The Effective Strategy For Choosing Right Domain Names

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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:

  • Short
  • 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.

Two Questions

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.

Word Map1
Image from the Visual Thesaurus2, 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.

Domainsbot3
Domains Bot64, 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 Search5 and Domains Bot64 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.”

7
Image credit: eBoy8.

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:

  • Compound
    Example: YouTube
    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.
  • Phrase
    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.”
  • Blend
    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
    Example: Friendster
    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:

Meaning

Be specific:

  • 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?)

Sound

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)

Conclusion

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.

Resources

  • Instant Domain Search9
    Checks the availability of domain names in real time as you type, and provides links to popular registrars.
  • ThinkMap Visual Thesaurus10
    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.
  • Visuwords11
    A free visual thesaurus based on Princeton’s WordNet database.
  • Visual Dictionary12
    Online version of the Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary. You can look at images to learn the names of things.
  • Name Types13
    Types of names in more detail, with lots of examples.

You may be interested in the following related posts:

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Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.visualthesaurus.com
  2. 2 http://www.visualthesaurus.com
  3. 3 http://www.domainsbot.com/
  4. 4 http://www.domainsbot.com/
  5. 5 http://instantdomainsearch.com/
  6. 6 http://www.domainsbot.com/
  7. 7 http://hello.eboy.com/eboy/
  8. 8 http://hello.eboy.com/eboy/
  9. 9 http://www.instantdomainsearch.com
  10. 10 http://www.visualthesaurus.com
  11. 11 http://www.visuwords.com
  12. 12 http://visual.merriam-webster.com/index.php
  13. 13 http://www.thenameinspector.com/10-name-types/
  14. 14 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2007/06/28/domain-tools-and-articles-about-domain-names/

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Christopher Johnson is a naming and verbal branding consultant from Seattle, WA, USA. He has a PhD in linguistics and writes about names and language on his blog The Name Inspector.

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  1. 1

    Fantastic post

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  2. 52

    The Name Inspector

    May 5, 2009 10:12 am

    Nathan, “twitter” is a real English word. I don’t know if people would have fought over it before Twitter.com, but it’s not made up and it does mean something. It’s extremely hard now to find any real English word that’s not registered as a .com domain name, whether it represents a big product category (like vodka.com) or not.

    0
  3. 103

    There were plans last year to lessen the prominence of the .com suffix by allowing any three letter combination instead, such as .abc, .ant or whatever. I’ve not heard anything since though.

    More ruminations at… icouldntgetagooddotcomdomainsoiwentforthisoneinstead.com

    0
  4. 154

    yeah, what happened to that plan? was supposed to cost $10k for your very own tld (http://www.mysite.mytld/) – not much info on ICANN for it lately.

    0
  5. 205

    @milan and @KarlS Be careful recommending buying a domain hack. Is it Deli.cio.us or deli.cio.us or some other variation ? They can cause chaos later down the road. Make sure your domain name passes the “radio test” too. Imagine telling someone how to type that domain out over the phone or on the radio in an advertisement. Delicious also owns the Delicious.com domain, and I’m sure buying it AFTER they became successful cost them much more than if they bought it beforehand.

    I get the concept. . . “you don’t have to use .com” , but in the global internet economy the default of most users is .com . Just ask Dick Cheney who sent millions of people to FactCheck.com when he meant to say FactCheck.org . DOH!!

    @Mark Simpson and @adrianne . Front-running domains has all been squashed by new. ICANN rules

    And the recent NSI Front Running Settlement cost them a $1million. These 2 fairly recent developments should deter most from front running in a blatant manner like this again.

    If anyone wants some tips on how to buy domains like a pro they should also read Jamie Siminoff’s (PhoneTag.com) post at the Four Hour Work week blog.

    Great read Christopher. Adding a new blog to my reader. :)

    0
  6. 256

    Водоподготовка

    May 6, 2009 4:03 am

    with Russian domain names all easier.

    0
  7. 307

    What do you think about Graphiclancer? It’s combined from “Graphic” & “Freelancer”

    0
  8. 358

    Meaning
    Be specific:
    * Good: 37signals
    * Bad: LibraryThing

    Huh? I’ve never understood the meaning of ’37Signals’ , I always think of a person manically doing semaphore whenever I see that domain name. IE – lots of confusing overlaid ‘signals’, rather than one clear signal.

    In what way does that domain have any meaning at all, other than “it’s a number of gestures”, which to my mind does not fit their business in any way.

    If it they were selling a book on body-language it might have some meaning, perhaps.

    1
  9. 409

    Comment #38 listed the best one. BustAName.com IS AWESOME.

    0
  10. 460

    awesome guidelines.

