Choosing a domain name is a critical decision that webmasters face when creating a new property. Every year the process gets tougher as more and more names are spoken for. In this post I present a set of best practices to keep in mind when coming up with domain name ideas. I then present a 5 step process of how to choose a domain name and get the name you want.
How to Choose a Domain Name – Best Practices
Stick to .com Only
With the recent explosion and hype about gTLDs (generic top level domains), many new business owners are often confused on whether they should consider domain extensions other than .com. My strong advice is to stick to the .com extension exclusively. Although the new gTLDs such as .guru, .expert, .tips, .club may sound enticing, they will only end up confusing your audience. Even the more established extensions like .net, .org, .info etc. are not well established or recommended. The vast majority of web users still automatically assume that .com is the only website extension out there. If you choose a domain name (like mydomain.net) that has an existing .com domain (like mydomain.com), I guarantee that you will consistently lose clicks/traffic to the .com domain.
Use Keywords Wisely
Using keywords that you are trying to target in your domain name is one of the most interesting decisions you will make when choosing a new domain name for your business. Using keywords in your domain does have its advantages – it helps in search engine rankings and it tells web users what your business is about. Using keywords incorrectly, however, has its drawbacks – it can hamper your attempts at building a brand and it can hurt your search engine rankings if overused.
Since I listed search engine rankings as both a potential benefit and a potential risk, let me provide some more context. Historically, having a keyword in a domain name has been a strong ranking factor in Google’s search engine results. See Google’s results for the phrase “art history” below as an example. The second and fourth result have the phrase “art history” in the domain name. Many more complete studies have shown that having a keyword in a domain does improve rankings. The use of keywords in domains, however, led to abuses by over aggressive webmasters and caused Google to modify their algorithms to de-emphasive (or even penalize) the use of “Exact Match Domains” (EMDs). On September 27, 2012 Google released their Exact-Match Domain algorithm update which led to a wide devaluation of low quality domains with keyword only domain names. The key here is “low quality” – websites with thin content and low trust were most affected.
The best approach is to balance the potential search engine benefits with the drawbacks of brand/identity. If the keywords that define your target niche are short then it could make sense to use the keyword in your domain with a “brandable” modifier. For example, www.fulltiltquilting.com may be a good choice for a domain name if your niche is speed quilting (is that a thing?).
No Numbers, Hyphens
Domains are allowed to have numbers and hyphens in them (e.g., www.domain-12.com is allowed). I don’t recommend domains with either numbers or hyphens because:
- They can sound spammy (www.san-diego-beach-rentals.com just doesn’t earn my trust)
- They are hard to say to people (“I work for domain5.com …that’s the number 5 not five”)
- They are hard to remember and confusing
- They may be confused with their counterparts (i.e., domain5.com vs. domainfive.com or beach-rentals.com vs. beachrentals.com)
Avoid Difficult, Confusing, or Misspelled Words
Because many domain names are already spoken for, you may be tempted to choose an “eclectic” word for your domain such as flickr.com or disqus.com or aficionado.com. Many brands successfully do this with good results. These brands, however, spend millions of dollars to establish their brand identity…money which you probably don’t have. If you can obtain a domain name without confusing words you will be better off in the long term.
You should insure that your domain name does not contain any copyrighted or trademarked terms. Although tempting, the domain www.ipadreviews.com will cause you grief down the road. Because the word “ipad” is a federally registered trademark of Apple you would be at risk because Apple could convince a judge that customers would be confused about the source or quality of the products on your domain – and you would have to stop using the domain and potentially pay Apple damages.
You may be able to “get away” with using a trademarked term in your domain name…plenty of people do…but it is not worth the risk. I have one domain that uses a trademarked term, and I received a “cease and desist” letter from the legal firm representing the organization (the US Postal Service). I spent considerable time and some money “defending” my use of the domain and I was able to prevail…but I would definitely avoid the whole ordeal in the future.
To search for trademarked terms, utilize the US Patent and Trademarks Office search tools
Utilize Google To Validate Prospective Names
When you are down to a few prospective domain names you should search for the terms in Google. There are two things you should be looking for: 1) how many search results come up and 2) are there competing/similar domains.
