Read through a list of “tips for naming your company,” and, almost without fail, one piece of advice will revolve around ensuring the exact dot-com domain name is available. For example, the fourth of “12 Tips For Naming Your Startup Business“ in Forbes is “Get the .com domain name.” This advice comes from an executive at a venture capital fund that invests in companies with names like “Phreesia” and “Opzoon.”
A recent Ad Age article about brand names advised readers to “make sure the name is available” by running “a Google search along with a social media check.” This time the tip comes from the head of marketing at Rootstrap, a software development firm. Going a bit further than the Forbes article, the author suggests the name isn’t important at all, so long as the dot-com is obtainable: “Don’t stress on the name itself; make sure you can claim your digital real estate first.”
Focusing on the exact dot-com is bad advice1
When the Ad Age article was published, professional namers were not impressed. Jonathan Bell of WANT posted it on his LinkedIn feed, calling it “pathetic and shockingly bad.” Anthony Shore of Operative Words replied, “‘Pathetic’ is much too kind. ‘Irresponsible’ is closer to the mark.” Among other complaints with the article, these naming experts expressed a long-held stance against the idea of a “dot-com first” approach to naming.
In Hello, My Name Is Awesome, Alexandra Watkins points out that the inability to obtain an exact dot-com domain “didn’t stop Facebook,” which launched at thefacebook.com. She then argues that Google “eliminates the problem” because people typically search for companies using keywords rather than type domain names into address bars. Six years after the first edition of her book, Watkins’ arguments hold—if anything, they become more persuasive every day:
- Facebook is not alone in launching with an “imperfect” domain name; popular, newer brands like Peloton and Away have done the same (onepeloton.com and awaytravel.com, respectively) and Nissan—one of the world’s most valuable brands—never owned nissan.com. (Instead, find them at choosenissan.com.)
- Google’s Chrome browser combined the address bar with the search bar (something they call the “omnibox”). Other browsers have followed suit, making it even easier to rely on search terms rather than an exact URL.
- Early on, the Internet had seven top-level domains (TLDs), and most businesses used one of three: dot-com, dot-net, or dot-org. As of this writing (June 2020), a new website could have any one of over 1,500 TLDs—and the list is growing.
Solve for the brand name first, then the domain
Another argument against prioritizing an exact “brand match” dot-com domain is that determining whether a URL is obtainable—and at what price—can prove difficult and time-consuming. True, a bulk domain search can instantly tell you which of many domains are “available” for $11.99. But what about those that are parked or point to long-defunct websites? What if they’re for sale, too, but for $200? Or $20? No bulk search tool can reveal this information instantly, especially when finding the “true” price of a domain may require multiple rounds of negotiation. If you insist on an exact dot-com domain, you’re either stuck with an $11.99 domain (Opzoon.com, anyone?) or the prospect of contacting dozens of domain owners to gauge prices and availability.
That’s why the naming process favored by most professional namers solves for the name first, then the domain. Namers create hundreds of ideas and subject the strongest candidates to a battery of rapid screenings, including preliminary trademark searches and linguistic checks. Screening typically includes a visit to [name].com, but names aren’t ruled out simply because someone owns or uses a domain. Once a decision-making team whittles the long list down to a handful of preferred ideas, it’s time to dig into the domain question.
Solving for the name first ensures the brand name conveys the desired meaning and personality, among other attributes of strong names. The reverse approach—finding an available dot-com first—still requires legal availability checks (because owning a domain doesn’t give the owner trademark rights2) and may mean post-rationalizing a story to link the name to the brand.
But the exact dot-com domain is taken—now what?
These days, it seems the exact dot-com for any pronounceable string of letters—not to mention almost every real word—is owned. Therefore, brand names derived through the naming process described above usually don’t come with freely available dot-com domains. In this situation, resourceful companies can take many paths from name to domain. Here are some possible next steps, using the (purely illustrative) newname.com domain as an example:
First, dig deeper to find out whether the domain is for sale
- Just because a domain search doesn’t show newname.com as “available” doesn’t mean the owner won’t sell.
- Do not visit the newname.com repeatedly or reveal your identity when contacting the owner—get in touch anonymously or hire a domain broker to find out whether the owner is open to selling.
These days, it seems the exact dot-com for any pronounceable string of letters—not to mention almost every real word—is owned. But resourceful companies can take many paths from name to domain.”
