gives you ample notice when your domain is about to expire, and includes an automatic renewal option," he says.


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