How to Choose a Domain Name – Whiteboard Friday

July 15, 2016
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One decision that you’ll have to live with for quite a long time is the domain name you choose for your site. You may have a list of options that you know are available, but what should you keep in mind when you sit down to make the decision? In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand covers eight criteria for picking a winner.

How to Choose a Domain Name for SEO & Branding Whiteboard

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Welcome to Rand’s rules (for choosing an effective domain name)

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we are going to chat about choosing domain names, and, in fact, I’ve got eight rules for you that will help guide your domain name choices.

Now, it could be you’re starting a new brand. It could be that you have an existing brand and you’re trying to take it online. It might be that you’re working with clients who are taking their brand online. It could be that you’re starting a new company entirely. I love entrepreneurship, congratulations. Any of these ways, you’re going to need a website.

Before you do that, you should really think long and hard about the domain name that you choose and, in fact, the brand name that you choose and how that’s represented through your domain name online. Domain names have a massive impact all over the web in terms of click-through rate, from search to social media results, to referring links, to type-in traffic, brandability, offline advertising. There’s a huge wealth of places that your domain name impacts your brand and your online marketing, and we can’t ignore this.

So first rule that Rand has for how to choose a domain name.

1) Make it brandable.

Brandable, meaning when you hear the domain name, when you hear yourself or someone else say it, does it sound like a brand, or does it sound like a generic? So that means that hyphens and numbers are a real problem because they don’t make something sound like a brand. They make it sound generic, or they make it sound strange.

For example, if I try and say to you, “Look, let’s imagine that our new company that we’re starting together, you and I, is a website that has pasta recipes and potentially sells some pasta related e-commerce products on it.” If I tell you that I have pasta-shop.com, well, that’s hard to brand. It’s hard to say. It’s hard to remember.

Speaking of, is this brand memorable? So generic keyword strings are a big no-no. Generic keyword strings really tough to remember, really tough to stand out in the brain. You want something unique, which means try and avoid those exact and partial keyword match domain names. They tend not to do so well, in fact. If you look at the numbers that we see in MozCast, for example, or in correlation studies, you can see that, over the past 10 years, they have done nothing but trend down over time in terms of their correlation with rankings and their ability to show in the search results. Dangerous there.

I would probably stay away from something like a PastaRecipesOnline.com. I think BestPasta.com, maybe that’s getting a little bit better. PastaAficionado, well, it sounds brandable. For sure, it’s a little bit challenging to say. But it’s definitely unique.

I really like PastaLabs.com. Very brandable, unique, memorable, stands out. I’m going to remember it. It has kind of a scientific connotation to it. Fascinating. I might think about the domain name space that way.

2) Make it pronounceable.

You might say to yourself, “Rand, why is it so important that it’s pronounceable? Most people are going to be typing this in or they’re going to be clicking on a link, so why does it matter?”

In fact, it matters because of a concept called “processing fluency.” It’s a cognitive bias that human beings have where, essentially, we remember and have more positive associations with things that we can easily say and easily think about, and that includes pronounceability in our own minds. This is going to be different depending on the language that you’re targeting and which countries you’re targeting. But certainly, if you can’t easily say the name and others are not easily able to guess how to say that name, you’re going to lose that processing fluency, you’re going to lose that memorability and all the benefits of the brandability that you’ve created.

So I might stay away from things like FlourEggsH20.com. It’s clever. Don’t get me wrong. It’s unique. It’s clever. It might even be brandable, but it’s very difficult to pronounce and to recall. When you see it, you don’t know if that zero is an O. There are questions about like what does it necessarily mean or not.

Raviolibertine.com. Even I’m having trouble saying it. Raviolibertine? I would stay away from a little bit of the getting too clever for yourself, and many, many domain names do try to do that.

I might say, “You know what? Something like LandOfNoodles.com, while it doesn’t fulfill every requirement that we’ve got here, it is eminently pronounceable, easy to remember.” These are easy words that many people are very familiar with, at least in English. LandOfNoodles, whoops, I like LandOfNoodles. I’m giving it a check mark. Well, now I’ve messed up the Whiteboard. Hopefully, Elijah took a picture before I did that. Oh, he’s giving me the thumbs up. Good.

