Ten years ago when I launched my email marketing company, VerticalResponse, I was lucky not to have any problems getting the most obvious domain name, www.verticalresponse.com. No one had it, so I snapped it up. These days, it's a lot harder for new businesses. Roughly 220 million domain names are in circulation, according to a December Verisign report. With so many URLs floating around, getting a good domain name for a new company can be almost as tough as reducing the national debt ... almost, but not impossible.
Here are a few things to think about when choosing a domain name for your new company:
Keep Search Engines in Mind
Work with the free Google AdWords Keyword Tool to get an idea of phrases and words people are searching for that are related to your industry. Incorporating one of these in your domain name will increase your chances of being found in organic search. (Free advertising!) For example, if your company creates widgets, you might get more search mileage by adding "widgets" to your domain name, like companynamewidgets.com.
But, that doesn't necessarily mean that a better URL for my company would be verticalresponseemailmarketing.com. (We'd definitely lose a lot of customers who don't want to bother typing all that in!) You'll need to weigh the pros and cons of having a keyword-rich domain, which tends to be less memorable, versus a domain that's more recognizable and branded.
If you operate out of a bricks-and-mortar location, consider including your geographic location in your URL. For example, think about companynameNY.com if you're in New York, or companynameSF.com if you're in San Francisco. This will help increase your search engine visibility because many people search by location.
Make It Brief
Anything longer than 20 letters starts getting unwieldy for people to type. Also, don't use hyphens because they don't help search engine rankings and verbally communicating your domain name is awkward. Avoid words that have multiple spellings, such as jewelry versus jewellery.
Use Terms That People Actually Use
Research shows that 70 percent of online information seekers type directly in the browser address field, while the other 30 percent go through a search engine. This presents a case for using household names that are easy to remember and spell. To cover user misspellings and typing errors, buy domain names that are close misspellings and point them to the real site. (For example, etsie.com redirects to the real etsy.com site.)
Nabbing the All-important .com
Since .com is the most popular and prestigious Top Level Domain (or TLD), it can be difficult to find an available domain name for your business that is both keyword-rich and a .com. So what should you do?
If getting a .com is your mission, check out domain resellers. When your business is young, though, be careful about spending too much precious cash for an inflated price.
Keep in mind that domain names expire due to various reasons - businesses fold, motivations change and owners forget to renew their domain names. If you do a few category searches on domain marketplace sites, you may find a domain name reseller with an expired domain name that's already indexed by search engines. This is great because you can take instant advantage of the traffic. But, be careful. Before you buy an expired domain, be sure to see if the name has any violations against it.
Consider Alternative Extensions
If your industry is pretty competitive, you should also buy the .net and .biz versions of your domain even if you already have the .com. Why? To protect your online real estate from competitors. What if you can't get a .com in the domain name that you really want? Go for .net.
If your business is local, your traffic can benefit from a URL that contains a country extension, like .au for Australia or .ca for Canada. If you have any thoughts of going global at some point in the future, however, then you'll want to also reserve a general, country-agnostic domain extension.
Playing the Defense Card
Bigger companies - especially controversial ones - often take a preemptive defensive measure by buying up negative domain names, like companynamesucks.com. This prevents competitors and other naysayers from potentially using it against them in the future. As a new business, you might not need to do this right away, but it's definitely something to think about as you grow.
Choose Well and Stick With It
As several recent public relations disasters have shown, if you change your URL, you risk losing customers.
Take the example of Overstock rebranding to o.co in early 2011. People never got into the habit of typing in o.co, so the company returned to overstock.com on its website, in online ads, and TV holiday commercials. RadioShack tried to distance itself from an aging radio technology by rebranding itself as theshack.com. It still hasn't caught on.
Choosing a domain name for a new business should be a strategic process rather than a creative inspiration. But once you've got the one that works for your new company, embrace it, because it's going to be a part of everything you do!
Janine Popick is the CEO and founder of VerticalResponse, which provides a full suite of self-service online marketing solutions for small businesses and non-profits including email marketing, event marketing, online surveys, social media and direct mail. She's also the CEB (Chief Executive Blogger) of the VerticalResponse Marketing Blog for Small Businesses.