After your website is established and has some traction you will want your users to be able to type your company’s name into Google and insure your domain is the first result. How do you insure this…search the phrase in Google and look at two things: number of search results and the top results. If there are billions of search results you may have a hard time standing out. More importantly, if the top result is a very similar domain you may never achieve a number one ranking and you may send potential users to the wrong site.
If one of your prospective names is Smart Fly Fishing, then a Google search would turn up the following red flags: the first result is an alternative tld domain (www.smartflyfishing.nl), the fifth result is from caseysmartt.com (which may cause confusion down the road), and there are almost 5 million search results.
Make It Unique
A unique domain name (that is also easy to remember and use!) is the hardest single challenge when looking for a new domain name. When it is done correctly – think YouTube, Facebook or CareerBuilder – it can be a great foundation on which a successful business is built. Ideally you want the domain name to have relevance to your business yet be unique and understandable. A recent trend to accomplish this is to combine several standard words into a unique name – techcrunch.com and techdirt.com are examples of this. Another approach is to use a family name in the domain – huffingtonpost.com, angieslist.com and tomshardware.com utilize this approach.
Easy to Remember and Use
This best practice may be a combination of other factors already mentioned, but it is worth repeating. Your domain name must be easy to use and remember – don’t make your customers work harder than they have to.
Don’t make your prospective customers:
- Worry about spelling
- Know the difference between .com and .net
- Remember an acronym (“was it tld or dlt?”)
- Worry about the order of terms (“was that smartflyfishing.com or flyfishingsmart.com)
- Remember use extra words (www.theflyshop.com vs. www.flyshop.com)
Shorter is Better
All other things being equal, shorter is better. Shorter names are easier to remember, easier to type, and easier to not screw up. Less than 10 characters is ideal (but may be hard!). Anything less than 15 is certainly acceptable.
Tell Your Audience What You Are About
This is also an important factor but hard to do well. If your domain name can inform your audience what you do and how you do it then you have a winner. An intuitive domain name makes your job much easier – your users will know what to expect when they come to your site. It then becomes your job to meet their expectations. Good examples of this factor are: fastsigns.com, careerbuilder.com, and travelocity.com.
Use as a Foundation for a Brand
Some websites exist only to get traffic from high search rankings…and don’t care about creating a brand identity with their users. I believe that this is a flawed approach, but many people make money successfully using this approach across thousands of domains. If you are interested in differentiating your site from other sites, in gaining a loyal following of users who willingly return to your site, and conveying a sense of quality, experience and credibility to your audience – then establishing a brand is a necessity.
Your domain name is one (important) piece of establishing your brand. Your domain name can help reinforce your brand tenets to your users.
Insure Availability of Social Network Names
This one usually takes care of itself, but if you believe social media is an important component of your business, then you need to insure that your business name is available on the relevant networks (i.e., twitter, facebook, pinterest etc.).
Other Considerations: Should you Buy an Existing Domain Name?
What should you do if you find a domain name that meets all of your requirements but it is already taken? The easiest solution is to keep on looking for a new domain and never look back. The other approach is to attempt to purchase the domain. Many times the domain will just be “parked” and available for sale at an auction. Other times you may be able to contact the owner and make them an offer. I used to be a big proponent of buying existing domain names (especially “aged” domain names that had some good assets from Google’s perspective). With Google cracking down on spammy practices, however, some domains that are available for sale may be “scorched earth” from Google’s perspective. For example, many website used spammy link building practices and have had their domains severely penalized in Google’s Penguin update. Unfortunately, many of these webmasters abandoned their domains and they are now up for sale. From Google’s perspective, these spammy links still exist and may carry over to your newly purchased domain.
There are still opportunities to purchase an existing domain for your business but you need to do your research. If you are fairly new to Internet marketing, I would avoid buying an existing domain.
How to Choose a Domain Name – The Complete Process
Step 1: Generating Ideas/Brainstorming
The best way to start your domain search is to generate a list of terms that describe your business and then use various tools to help expand that list and check for availability of the domains. Here is how you should start:
1a) Generate a list of keywords that describe your niche
These keywords are what will identify to your user what your website is about. If you are creating a blog about nursing, then your keyword list might be: nurse, nursing, rn, lpn, nursing school, nursing careers, nursing jobs etc. You should look for 5 – 10 keywords that would indicate to a user what your site will contain.