3) Make it as short as you possibly can, but no shorter.

This means obey these other rules before you just go for raw length. But length matters. Length matters because of the processing fluency stuff we talked about before. But the fewer characters a domain name has, the easier it is to type, the easier it is to say, to share, the less it gets shortened on social media sharing platforms and in search results. So when you’ve seen those long domain names, they get compressed, or they might not show fully, or the URL might get cut off, or you might see just the t.co, all those kinds of things.

Therefore, short as possible. Shorter is definitely better. I might go for something short like MyPasta.com, but I’d be careful about going too short. For example, PastaScience.com is a pretty good domain name. PastaSci, I’ve lost that pronounceability and a little bit of that memorability. It’s a little bit tougher. It’s clearly a brand, but it’s a little awkward. I would probably stay away from that one and I’d stick with PastaScience.

4) Bias to .com.

I know, it’s 2016. Why are we still talking about .com? The internet’s been around 20-plus years. Why does .com matter so much when there are so many TLD extension options? The answer is, again, this is the most recognized, most easily accessible brand outside of the tech world.

If you’re talking about, “Look, all I’m doing is addressing developers and my pasta website only wants to talk to very, very tech savvy individuals, people who already work in the web world,” well okay, maybe it’s all right to go with a .pasta domain name. Perhaps you can actually buy that TLD extension now that ICANN has approved all these new domain names.

But cognitive fluency, processing fluency says, dictates that we should go with something that’s easy, that people have an association with already, and .com is still the primary thing that non-tech savvy folks have an association with. If you want to build up a very brandable domain that can do well, you want that .com. Probably, eventually, if you are very successful, you’re going to have to try and go capture it anyway, and so I would bias you to get it if you can.

If it’s unavailable, my suggestion would be to go with the .net, .co, or a known ccTLD. Those are your best bets. A known ccTLD might be something like .ca in Canada or .it in Italy, those kinds of things. That’s your next best bet. I’d still bias you to .com. But the PenneIsMightier.com, I’m particularly proud of this one. I think it’s a terrible pun, but a man’s got to do.

MacaroniMan.net, would I potentially think about that if I couldn’t get the .com? Yeah, possibly if I thought I was targeting a little bit more of a savvy audience and if I was pretty sure that MacaroniMan.com was owned by a squatter who just wouldn’t give it up, or it was owned by a small restaurant somewhere that I never had to really worry about competition with and they wouldn’t sell to me, yeah, okay, I might do it.

What about Impastable.co? Avoiding the fact that this is another terrible pun of mine, I might consider that if I absolutely couldn’t get Impastable.com and that was already my domain name and I felt like I had the branding ability to make the .co something people would associate with. I could consider that too.

5) Avoid names that infringe on another company or another organization’s existing trademark or could be confused with that trademark.

You have to be very careful here because it’s not whether you think it could be confused. It’s whether you think any judge in the jurisdiction in which they might take legal action against you would consider those two things to be potentially misrepresented or potentially confusable. So it’s not your judgment. It’s not even your audience’s judgment. It’s what you think a judge in the jurisdiction might have the judgment about.

So this is dangerous waters. I would urge you to talk to your attorney or a legal professional about this if you have real concerns. But there is the danger and this does happen regularly throughout the web’s history where a trademark owner will come and sue a domain owner, someone who’s owning the domain legitimately and using it for business purposes or just someone who’s purchased it and is sitting on it, and that sucks.

This can also create brand confusion, which is hard for your brandability. So you might be familiar with some pasta brands that have done particularly well here in the U.S., like Barilla and Ronzoni and Rustichella d’Abruzzo. Well, I probably would not go get Barzilla.com even if you have a hilarious, Godzilla themed pun that you want to make about the pasta. Just because your name might be Ron and you are covering…

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