Answering my own questions since 2001

Choosing a Domain Name

ProBlogger has a (strangely-formatted) overview on selecting a domain name. He provides all the basics, but fails to provide the really crucial advice–what makes an an effective, memorable domain? This applies not only to weblogs, but sites of all sorts. Over the years, I’ve got some basic rules for choosing a decent domain name:

  • Keep it short. The shorter the better. Think of the most popular domain names: ebay.com, amazon.com, google.com.
  • Make it easy to spell. I advised the guys at Bryght not to go with that spelling, as they’d be eternally saying "bright with a y".
  • Make it easy to say, regardless of accent.
  • The fewer repeated letters, the better.
  • No punctuation. I noticed recently that a resort on Vancouver Island had the domain name http://www.tigh-na-mara.com/. That may be the worst domain I’ve seen in a long time–too long, difficult to spell and difficult to say..
  • Make it memorable. It should be fun to say. That’s hard to measure, but you’ll know it when you see it.
  • The domain doesn’t have to describe what you do. Nonsense words or non sequiturs are fine. The URL also doesn’t have to exactly match your company’s name. For the aforementioned resort, www.thetigh.com wouldn’t be perfect, but it’s a big improvement.
  • If you can’t think of a nonsense word that meets these criteria, consider combining two odd common nouns, as in www.lockergnome.com.
  • Alliteration works well in this case, as in www.clevercactus.com.

So what are great domain names? The ones you remember, for the most part. Are all the good domains gone? Absolutely not. One great example of meeting my criteria is www.gizmodo.com, and they only launched in mid-2002. There might be a slight ambivalence about spelling, but otherwise it’s fun, memorable and easy to say.

I was also reminded of this topic because Donna is considering new domain names. Based on my rules, she ought to stick with the excellent arwen.org, but what do I know? Of her new favourites, I prefer westendgirl.ca to www.lifetheuniverseanddonna.ca.

Obviously, choosing a great domain name isn’t going to make or break your site,
but it’ll help with marketing and repeat visitors. If didn’t already have DarrenBarefoot.com as a resume site, I probably would have chosen a different URL for it when I added the weblog. I think I still own thinkingchaos.com, which I’ve always
liked, but I’m not going to change URLs at this point.

UPDATE: Richard has a bunch of interesting things to say about the future of URLs. I agree with him that eventually URLs will disappear. It’s already happening. For example, when I want to attend a movie, I just type ‘Vancouver movies’ into Firefox’s address bar. That automagically completes a Google search and displays the first result. I barely register that the site is CinemaClock.com (a decent enough URL, incidentally). I don’t care, I just want to see what time Surviving Christmas (well, I don’t, but somebody does) is playing.

And I didn’t say Bryght.com was a ‘bad domain name’. It’s just not a great domain name. And I wouldn’t have the patience to explain the spelling every time I told somebody about it. Admittedly, I have to do that for about a quarter of the people I tell about www.capulet.com, but only the slow ones. I’m kidding about that last bit, though it is a litmus test for liberal arts educations.

UPDATE #2: Boris weighs in, asserting that URLs are dead. While some day URLs may die, they’re not dead yet. I’m pretty sure that a lot more people type out the URL to go to www.ebay.com or www.hotmail.com than use Google to find it. If I want to check my Gmail account, I type in gmail.com.

Take a look at my top ten referrers for October, 2004:

16.80% (Direct Request)
0.89% http://www.germantechnik.com/showthread.php
0.60% http://www.stumbleupon.com/refer.html
0.55% http://images.google.com/imgres
0.27% http://www.google.com/search
0.15% http://germantechnik.com/showthread.php
0.11% http://www.google.ca/search
0.09% http://search.yahoo.com/search
0.09% http://www.dumbrella.com/bb/viewtopic.php
0.08% http://images.google.ca/imgres

It’s pretty clear how most folks are getting to my site–either they’re typing in the URL or using a bookmark. If we add up all the search engine traffic, we might get to 1%. Yes, my site isn’t as optimized as others, but it’s more optimized (and has lots of content) than most.

Secondly, Boris points out that if you search for tigh na mara, the resort is the first return. True, but aren’t people likelier to search for tighnamara? They’re not even in the top ten, and a bunch of other resorts are. As such, Tigh-na-mara Resort needs either spend marketing dollars educating their customers how to spell their name, or get cracking with some SEO on the phrase ‘tighnamara’.

Lastly, Boris concedes that “the only reason you need a ‘good’ URL is for offline marketing purposes.” The vast majority of the world’s marketing effort happens offline. Therefore, it’s still pretty important to have a decent URL. Additionally, the vast majority of site owners don’t understand SEO. They’d rather be dependent on users typing in the domain name.

I look forward to the day when we don’t have to talk in ‘double-u, double-u, double-u, foo dot com’. However, we’re still going to live in that world for quite a while. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that companies will still be pushing URLs ten years from now. If you guys want, we can make a long bet about it.

