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.