Naming is linguistic design, and a good domain name is an important part of the overall design of a website. A name plays a prominent role when people discover, remember, think about, talk about, search for, or navigate to a website. It establishes a theme for the branding of a website before people even visit it for the first time.
Coming up with a good domain name requires a combination of strategy, imagination and good linguistic design practice.
You’ll find some basic pieces of advice all over the Web, and it’s worth mentioning those right away. Ideally, your domain name should be:
- Catchy and memorable,
- Easy to pronounce,
- Easy to spell,
- Not too similar to competing domain names,
- Not a violation of someone else’s trademark.
These are all good rules of thumb. But they lack specifics. These are really criteria to use to evaluate ideas for names after you’ve thought of them. To come up with a name in the first place, you need to know what type of name is best for you. And before you can answer that question, you have to answer two others: one about your resources, and the other about your Web strategy.
The first question is easy: Are you willing and able to spend lots of money on your domain name? If not, you can forget about a .com domain that’s a single real word, like Twitter.com or Amazon.com. They’re all registered, many by domain speculators, and buying one will cost a lot. You’ll need to look for a different kind of name. Real words on .net and .org domains are pretty hard to come by, too.
Image from the Visual Thesaurus, Copyright © 1998-2009 Thinkmap, Inc. All rights reserved.
The other question is a strategic one and takes more thought: How do you plan to get traffic to your website? Answering this question can help you avoid a lot of confusion about what makes for a good name. Some views on this issue directly contradict others. For example, Rob Monster, CEO of Monster Venture Partners, believes that Google.com and Yahoo.com are “lousy domain names” and that podcast.com and slideshow.com are great ones. Marketing guru Seth Godin advises against real words like these and in favor of unique made-up names like Squidoo.com (his company).
So, what’s going on here? These two views correspond to different strategies for getting Web traffic. Monster is interested in what we might call a “discoverable” domain name. That’s a name that can be found by someone who doesn’t know about your website but is doing web searches on keywords and phrases related to a specific topic, or by typing those words and phrases directly into the navigation bar of the browser. Discoverable names are generically descriptive.
The type of name that Godin is talking about is a “brandable” domain name. A brandable name establishes a distinct identity and communicates indirectly to evoke interesting ideas and feelings. Some brandable names, like Squidoo, provide a unique character string unlikely to be found anywhere except in documents that mention that particular website. That means people who know the name of the website can easily use a search engine to navigate there. Godin makes good use of this advantage, though it may not be a significant source of traffic. A unique character string also makes it possible for mentions of your website to dominate top search results for your name. That helps establish credibility, which may be considerably more important.
Discoverable Or Brandable?
So, do you need a discoverable name or a brandable name? If you intend to rely primarily on organic search results for a specific topic, you might want a discoverable name… but not necessarily. Even if your website has a brandable name, it can still rank well in search engine results for keywords and phrases as long as it’s full of relevant content. Discoverable names are only necessary for people counting on “type-in” traffic.
Domains Bot, a search engine that is geared specifically towards finding a domain name. It works best if you’re looking for a compound-word domain rather than an invented word.
Discoverable names are real words and phrases. If you don’t have the budget to buy a single real-word domain, then you’ll need to go for a phrase. Common phrases are often registered as well, so it can take time to find one. The trick to a discoverable name is not to be clever but to think of a phrase that other people would likely think of as well and would type in a search engine or navigation bar. The catch is that you have to find one that hasn’t yet been registered. Instant Domain Search and Domains Bot are great tools for checking the availability of domain names and suggest available alternative names.
If your marketing plans involve paid search listings and buzz generated by prominent mentions of your website, then you will almost certainly want a brandable name. A brandable name is distinctive, evocative and memorable.
Strategies For Brandable Names
So how do you come up with a brandable name? It takes some creativity. You sometimes hear people, including marketing people, say that a name should be an “empty vessel,” so that it can get all its meaning from other forms of branding. That’s not the most productive way to think when coming up with a name. Most great website names are connected to the purpose of the website in an indirect and interesting way. Often they use sensory images or tap into people’s personal experience in some way.
Some names are metaphors. PageFlakes, for example, uses the unexpected flake metaphor to help people understand something about how to use the website: you drag little boxes of content around, and they stick in the places you drop them, like flakes. Smashing Magazine is based on a word used in an enthusiastic appraisal of a performance, outfit, or design — “That looks smashing!” — but it also evokes the idea of being physically clobbered. That metaphor is brought to the foreground by the tagline: “We smash you with the information that makes your life easier. Really.”
Image credit: eBoy.