UPDATE #3: Rob at eBizBlog references an informative-looking article call Choosing and Registering an Effective Domain Name.

27 Responses to “Choosing a Domain Name”

  1. MovableBlog

    In the Future, Domains and URLs Won’t Matter

    Darren Barefoot has good advice for choosing a domain name. Too bad it won’t matter.

  2. B. Mann Consulting

    URLs are dead

    I agree with some of Darren’s discussion on choosing a domain name…but URLs are dead. People type stuff into Google. They’ve learned not to trust bookmarks (broken computer, switching machines, home vs. work, too many becomes unwieldy to find), but c…

  3. Boris Mann

    Oh yeah. In the new site, have trackbacks interleaved with comments. Then I don’t have to come in here and say URLs are dead. And yes, Richard beat me to it.

  4. Richard

    Re: the update, I stand by the words I put in your mouth, Darren. :P But seriously, like Boris says in his article, the spelling of a domain name only matters in the offline (dare I say, voice) world, which is still significant, but not to people who have never heard of you and want what you offer and are willing to spend 10 seconds typing in what they want in a search engine.

  5. Darren

    See my reply above.

    I’m going to dispense with displaying Trackbacks in the redesign. They seem to have fallen out of favour, and I’m unconvinced of their usefulness. That is, it seems like about 1 out of 10 references to my site comes associated with a trackback.

  6. Richard

    Well, seeing how everything is dead, and blogs, “mass murderer of branding, advertising, corporate image, corporate communication, corporate ideology, mission statements, public relations, press releases, marketing, blah blah etc etc.” killed everything…

    I think Boris and I agree with you that companies will still be pushing URLs in the next ten years, but they’ll also start pushing “or visit Google keyword ‘dog food'”. Because what’s more credible: “we have the dogfood.com domain” or “we’re number one for ‘dog food'”? (Interesting that dogfood.com–or rather the site it redirects to–is not in the top ten results for ‘dog food’.)

  7. Darren

    Richard: To the average human, I’m not sure either is very credible. Obviously, being the first in search rankings is far more useful, but SEO has a pretty checkered past. As such, it may take a while to reliably argue that first is reliably best.

    For example, if I search for 3-star hotel vancouver, is the first result better than than the tenth?

  8. Boris Mann

    Personalization! Search results combined with which results your friends/acquaintainces/people you trust to have good opinions in certain areas.

    Tigh na mara. If it has hyphens, that is how I’ll type it in. Obviously, if spoken over the phone, it’ll be impossible (which gets me to thinking about voice interfaces, but that’s a whole other story).

    But the three word search phrase is quite distinctive *if users already know the name of the company*. Which is what it comes down to. Building a brand around your company name is one thing. The second is to associate certain phrases, service or product names, etc. with the company, and then trying to ensure that those end up at your site URL.

    You don’t generally go around saying “I’m the #1 hit for X” (well, actually, a lot of geeks DO do that), but you can easily give someone directions — just type in “key word phrase” into Google and you’ll find my site.

    Trackbacks: OK, dropping is good too. We’ll probably integrate something like PubSub that will automatically pick up links to your posts, without the person on the other end having to do use any special tool/protocol.

    For your site: yep, because people you know read this site (and most don’t seem to use feedreaders). You are talking about the very different issue of people you don’t know finding a specific site.

    The long bet is an interesting one. Ten years *could* be enough time to move to an all-search based front end to the web — only machines will need to know URLs, just as only machines need to know IP addresses today.

    Picking a good URL is still easier than SEO (the term itself is chequered but I know of no good replacement term).

  9. donna

    I personally believe that for personal websites, all bets are off. You’re right, if I were going for an organizations website, I wouldn’t dream of going something as long and unwieldy as lifetheuniverseanddonna — but fuck it, I like it, and on a personal domain, that’s all that really matters.

    Although, you’ll be happy to know that arwen.org will always redirect to my site, wherever it is. I’ve had the damn thing for way too long to change now. Also, for ease of giving out email addresses and such, arwen.org is much easier to fit in the little tiny “email address” box. (Side note: I am the *only* person in my womens studies class not using either Yahoo or Hotmail for their email. It’s disturbing.)

    The main reason I’m changing… arwen.org doesn’t apply to me anymore. From the age of 14 til a few years ago, I was just as frequently known as Arwen as I was Donna. This has (mostly) changed, and I encourage people to stop calling me Arwen already. :) (Okay, I still use “arwenoid” in chat rooms. But that’s besides the point. It’s still not Arwen.)

