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The pain of names is mainly in domains…

Recently, I’ve been working on a naming project for an overseas client. The company is launching a new online business that will operate in a relatively crowded niche. All I have to do is think of its name. 

Oh, and just one more thing. The name has to be available as a .com domain. Nothing less will do. 

Creative challenge

If you’ve ever been involved in this sort of project, you’ll know how soul-destroying it can be. 

The process of choosing a domain name consists of two phases: one creative, one destructive.

In the first, creative phase, you take the essence of the business, brand or product and express it in a short word or phrase. 

Sounds simple? It really isn’t. Your name needs to be reasonably original. It (probably) needs to communicate something about the product or the business, even if only metaphorically. And it needs to be snappy and memorable. 

Having generated a list of options, picking a winner is also a challenge. The right answer rarely leaps out at you, because names only sound ‘right’ when they’ve been bolstered by professional branding and made familiar through a few years of use. (Remember the initial reception for ‘Wii’ and ‘iPad’?) 

Naming strategies

However, that’s just finding a name – not a domain name. If you want to take your name online, your options narrow quite dramatically. 

Since practically every obvious single-word domain (such as ‘Apple’) has now been taken, you are left with five main strategies: find an obscure word no-one’s used (‘Twitter’), add a prefix or suffix to a word (‘Econsultancy’), combine two or more words (‘Stumbleupon’, ‘Compare the Market’), misspell an existing word or words (‘Digg’); or simply make up a word (‘Google’, ‘Instagram’). 

If you don’t mind something less snappy, less ‘digital’ in flavour, you can bolt a proper name and a generic term together (my own distinctly uninspiring ‘ABC Copywriting’), use initials or an acronym (‘BMW’) or go for ultra-traditional company-naming conventions like integrating a placename (‘Norfolk Windows’).

While not particularly sexy, these approaches often have the SEO benefit of putting keywords in your URL.

Finally, there are also awkward, artificial ways to achieve uniqueness, like adding ‘the’ or hyphens to the name. 

Kill your darlings

Whatever option you choose, the acid test is the second (much shorter), destructive phase of the process.

Here you carry your beautiful newborn to the temple of the domain broker, where it’s brutally sacrificed on the altar of its own unoriginality. You type your creation into the search box, hold your breath like a gambler betting it all on black, and hit ‘return’. 

Usually, the ones you’re most excited about are the ones with least chance of survival. Most of the time, the most plausible, catchy names will show ‘Taken’ for everything from .com to .me. You laugh, mirthlessly, at your own naïveté.  

Even more frustrating, though, are the slightly more devious, obscure ones that are available with most TLDs – apart from .com. It’s probably only been bagged by a cybersquatter, but unless you want to try and negotiate a sale (with the price increasing the more interest you show), it’s back to the drawing board. 

Finally, the few, the very precious few, are available with every suffix. Inevitably, they will be the weakest creatively, but if they have any value at all, they can stay in the running. 

This see-saw process of creation and destruction continues until you develop a shortlist. The ratio of ‘usable’ names to ‘.com available’ names is absolutely eye-watering – at least 10:1, I’d say, unless you are a genius at knowing what is already taken. But you get there eventually, even if your final list is so fantastical that it looks like the fruit of a Tolkien cheese-dream. 

No place to hide

It’s hard to overstate just how demoralising this is for a creative – or anyone else, for that matter. In most other contexts, ideas that are semi-derivative can be perfectly viable. It’s a big world, and there truly is little new under the sun. As long as your idea isn’t perceived as tired and unoriginal by the audience, there’s no reason why it can’t be used.  

In advertising, for example, going back to an old campaign for inspiration, or transplanting creative ideas from one industry to another, could well be perfectly viable. Given the size of the internet, there are probably dozens of blog posts with the same topic and tone as this one. But because you’ve never seen them, you’re still reading. 

With domain names, though, there’s no hiding place. Only the unique survive. And to enter your ideas into that search box is to be confronted with the cold, hard truth: your ideas, of which you were so proud, are not remotely original. Others have been this way before. 

Neil Taylor, the writer who named Ocado, wrote a book called The Name of the Beast about the process of naming brands, products and companies. Here’s how he describes the unique deflation of discovering your name is unoriginal (during his time as a ‘namer’ at Interbrand in the 1990s):

We had so many clients wanting a .com (then as now, the default first choice when people are trying to guess what a brand’s domain name might be) that we spent our entire lives coming up with extraordinarily weird names that, incredibly, had nevertheless already been registered by someone else. These were names that were so convoluted, so odd, and frankly so rubbish, that often we found ourselves sat in front of our computer screens in stupefaction that anyone else in the history of the universe had ever come up with that idea.

Numbers game

None of this is particularly surprising when you look at the numbers. According to Wikipedia, there were 192 million domain names in 2009, and by March 2010 84 million .com domains had been racked up. 

Of course, new suffixes like .me and .co have been introduced, to try and spread demand around a little. But their novelty has not translated into appeal; .com remains the daddy. 

The problem is that all the big, established brands use .com, and always will, making it the gold standard. If you want to be on a par with them (and who doesn’t?), you’re going to want a .com too. 

And that means, for the time being at least, we’re stuck with the unending nightmare of the quest for a decent domain. 