Add a descriptor
- Often, the most straightforward solution for the domain is adding a descriptive word after the brand name. For example, Dove, the popular American chocolate brand, owns dovechocolate.com, not dove.com. (The latter is owned by the personal care brand of the same name.) Before purchasing tesla.com in 2016, Tesla could be found at teslamotors.com.
- Descriptors can speak to what a company does (newnametaxprep.com), what it sells (newnamecoffee.com), where it’s located (newnamesf.com), or any other pertinent information related to the company (e.g., newnameglobal.com or newnameinc.com).
Add words to create a phrase
- Many new brands solve the dot-com challenge by creating a phrase that contains their name. Recess, a sparking CBD beverage, owns takearecess.com. Dropbox originally occupied getdropbox.com (but acquired dropbox.com in 2009).
- Other words to consider using include “choose,” “get,” or “we are.” For a longer list of ideas, see the table below.
Consider alternative TLDs
- Dot-com still reigns supreme in the land of TLDs, and maybe it always will. Nonetheless, many companies opt for dot-net. Slideshare and Box, for example, were first located at slideshare.net and box.net, respectively.
- Startups and gaming companies frequently use dot-co or dot-io domains (“I/O” is shorthand for “input/output,” which has relevance in software development and some technical fields). Check the availability (or sale price) of newname.co and newname.io to join startups like Hinge (hinge.co), VSCO (vsco.co), Frame.io, and Datrium (datrium.io).
- Depending on the nature of your business, descriptive TLDs like dot-store or dot-consulting may be relevant. Consider Twitch, the streaming platform for gamers: It remained at twitch.tv until after its 2014 acquisition by Amazon. Now, twitch.com redirects to twitch.tv.
Explore domain hacks and other creative solutions
- In the early 2000s, blo.gs and del.icio.us pioneered the use of “domain hacks”—the creative use of domain extensions to create names and words.
- Domain hacks have given rise to a handful of naming fads, including a slew of “-ly” names, like Zenly (zen.ly) and Parsely (parse.ly), which rely on the country code top-level domain (ccTLD) of Libya. This trend has arguably jumped the shark, but domain hacks can still work as long as they’re solving the domain challenge for a selected name, rather than driving the naming decision in their own right.
- Downsides of domain hacks include potential impacts on SEO and risks associated with attaching your site to the ccTLD of a politically unstable country.
- Other creative domain solutions may work, depending on the name in question. When Alphabet launched in 2015, the media swiftly (almost gleefully) reported that BMW owns alphabet.com. But as you’d expect of Google, they were one step ahead: Alphabet Inc.’s URL is abc.xyz.
Combine any of the above
- For example, a radio station that fails to obtain newname.com could explore options like newnameradio.com (a descriptor), newname.fm (an alternative TLD), newna.me (a domain hack), or newnamerad.io (a descriptor combined with a domain hack).
- A tax preparer could consider taxesbynewname.co, getnewname.tax, or newnametax.es.
A great name is worth more than a lousy name with a perfect domain
Whatever you do, don’t let domain availability drive the naming process. While the tactics above may lead to a viable domain solution, they should only be contemplated once ideas have been derived through a naming process rooted in brand strategy and prioritizing the meaning, tone, and other qualities of the brand name (including legal availability).
Consider the major brands mentioned above. No matter your opinion of names like Tesla and Slideshare, they are easier to spell, pronounce, and remember than the tortured alternatives that might have resulted from an insistence on exact brand match domains. Imagine: We could be shopping for cars at Tezzly.com and watching slide presentations at Slydshr.com3. Maybe VCs would’ve looked more favorably on their exact dot-com domains, but I’m glad these companies didn’t base their naming decisions on a list of tips in Ad Age.
Rob Meyerson is a brand consultant, professional namer, and host of the How Brands Are Built podcast. He is also principal and founder of Heirloom, an independent brand strategy and identity firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- 1 If it’s so off-base, why does this advice keep showing up in perennial “tips for naming” articles? I suspect there are three reasons: a) Owning a “pure” dot-com was once more important—both because it made companies easier to find and because it came with considerable caché. Most people don’t name companies very often and are likely to have an outdated view of domain names. (I.e., Old habits die hard.) b) Most professional namers have at least a rudimentary understanding of trademark law; without this understanding, non-experts are likely to conflate domain availability with legal availability. The two are barely related. c) Non-experts are recycling old ideas. Called upon to say something useful about naming, they’re likely searching through blog posts and parroting incorrect information.
- 2 The recent Supreme Court decision related to Booking.com does add an interesting wrinkle to the equation, however.
- 3 Purely illustrative (and terrible) ideas