Tightwad Marketing

How to evaluate and select your domain name

John Kuraoka, a project of www.kuraoka.com

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Many small business owners agonize over their website domain names, even hiring professional marketing consultants (ahem) to evaluate and appraise domain name options. Let’s cut the b.s. If your business is up and running, your website domain name should be the name of your business. If you can’t get or don’t want your business name as a domain name, or if you don’t have a business name, then take comfort in the fact that your website’s domain name won’t make a big difference.


Okay, let’s back up a moment. There are two methods by which people will get to your website: one-step and two-step.

The one-step method means they have your website’s domain name from an ad, business card, or referral. These people come straight to your website. A memorable domain name can help them remember how to get to your website for the first few visits. After that, it doesn’t matter what your URL is. Whether or not they buy from you depends on the value of your content, not the value of your domain name.

The two-step method means they use a search engine or directory to find your website. A search engine or directory will refer traffic to your website regardless of your URL. What do search engines look for? Again, content. A domain name does little to build traffic from search engines and directories.

If you have good content in a well-promoted website, your domain name could be anything. It could be irrelevant like Amazon for merchandise or Tripod for a website host. It could be nonsensical, like eBay for auctions or Google for a search engine. It could even be gibberish like http://ourworld.compuserve.com/ homepages/kuraoka for a website about small business marketing, which is the actual URL for the website you’re on right now.

Domain names are over-rated in real-world pulling power. Remember, your website is a way to market your business, but it’s probably not your real business. That’s true even for most e-commerce websites. A good domain name can be a useful marketing tool. However, it’s not a marketing tool for your business. It’s a marketing tool for another marketing tool (your website). That’s a rather second-hand way to go about increasing sales.

Now that we’ve stripped the mystique from domain names, let’s start again at the beginning. Your domain name should be your business name. But, maybe the simplest version of your business name is unavailable. Or, perhaps your business name makes a bad or confusing domain name. Or, possibly your website is a new venture. Well, professional marketing help is right here, priced for tightwads (that is, free).

Free domain name evaluation worksheet. At the end of this article is my gift to you: a printable domain name evaluation worksheet. It is based on the basic method I use when evaluating domain name alternatives for my clients. You can use this free worksheet as a guide to compare domain name options with an eye toward marketing your small business. Be sure to read this article completely before using the worksheet, because how well it works depends on how well you apply some basic rules.

Make your domain name descriptive and unique. Your domain name should describe the content in your website, or the benefit of using your product or service. You want it to be specific, not generic. For most small businesses, that rules out initials. Owning, for example, abc.com makes sense if you’re the American Broadcasting Companies, known throughout the U.S. as “ABC.” It makes less sense if you’re Asao, Bernstein & Cargill or Alice’s Basket Company.

Think beyond your business name. Look for concise ways to specifically communicate your core business. For instance, the domain name alicesbasketcompany would certainly make the short list for Alice’s Basket Company, if available. However, other domain names may have more pulling power, because they describe the business with greater precision. For example, the domain name alicesgiftbaskets clearly reflects a different business focus from the domain name alicesbasketweaving – and that differentiation simply doesn’t exist with just the business name.

Also, consider the words people will use to search for your company’s products or services. With the domain name alicesbasketcompany, only one of the three words is likely to attract customers wanting baskets. With alicesgiftbaskets, there are two good keywords as well as a more-specific definition of the business.

WARNING: generic names – such as giftbaskets – get “appraised” higher by so-called “domain name evaluators.” However, as a marketing professional I must advise you that that makes sense only if you plan to re-sell the domain name or build it up as a portal. If you’re going to use a domain name in your business, then the more-specific, the better. There should be only one business the domain name fits: yours.

Yes, Amazon, Tripod, eBay, and Google are non-descriptive. However, they are unique, catchy, and follow the other rules

Keep your domain name short and simple. When it comes to domain names, shorter is better. How short? Well, I wouldn’t pay a premium for a three- or four-character domain name unless it was perfect. I also wouldn’t recommend a domain name longer than the obsolete 22-character maximum (domain names of up to 63 characters are now possible). The main point in favor of a long domain name is that search engines look at domain names when ranking websites. So, the theory goes, a keyword-rich domain name should outpull a shorter domain name if - and that’s a mighty big if - all other things are equal. I dislike long domain names because they take up too much space and take too long to read on a business card, ad, or sign. I recommend giving preference to domain names consisting of the fewest words: one word is a near-impossible ideal, two words are good, and three words are about the limit. You’ll see more reasons to avoid multi-word domain names in a moment.

If you’re evaluating a domain name consisting of more than one word, watch for odd letter sequences. If your business is handing out free eels, you might want to think twice about freeeels as a domain name. Also, beware of letter sequences that create unintended words. For example, salesexchange - is that “Sales Exchange,” or “Sale Sex Change?”

Say your domain name out loud. Consider whether or not the domain name will be typed correctly after being heard spoken. Beware of sound-alike and near-sound-alike variants, such as “excel,” “XL,” and “eggshell.” That rules out puns as domain names - they may be clever, but you’ll have to explain the joke every time. Give preference to correct, phonetic, and familiar spellings. Unusual or difficult spelling should be avoided, unless it’s your real name, and it’s worth thinking twice about even then.

The spoken test also rules out abbreviations in your domain name, with a few common exceptions (such as co for company). As for numbers, avoid them too, unless you can buy the domain name variants with the numbers in numeric and spelled-out form, e.g: 3littlepigs and threelittlepigs.