1b) Generate a list of words that describe your brand
This one is a little harder to describe and accomplish. When you researched your niche, hopefully you started identifying some voids in the market that your website could fill. What will it be about your site that will be different from the other sites in you niche? What do you want your brand to stand for? If you are planning on running an information-oriented site, will your site be the most in-depth and geared towards advanced users or provide easy to use directions geared towards beginners. The key here is to generate a list of words/phrases that can further identify what your site is about and how it is different.
If you want your site known as the authority in something, then your descriptive words could include: guru, expert, hero, master etc. If you aspire your site to be more credible then others, then the words may be: trust, trusted, reliable, assure, true etc.
Step 2: Combine your descriptive keywords and check availability
There are many tools that help you generate domain names and check their availability. My current favorite is Dot-o-mator (www.dotomator.com). I like it the most because it is easy to use and flexible. I use it by taking my two lists of descriptive words from Step 1 (niche keywords and brand keywords) and copying them into the Dot-o-mator’s Beginnings and Endings boxes as shown below.
In this case I took the “brand” keywords:
and combined them with the “niche” keywords:
Dot-o-mator created 30 combinations and determined that 24 were available. In your case don’t be surprised if your first passes are not successful. You may only find 1 or 2 combinations available for your initial trials.
If you don’t find any gems in your first pass, try these tricks:
- Switch the “Beginnings” and “Endings” – put your niche keywords in the beginnings box and your brand keywords in the endings box.
- Use Dot-o-mators already established lists for beginnings for endings. For example, Dot-o-mator supplies lists of simple/fancy colors, web 2.0 words, tech words etc. that you can try for the beginnings.
- Use an online thesaurus to expand your list of brand keywords
- Combine words together to expand your list – in my example I used nursingjobs and nursingcareers. In your case, maybe combining some brand keywords would expand your list (truebuzz, mytrue).
- Use other tools to help generate names. Try these to start: www.leandomainsearch.com, www.namemesh.com, www.domainsbot.com.
Step 3: Reevaluate Short List with Best Practices and Choose the Finalist
After you have created a shortened list of available domains from Step 2, it’s time to review the “Best Practices” to make sure that your domain will be a good investment for the long term. Make sure to do a Google search on the domain’s root and check out any trademark issues. This is also not a bad time to verbally tell some friends the domain and watch them type it out…just to make sure there’s nothing wonky about it.
At this point you should now be down to at least one available domain that meets most of the best practices recommendations.
Step 4: Confirm Availability and Purchase
Once you have your domain name finalized, it is time to confirm its availability and purchase the domain. To accomplish this, you will need to use a domain registrar company. While there are dozens of reputable domain registrars, I prefer NameCheap because of their pricing, service and simplicity. I also use GoDaddy (mainly because I have purchased domains from their auctions and from other users who had them registered with GoDaddy). I haven’t had any problems with GoDaddy but I find them more expensive, more “salesy”, and a bit more cumbersome to use.
Confirm your domain’s availability at NameCheap
Step 5: Choose Your Hosting Provider
Once you have your domain registered you will need a place to host it. Do NOT be lured into choosing your domain registrar’s hosting service…you will ultimately be disappointed. For new websites, I recommend either Bluehost or Hostgator. If you need help deciding the best fit for your situation, read my Bluehost vs. Hostgator review. If you don’t already have a hosting provider and you are obtaining a new domain, I recommend Bluehost because the domain registration is included in their pricing.
If you are choosing a new domain name for an established website, or are expecting heavy traffic loads, you should consider a hosting provider that provides VPS (virtual private server) or dedicated server hosting. I currently use LiquidWeb’s Storm on Demand VPS, KnownHost VPS and Servint’s VPS. I am happy with all three services, but Liquid Web is my favorite (for their service and performance).
I’d love to hear your thoughts on choosing a domain name. Leave me a comment below to share.