    0
  11. 511

    Jonathan Patterson

    May 21, 2009 7:34 am

    Excellent and poignant read!

    0
  12. 562

    DaBrighterSide

    June 2, 2009 8:21 pm

    Great article! I like it,I learned so much about domain names.

    0
  13. 613

    What about TightPixel.Com ….Is it a good domain name. How much do you think I should sell this domain for?

    0
  14. 664

    Guys if your looking for a domain name with a specific keyword in it you might like this site http://www.easydomainfinder.com.

    -1
  15. 715

    you cover most of the ground with regards to finding an available url, however, you miss some low hanging fruit, like choosing a different extension (.net, .is, .whatever) or even choosing your own extension. i highly suggest you read an article by eli altman, who was just featured in inc magazine on the subject of url searching, over at onthebutton. http://onthebutton.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/finding-a-url/

    -1
  16. 766

    I have to break the silence. I must take issue with the following assertion:

    “Be specific:
    Good: 37signals
    Bad: LibraryThing

    Appeal to the senses in appropriate ways:
    Good: Twitter
    Bad: BookGoo”

    I’m sorry but I fail to see how 37Signals specifies anything more than LibraryThing. Also, BookGoo might not appeal to you (nor me for that matter), but I’m sure it appeals to people who like things ghoulish and drippy – goths/teens (or both).

    -1
  17. 817

    I do think that Google was an effective name. The name itself has evolved into a verb that people commonly use these days, it’s even listed in the dictionary. “Just Google it.” Another example would be Tupperware.

    -1
  18. 868

    what do you guys think of inkOperated as a clever name ?

    -1
  19. 919

    Thanx for the valuable information. This was just the thing I was looking for, I really like how it includes the actual curved shape flight paths. keep posting. Will be visiting back soon.

    -1
  20. 970

    I think this article was great but left out an important discussion on a huge new trend in domains names like so

    e.ggtimer.com

    Using subdomains and the domain name to form the domain name.

    It’s another great way to get a catchy name, but is it really viable in the long term, that’s tough to know.

    -1
  21. 1021

    Thanks for a great info. It’s so difficult to come up with a good “brandable” domain name. A lot of us don’t have great imagination to come up with one. Maybe visiting sites such as http://www.humandomaingenerator.com/ that offers free help finding the right domain name is an option.

    -1
  22. 1072

    how to find a good URL without having a brain hemorrhage: http://onthebutton.wordpress.com/2009/07/16/finding-a-url/

    -1
  23. 1123

    yes, choosing a domain for your idea is a daunting task. Personally I would rather invest a couple hundred into an effective domain at the aftermarket than opt for a worse hand-registered choice. Another good video about the topic and domain options is at KnowYourOptions.tv

    -1
  24. 1174

    Ishwar Bhadarge

    July 28, 2010 1:30 pm

    very nice article for the selecting domain name.

    -1
  25. 1225

    Pretty interesting blog post, was a pretty good article to read! thanks

    -1
  26. 1276

    What do you think about the name Wisdio.com (wisdio.com)?

    -1
  27. 1327

    I just watched this video on YouTube called “How to choose the Best Domain Name” and it was extremely helpful. I thought I would share. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mC0oQpv7fPs

    -1
  28. 1378

    http://domainjig.com is a domain name search and suggestion tool. It’s a bit like domainsbot (which was mentioned in the article) but is instant, so is easier to play around with.

    -1
  29. 1429

    Brian Bordenkircher

    April 19, 2011 2:08 pm

    Wow, very informative and full of information. A bit more information than the following article, but I have also found this article at guidetostart.com useful:

    guidetostart.com/?page_id=4

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  30. 1480

    Horstel Hollamann

    March 27, 2012 8:10 pm

    Yes, this is an interesting article, but now we have 2012 and I wonder whch of the mentioned
    ” domain search sites” are ( still ) ethical ……. or do I have to register instantly to obtain the domain name??
    I have a new business and can easily think of a great domain name, or two or three, but, how do I search for availability without being robbed??
    Thanks,
    Horstel

    0
  31. 1531

    I like the guidelines, Even my brand name is “Pokkisam”. Its a Tamil language word which means Treasure.

    -1
  32. 1582

    Rachel Napolitano

    January 22, 2013 8:11 pm

    Is it true that using “The” with a domain name is a lot less desirable? Why is that? From a personal opinion, I wouldn’t use “The” for my domain, but I’m not sure what public opinion is.

    This also helped in my search for a domain name. Short and sweet.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyXwO1njp6w

    0
  33. 1633

    Thanks
    Your article really helped me out
    i was confused every name i decide was unavailable
    now ive got some available

    0

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