How do you come up with a metaphor? First, you have to have a clear understanding of what makes your website special and interesting. Then you have to find a simpler concept that helps people understand that concept by analogy, usually by imagined sensory experiences. The sensory information used in metaphors makes them vivid and memorable. There’s no algorithm for finding a metaphor, but it often involves thinking visually, which should come naturally to Web designers.
Some names have indirect connections to a website’s purpose but not through a metaphor. Flickr.com, for example, relates to photography through the concept of light that’s implicit in the word “flicker.”
Putting Names Together
Because you won’t be looking for a single-word name (unless you have big bucks to spend), you’ll have to build your name out of pieces. There are several different ways to do that:
Two whole words, often two nouns, stuck together. Don’t let anyone tell you that this kind of name is a “fad” and will go away. This has been the most common way to coin new English words as well as to create new names, and that’s unlikely to change in the next few hundred years.
Example: Six Apart
Words put together according to normal grammatical rules. Phrase names can be similar to compounds, but have a different pattern of syllabic emphasis. In compounds, the emphasis goes on the first word, the way we emphasize “white” in “the Whitehouse.” In phrases, the emphasis often goes on the second word, the way we emphasize “house” in “a white house.”
Examples: Microsoft, Farecast
A blend combines a part of a word with another word or word part. The name Microsoft combines the “micro” part of “microcomputer” with the “soft” part of “software.” When blends involve a surprising overlap in sound between the two words, they’re a form of wordplay. Farecast is like that. It combines the words “fare” and “forecast,” and “fare” resembles the first syllable of “forecast.” When you create this kind of blend, be sure to avoid awkwordplay: don’t pile up consonants in ugly ways (like in the name Syncplicity), and don’t use important words to replace syllables that aren’t emphasized (the way the names Mapufacture and Carticipate do).
- Tweaked word
Examples: Flickr, Zune
Sometimes you can find a good domain name that’s basically a real word, but changed in some small way. It might have a modified spelling, like Flickr, or it might have a changed or added sound, like Zune (from “tune”) and iPhone.
- Affixed word
Some names are new words created by sticking a prefix or suffix onto an existing word. Friendster, for example, is “friend” with the suffix -ster attached. Biznik is “biz” with the Yiddish-derived suffix -nik (as in “beatnik”).
- Made-up name
Examples: Etsy, Odeo
Sometimes you can find a name that is, or seems to be, completely made up. For example, Etsy is an online hand-made goods marketplace, and Odeo is an online music website.
When building a name out of pieces, be sure that both pieces contribute something interesting. The name LibraryThing fails in this respect. LiftPort, the name of a company that wants to build an elevator to outer space, is not much better. The words “lift” and “port” have very similar meanings; both relate to moving things around. Neither relates to what makes this company really exciting, outer space.
Linguistic Design Guidelines
Here are some general guidelines on linguistic design that you can use in your quest for a name:
- Good: 37signals
- Bad: LibraryThing
Appeal to the senses in appropriate ways:
- Good: Twitter
- Bad: BookGoo
Make every piece count:
- Good: YouTube
- Bad: LiftPort
If you use a metaphor, make sure it’s enlightening:
- Good: PageFlakes
- Bad: Fairtilizer (how is fertilizer related to music?)
Keep groups of consonants simple and appealing:
- Good: Biznik
- Bad: Sclipo
Preserve the natural syllabic emphasis of words:
- Good: Farecast
- Bad: Carticipate
Use sound to support your meaning:
- Good: Etsy (a short sound for a hand-made goods marketplace)
- Bad: Syncplicity (an awkward blend for an application that’s supposed to sync your computers seamlessly)
If you’re a Web designer, you know that the design process isn’t unfettered creativity. Rather, it involves elegant, creative solutions to specific problems. Naming is no different. Forget the cliche of the crazy adverstising or marketing genius who’s struck by the perfect idea as if by lightning. Approach the naming process in a strategic, rational way, and look for elegant solutions to your particular naming challenge. Even as domain names become scarcer and scarcer, with the right strategy and enough attention to linguistic design principles, building a great name is still possible.
- Instant Domain Search
Checks the availability of domain names in real time as you type, and provides links to popular registrars.
- ThinkMap Visual Thesaurus
Shows words linked to synonyms and other related words in interactive maps made of nodes and links. Paid membership required after a brief free trial period.
A free visual thesaurus based on Princeton’s WordNet database.
- Visual Dictionary
Online version of the Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary. You can look at images to learn the names of things.
- Name Types
Types of names in more detail, with lots of examples.
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