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Published 29 November, 2012 by Tom Albrighton

Tom Albrighton is a copywriter and contributor to Econsultancy. He blogs here and tweets here. You can also add Tom to your Google+ circles. 

16 more posts from this author

Comments (17)

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Hannah Norman, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai Ltd

Great post!
There is nothing more disappointing than running through the list of awesome and original domain names and realising that they have been taken. Only to then find that your idea has also been used too!

It's important not to fall into the trap of getting what might seem like a great Domain name only to realise later on that its nearly impossible to get across to people what it is called. Most of the examples I can think of aren't suitable for a comment on here but its worth considering what the name also may spell.

over 3 years ago

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Mark Asciak

Ah yes, been through this one a few times and while I find it an enjoyable process, it can be very trying.

As for a .com LOLS, yeah wow, I thought they were all taken hehe.

I recently scored ok, being based in Australia and wanting to start my own blog about AdWords I found the domain ad-words.com.au was available, who'd have thought...

over 3 years ago

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Hannah Norman, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai Ltd

Don't you need a registered address in Australia to get a .au domain? They may have changed that rule though.

over 3 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

Chances are if you think of a great name you think is catching and cool and fun...someone beat you to the punch. Your domain name should reflect your brand, have a lasting impact and still make sense to the average user. It's not an easy thing.

over 3 years ago

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Nigel Day

UK-centric businesses should always go for .co.uk in preference. Better for recognition and possibly for SEO too

over 3 years ago

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Kerry

I think people seriously undermine how important a domain name can be.
Companies need to check and register domain names for every new product they bring out. It's becoming just as important to own a domain name for something associated to your brand than to check if a name has been trademarked or not.

I was seriously shocked when I joined my company that they had let key domain names slip away to be bought by competitors or affiliates to ruin a products image or make some money out of it. Now we have bought at least 100 associated domain names and it is becoming more important in the NPD process.

Remember to register your child's name as a domain name when they're born....I will be doing it right after I've registered their birth!

over 3 years ago

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Louie Chow

Very interesting. It's a challenge just like any kind of naming projects. And don't forget also to check its meaning in other cultures, and won't cause people too much trouble pronouncing and remembering it. Mondelēz, the new name for Kraft had a bit of a stir. When combining words also need to see the forest and not just the tree...Susan Boyle's recent hashtag blunders - even though it may be just an one off hiccup, but that's what could happen if you get too close.

over 3 years ago

Matthew Phelan

Matthew Phelan, Director and Co-Founder at 4Ps Marketing

My only advice to add is that all decisions should be brand led. Many sites try to over complicate the process. Pick the right available name for your brand and go with it. My only caveat to that is you can only do that if you actually understand where your brand is and where it is going.

In summary; Your URL decesion should be brand led not SEO or IT led.

over 3 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Finding a decent brand / domain name is nothing short of a nightmare these days. I have a 25-step plan that I try to adhere to, which may help: http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/3821-the-25-factors-behind-brilliant-brand-domain-names

over 3 years ago

Shelli Walsh

Shelli Walsh, director at shellshock ltd

Hi Tom, I really enjoyed your article. Well written with a nice tone.

I share your pain as I have been through this process myself so many times. I have noticed the space really change dramatically, it seems that only a few years ago there were still many options available but now there is nothing left unless you want to call your brand fywoxmcksndnd.com
And I bet that is taken!

Domain squatters really get under my skin, it's like seeing empty properties that could be being used to full potential - frustrating and wrong.

I remember when branding used to be about sitting down with pad and pencil to sketch out ideas with no limitations to creativity and you were only up against big brands in the UK. Now you have to compete worldwide for a unique name. Impossible.

Shelli.

over 3 years ago

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Ketharaman Swaminathan

We were fortunate to have been able to secure gtm360.com for our company as recently as three years ago. Ever since we started building apps, we decided to suffix 360 to their names. This provides a unified branding besides helps us get .com domain names for at least some of them: We succeeded with heatmap360.com but had to settle for qr360.info.

over 3 years ago

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Neale Gilhooley

We have many Evolution Design domains but have stuck with evolution-design.co.uk as we have invested in it year after year.

But every 2 years I get approached to buy EvolutionDesign.com, the price has gone from £700 to £16,000 and each time I decline. Am I right in assuming that each 2 year registration period the buyer has failed to turn it into gold so re-sells?

over 3 years ago

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Martin Harrison

Take a verb, shorten it if necessary, add 'fy', 'ster' 'ly' 'r' or 'io'. Buy all avaialble TLDs. Done.

over 3 years ago

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silk ties online

Very interesting. It's a challenge just like any kind of naming projects. And don't forget also to check its meaning in other cultures, and won't cause people too much trouble pronouncing and remembering it. Mondelēz, the new name for Kraft had a bit of a stir.

over 3 years ago

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Cool Domain Name

Hello, I appreciate you for producing this awesome post. I’m really impressed with your way of writing and how you communicate your message. Nice Article with Great Information

over 3 years ago

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Dom Aina

That’s a nice article! I think domainka.com is also pretty good for getting a domain name, I've used it with no prob. Their support isn’t that bad either.

over 3 years ago

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Ricardo Main

Thank you, domain buyers, pros and beginners, will definitely find this info useful and profitable. You can purchase domains from different sources as long as they are reliable. I recently got mine from DomainKa.com.

over 3 years ago

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