21 May2012

The Lean Domain Search Guide to Picking a Domain Name For Your Startup

Posted by Matt Mazur (@mhmazur)

There are a lot of articles out there about how to find a domain name for your startup, but not lot on how to evaluate the ones you find. What makes one domain name better than another? How do you decide which to use for your startup?

As the founder of several web-based products including two domain search tools, I've spent a lot of time thinking about these questions. In this post I'll share a few guidelines that can help you avoid some of the common pitfalls that startup founders make when picking a domain name.

It's important to think of your domain name as another step in your conversion funnel. Big picture, your goal should be to pick a domain name that makes it as easy as possible for people who want to get to your website to get there.

Think about it this way: you might spend countless hours optimizing your conversion funnel after people hit your site, but if 20% of the people who want to get to your website can't because they don't remember your product's name or can't spell your domain name correctly then you're losing out on a lot of potential customers before they even reach your homepage.

Your domain name will not make or break your startup; your product, marketing abilities, and luck will. However, as a startup founder you want to maximize your chances of success and that means choosing a domain name that isn't terrible.

Fortunately, you can be confident that you are picking a decent name by following a few simple guidelines:

1. Your domain name should be the same as your product name

Like it or not, when most people learn about your product, they will assume your website is yourproductname.com.

Consider Dropbox, which started out at GetDropbox.com but later had to acquire Dropbox.com because so many people were navigating to the wrong domain name:

There’s a difference between a name that’s gibberish and one that’s very easy to confuse with something else, which is a test that Dropbox failed with its GetDropbox domain. As the service has grown, so too has the amount of traffic heading to Dropbox.com, which has just featured a placeholder page full of ads. According to Compete, Dropbox.com had nearly 60,000 unique visitors last month. It’s impossible to know how many of them eventually made it to the correct domain, but there’s no doubt Dropbox has been losing out on plenty of traffic and customers.

For this reason, you should never simply add "app" or "hq" to the end of your product name unless it is the name of your product.

2. Your domain name should be a .com

Although implied above, it's worth stating here explicitly: when people learn about your product, they will assume your website is yourproductname.com. Not .org, not .io, .com.

If yourproductname.io is available but yourproductname.com is taken, what should you do? Choose a product name that has an available .com domain name.

The one exception is if you are outside of the US and targeting a local audience, then it makes sense to use the TLD that your country is familiar with (.co.uk, .es, etc) — though going with a .com will never be a bad choice.)

3. Your domain name should be easy to spell

Having a domain name that's easy to spell not only makes it easier for people to get to your site, it makes it easier for people to refer others to your site. Consider how much likelier you are to refer someone to a site when you can remember exactly how the domain name is spelled. You shouldn't have to Google or search their bookmarks to confirm the spelling.

A few guidelines:

  1. No hyphens – People won't remember they exist or where they are.
  2. No numbers – People won't remember whether they're spelled out or numeric. Examples: 1000Memories, 140Bets, 500Friends, 8aweek. If you must have a number, keep is under ten and spell it out.
  3. No missing letters – People won't remember that the letters are missing. Examples: Flickr, Snipd, Loopt.
  4. No double letters – People won't remember the correct spelling. Examples: Bountii.
  5. No alternate spellings – People won't remember the correct spelling. Examples: WebMynd, InfoHarmoni.
  6. No spelling hacks – People won't remember the correct spelling. Examples: Frid.ge, Fanpul.se
  7. No acronyms or abbreviations – People won't remember the correct spelling (are you seeing a pattern here?).
  8. No capitalization hacks – You don't want to have to constantly explain to people that the first letter of your product is lowercase and the second letter is capitalized, and the rest is lowercase or any other capitalization hack. It doesn't matter for domain names, but you want people to be consistent. Examples: iAssure, AeroFS, NowJS.

As you read these you probably thought of a few counterexamples (37Signals, iPhone, GMail, etc) but these are exceptions. For every startup that uses a hack and is happy with it a year later, there are probably 20 that regret it. You want to maximize your chances of success which means not being clever.

How to tell: Before you settle on a name, verbally ask a few people to check out the site (you don't even have to say it's yours): "Hey, can you do me a quick favor and see if this site is working for you: Oidlii.com." Don't specify the correct spelling. If they hesitate, ask for clarification, or go to the wrong URL, you need to find a new name.

4. Your domain name should be easy to pronounce

Ideally you want everyone to pronounce the name of product the same without having to correct them.

For example, I run a web-based timeline maker called Preceden. When people bring it up in conversation, half pronounce it preh-seh-den (which is how I say it) and half say pree-see-den. In retrospect, I probably should have chosen a domain name that was less confusing.

Having multiple pronunciations is also a good indication that people are going to have a hard time spelling it correctly.

How to tell: write down the domain name you're considering and ask several people to say it out loud. If you get inconsistent pronunciations, find a new name.

5. One word > multiple words > generic > everything else

In general, one word domain names (Mint.com, Twitter.com, Bing.com) are better than multi-word domain names (YouTube.com, Facebook.com, Paypal.com) which are better than generic domain names (Asana.com, Squidoo.com. Pinterest.com) which are better than everything else (Go2web20.net). Similarly, shorter domain names are generally better than long domain names.

The reason again goes back to complexity: Domain names with English words are going to be easier to remember than domain names without English words. Short domains are easier to remember than long domain names.

6. Your domain name should stand the test of time

Before you settle on a product name, bring it up in conversations like you had already decided on it.

"I'm working on a startup called ______."

Do you cringe when you say it or are you proud to be involved with it? Does the name excite you? Does it excite other people?

Unless you change it down the road (which is a pain), you're probably going to be associated with your product name for a long time to come.

Can you see it written below you name on business cards? Can you see yourself still being happy with your choice in 10 years? Can you see it written in big block letters on the outside of an office? If not, pick a new name.

7. Your domain name's Twitter handle should be available

Whatever your product is, you'll likely also want to set up a Twitter account to engage with current and potential customers. You should try to choose a product name whose exact match Twitter handle is also available.

8. Your domain name should be trademark free

When you find a domain name you like, you'll want to check to be sure you're not infringing on existing trademarks. 37Signals, for example, had to change Haystack to Sortfolio due to a potential conflict with another product.

To check whether a name is trademarked, check out Trademarkia.

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Finally, if you need help finding domain names to evaluate, check out this site's domain search capabilities. Lean Domain Search pairs your search term with more than 2,000 other keywords and instantly shows you which are available, returning more than 1,000 available domain names on average per search.

Welcome to Lean Domain Search, a fast new domain name generator.

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