A special note about hyphens or dashes in URLs. Many search engines currently parse dashes as spaces. So, the domain name three-little-pigs would show up as a better match than the domain name threelittlepigs for the search phrase "three little pigs" if - and, again, that’s a mighty big if - all other things are equal.

So, the question is, how are you going to market the website? If traffic will be driven primarily by search engines, then the hyphens may help - and certainly won't hurt since the traffic will be driven directly to your website. A corollary question is, how many people will be typing that particular search phrase into a search engine?

If your traffic is driven primarily by offline marketing, then the version without the dashes is easier to communicate on the telephone or even in a print ad. People are accustomed to typing domain names as one continuous string.

I recommend buying both the hyphenated and non-hyphenated domain names. Domain names are cheap. Set up your website at the hyphenated version, to take advantage of its friendliness to search engines, then have traffic from the non-hyphenated name forwarded automatically (and for free, with many registrars) to that website. That way, you get the best of both worlds.

Even if you choose to use the non-hyphenated domain name as your hosted URL, there are other reasons to buy the hyphenated version. In the above example, those three little pigs might consider buying 3-little-pigs and three-little-pigs as a defensive measure, to keep any big bad wolves from buying those similar domain name variants. So, the pigs would buy a domain name plus one to three variants. The more words contained in your domain name, the more important this defensive maneuver is, and the more expensive your total URL registration costs will be. Likewise, if you need hyphenation for clarity (such as free-eels), you should register the non-hyphenated variant (freeeels) and the most-likely misspelling (freeels). Again, securing domain name variants increases your registration costs. That’s another reason to keep your domain name short and simple.

Finally, a note about singular/plural variants. Give preference to a domain name that leaves no doubt as to whether or not it needs a plural, like 3littlepigs, for example. Free-eels, on the other hand, might have people thinking “hey, I get a free eel” and typing free-eel or freeeel or freeel. Now your free eel business is up to a domain name plus five potential variants. That’s too many.

Dot-what? Your domain name extension is the dot-com/net/org part of the URL. There are two schools of thought, and either could be right for your situation.

The Dot-Com school of thought says your domain name extension should be dot-com, period. It’s international, recognized, and entrenched. Furthermore, if you get a domain name with a different extension, you may bleed traffic to the dot-com. It’s even possible that the owner of the dot-com may come after you for cyber-squatting, and try to wrest your domain name away in court. The fact is, most of the people touting the benefits of non-dot-com domain names, are the people selling them.

The Dot-Whatever school of thought says your domain name extension doesn’t matter; what matters is how well you promote your website and how worthwhile it is to visitors. The fact is, once someone visits your website, your URL ceases to be relevant, domain name, extension, and all. And, search engines don’t block other extensions. A lot of dot-com domain names got tied up by “investors,” and in most cases it’s not worth paying a premium price just for an extension.

Where do I stand? I say dogmatism ain’t pragmatism, and Tightwad Marketing is all about pragmatism. If you can get a good dot-com cheap, that’s best. It’s even worth taking your second or third (or fifth) choice of domain name, just to get the dot-com. If you go with a different extension, make sure that the dot-com isn’t in direct competition and you’re not violating any intellectual property issues. Not all dot-whatevers are equal. Dot-net is a good alternative. There are cases in which dot-org might make sense; likewise, familiar first-world country extensions such as dot-co-dot-uk and dot-de (particularly if you’re doing business in, respectively, the UK or Germany).

At that point, we’re into the decidedly second-tier choices, like dot-biz, dot-ws, dot-info, and dot-us. Why are they second-tier? Well, let me tell you a story. My wife’s website was originally set up as a dot-us, because it was the only way she could get her name. After about a year and a half, her website was doing okay in the search engines, but it never brought her any new business. Later, she decided to use a longer, more-descriptive domain name that was a dot-com. We uploaded her old website to the new URL and deleted her old website except for pointers to her new one. Within weeks, her new website was ranking dramatically better than the old one ever had, plus she was getting over-the-transom requests for her professional services! That was due to three factors. First, the links from the old website, which maintained her ranking for the content. Second, the more-descriptive domain name. And third, the dot-com. Dot-com simply has the most credibility for any commercial enterprise.

Remember, people are paranoid. You don’t want potential customers to have any doubts about where they’ll end up if they click on your link, or where your email is coming from.

So, there you have it: how to evaluate domain names for your business website. Your domain name might not make a big difference, but as a small business you need every edge. So, gather your list of potential domain names. Compare them using the free domain name evaluation worksheet. Pick one, and buy it cheap. Then build your website, and focus on your real business. After all, that’s where the real money is!
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Here is a free domain name evaluation worksheet in .pdf (Adobe Acrobat) format. It was updated in October 2006. You can print it directly from your browser and make copies for your individual use. Note that it is useless as a single-name evaluator; I developed it as a way to compare various domain name alternatives. The maximum realistic point value is 50 with bonuses, but that’s irrelevant because a large part of the “score” is based on subjective judgements.

Key instruction: look for differences between the total scores of various domain names, not the score of any single name or performance in any single area. Aggregate differences of fewer than 3 points are generally not significant; aggregate differences of 5 points or more tend to reveal an advantage worth considering.

This domain name evaluation worksheet may not be re-sold or distributed, but you may use it for your business, FREE.

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