    I want my personal website to reflect who I am now, not who I was when I was in my teens. :)

    Besides, I’ve had the domain since I was 18 and I’m tired of it. :)

    In the end, it doesn’t matter — my website is there for me, not for other people or search engines. If I lose readers because I’ve gotten a new domain name, fuck ‘em. And if I don’t get new readers because I’ve gotten a new domain name, fuck ‘em too. :)

    Besides — ever tried to spell “arwen” to someone who has no idea what this “Lord of the rings” thingie is? Bleah.

    …and I’ll likely snag westendgirl.ca eventually, too. I just have to scrounge up the $10 to do so. Heh.

  10. Andrea

    I think Tigh Na Mara can get away with its odd name because the resort is extremely well known on the Island and many of its other visitors are repeat visitors and referrals. They’ve build up really strong relationships with the right travel agents, conference planners and wedding coordinators. I’ve tried to book a cabin at Tigh Na Mara before and found that they were sold out a year in advance. Also, they’re the top return for “Parksville resort”, “Parksville spa”, “Parksville conference” and among the top returns for Parksville accommodation, lodging, wedding, etc. If you just Google for “Tigh”, you pull up the site and Google ad. So, if you already know them, you don’t need to learn a new URL and, if you have never heard of them, you’ll stumble across them in otherways. That being said, if you’ve got an unknown brand and you need people to remember your URL, I completely agree that you should use a short URL.

  11. Nick

    It took me and my girlfriend 3 weeks to come up with our Company(domain) name, for our auto parts sourcing site. Choosing a name for an auto company is damn near impossible.
    The list was:
    partzilla.com (too close to mo)
    partmunkey.com (wasn’t spelled right)
    palmtreeparts.ca (too cheesy)
    frozensource.ca (which is what we decided on)

    It’s a little long, but I wanted something Canadian and that was the best we could come up with.
    I kind of wish I read this post before I registered a couple of days ago.

  12. Rog

    This sounds more like a post & discussion of how to build a brandname rather than a domain name. Basically the assumption of “good domain name” appears to be the same as “popular”.

    I would argue that a good domain name simply achieves its purpose, whether it be popularity, branding, descriptive or just plain suits the content of the website (or ~ahem~ mail server or ftp, the web still isn’t the be-all-end-all).

  13. hilary

    a little bit of trivia…

    did you know that jeff bezos originally decided on “cadabra.com”? he switched it early on when a lawyer misheard it as “cadaver.com”.
    he settled on “amazon.com” because it’s the world’s biggest river and he wanted to make the “world’s biggest bookstore”. also because it’s easier to remember and starts with an a.

  14. Amanita.net

    links for 2004-11-05

    Choosing a Domain Name Suggestions and tips for coming up with a new domain name that isn’t already taken. [via movableblog] (categories: internet onlineculture)…

  15. Amanita.net

    Quicklinks for 2004-11-05

    Choosing a Domain Name Suggestions and tips for coming up with a new domain name that isn’t already taken. [via movableblog] (categories: internet onlineculture)…

  16. John

    Why is everyone down on a long url.

    Type in a long url name. Once.
    Go to the site and bookmark it. Once.
    Revisit the site in two clicks. Many times!

  17. Richard

    Or even better, subscribe to its RSS feed, and click once to have all the sites you visit update in your aggregator. John’s right, the URL only needs to be typed in once, but I’m arguing that you won’t have to type it at all because in the future, search engine queries will be the new “URL”.

    I was at the gym watching TV, which had the sound off, and there was a story on CBS (that’s right, the American news network) on how the ‘immigrating to Canada’ page at the government of Canada was experiencing a higher load than usual because of the recent electoral success of some guy from Texas. They didn’t show the URL, but they did show someone typing in a text box the words ‘canada immigration’ and then landing on the site. I saw this again on the movie Saved! where the girlfriend of a gay guy typed in the word ‘gay’ to Ask Jeeves and got a porn site as the first result. (In both cases, actually, they didn’t show the search results but bypassed them entirely. People must be clicking on “I feel lucky” more than we’re led to believe.) So, the point is, when more and more people search for something on a search engine, click the “subscribe to this website” button, they may not even realize what the URL of the site is.

  18. Kwout: Irritating Spelling, Cool Service

    [...] a combination of two existing words that maybe evoked something about the service (and satisfied my criteria for domain names). EchoTrap.com, for example, is available. That’s not a grade-A domain, but I’d take it [...]

  19. Ariane

    I was just doing a scan through the interwebs for plagiarized content, and when I searched westendgirl.ca this was the first thing after my blog that came up! So crazy, this was posted long before I even met any of you guys, when I was still in grad school. I guess I lucked out with Donna not snapping up what ended up being my URL of choice! :-)

  20. nila

    Nice work.
    Interesting guide, I’m looking for a good domain name for my future site so this is very helpful.
    Thank you.

  21. www.hotmail.com

    choosing a great domain name isn’t going to make or break my site,
    but it’ll help me with marketing and repeat visitors

Comments are closed.