Master of Your Domain

Once the sophomoric prank of registering your competitors’ domain names started to wear thinner than the plot of Phantom Menace, we figured that Internet business’ love-hate relationship with domain names was finally nearing an end.

Industry trades and Internet marketing mailing lists continue to provide blow-by-blow updates on the domain registrar saga. Meanwhile, those of us with established Internet businesses — up to our necks in tchotchkes covered with our domain names — can hardly elicit so much as a yawn.

After all, the frenzied obsession over establishing online brands via domain names seems like a relic from the Internet Dark Ages — days when AOL floppies roamed the earth and businesses used the “http://” when promoting their URLs offline.

“Domain names? That’s so… so… 1996.”

Even so, domain names remain a relevant topic not only because of their scarce availability for new Internet businesses, but also because of a current wave of domain name jockeying by established online businesses.

New domain names enter the public advertising consciousness every day. Who among us hasn’t grown weary of wave after wave of new and forgettable dot-coms?

Meanwhile Barnes & Noble, DejaNews, Cyberian Outpost, The Mining Company, Computer Literacy, Empower Health, Ask Jeeves, and even the University of Oklahoma are just a few of the many online organizations that have recently changed their domain, if not also company names.

Choosing a new, or newer, domain name is thus a fact of life for many online businesses. Add cyber-squatters, domain name purchases, and international trademark searches to the mix, and the whole process can get rather expensive.

We therefore present four cardinal rules when shopping for your next domain name.

1. Shorter Is Better

Barnes & Noble and Ask Jeeves learned an online lesson that Federal Express, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and the International House of Pancakes figured out long ago offline: shorter is better. This is especially true if access to your business depends on someone typing your address.

BarnesAndNoble.com may as well have been one of those “10-10-” long distance carriers, who require nothing short of a padlock combination, to use their services before they wisely laid their hands on bn.com.

Yahoo would hardly be the success story they are today if Filo and Yang started with YetAnotherHierarchicallyOrganizedOracle.com (potential legal sparring with Larry Ellison aside). Peapod.com might not suggest an online grocer, but a more obvious PaperOrPlastic.com is a domain name only VeritcalNet could love.

(As owners of connectingonline.com, let’s just say that we never expected, nor intended, to make a dime off the site.)

2. Conserve Brands

Online or offline, new brands are expensive to create. Period. If you already have one or more successful offline brands, starting a new one from scratch could cost millions while diluting your existing brands. Case and point with Time-Warner’s fabled Pathfinder.

Disney took a bold move by creating Go.com with Infoseek — aligning powerful brands such as ABC, ESPN, Infoseek, and even Disney itself as variations under the go.com domain name. While the domain might suggest the bygone days of navigating CompuServe (or as they would say in AOL-ese, “Keyword: assimilate”), there’s no better case of following our first cardinal rule.

Yet despite the enormous consensus required for such an enterprise-wide shift in online branding, Go.com is only recently starting to crawl out of the brand recognition cellar with support of a multi-million-dollar promotional campaign.

Native online businesses have also discovered the difficulty of promoting multiple brands. CNET and ClickZ, for example, consolidated their many online brands in favor of promoting a single network.

3. The Medium May Be the Message, But It’s Not the Business

According to a recent search Greg performed on the Whois database, there are 6,402,961 registered domain names with the word “web” in them. Not only is this terribly unoriginal, but it also states the obvious — like getting an 800 phone number with “PHONE” taking up five of the seven digits.

But this domain naming logic isn’t nearly as shortsighted as the companies who have also made the word a part of their business name. Why? Because companies like USWeb, WebTV, and WebMD are building long-term brands associated with a technology that will eventually date them.

How many corporations would entrust their next-generation, high-speed digital network to a company that still called itself American Telephone & Telegraph? Would the latest generation of software developers know Bill Gates if he lead a corporation named DOS? Besides suggesting a very bad Love Boat spin-off, now think of how dated “GopherMD” sounds.

Thus as the new wave of wireless and broadband Internet services arrives, it’s unlikely that we will still call it “the web.” And yet for many of these web-named businesses, the web isn’t so much their core competency as delivering services and content over digital links.

It’s not just the word “web” either. MP3.com will be forced to build a new brand once newer and better digital audio technologies eclipse the MPEG-3 standard.

Furthermore, don’t confuse your business name with its address. 1-800-Flowers and 777-Film discovered this predicament when trying to establish themselves as online brands (1800Flowers.com??).

Making “.com” part of your business name will also eventually date you. With the Internet’s domain name service turning 15 this year, there will inevitably be a replacement — perhaps not unlike RealNames — which will make the arcane legacy of domain names as obsolete as IP addresses.

4. If You Really Must Spell It, Don’t Use It

Quokka.com, Inktomi.com, Moai.com, Akamai.com… you might think InterNIC was holding a fire sale. If you have to spell it out in a radio spot, if no one in their right mind would sue to protect such a trademark, stop looking up obscure Norse gods and write a check for something easier to remember.

We recently found one of the worst examples of this in a radio spot for the asthma and allergies e-commerce portal, Gazoontite.com.

First off, they inspired a new cardinal rule for domain names: If you’re not German, never use German words. Yet even if you could properly spell gesundheit, Gazoontite.com killed off any chance for word-of-mouth, or of being found in search engines by fabricating an entirely different spelling altogether.

Chalk up another Internet marketing VP on the job hunt. (Though last we checked, selbsthilfegruppen.com was still available for anyone interested in launching a vertical portal for self-help groups.)

“Dad, what does ‘.com’ mean?”

One day we’ll look back at “dot com” the same way we reminisce about the letters once used in local telephone exchanges. But for now, we’re stuck with domain names. And as long as we’re stuck with them, we may as well learn how to live with them.

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