File Under: Web Standards

Choose and Register a Domain Name

So the time has come for you to name your business. Your consultants and facilitators have assured 110-percent buzzword compliance, and you’re ready to leverage whatever it is that you leverage. All you need now is a name.

Now, the interesting thing about web-based business is that, for the most part, your address IS your name. (“It’s a fascinating problem in information theory,” I keep saying to philosopher friends at parties, but nobody will take the bait.) So the name you choose for your company has to correspond with an available domain. But as of fairly recently, there is no English dictionary word that remains un-registered. (DomainSurfer has a searchable index of domains, where you can spend hours demoralizing yourself by looking at the huge portion of the namespace that’s already colonized.) So where do you turn?

If there’s a particular name that you have your heart set on but that someone else has already registered, there are a few sly ways to sidestep the conflict.


Naming the Baby

By far the most popular way to grab your dream name, it seems, is to sue the pants off the holder of the domain you want. The pants of domains with similar spellings are also choice targets:Mattel Inc., for example, maker of that tuffnut Barbie, reportedly came after Matt Lavallee in a big way over domain mattl.com. And Hasbro tried to do the same with clue.com. But if you’re not the litigious type, or if your opponent has way more legal firepower than you, there are other options.

Another way to go is with other Top Level Domains (TLDs):Little nations like Kazakhstan and the Christmas Islands are cashing in on the sudden wealth of virtual real estate that Santa allocated them, and will be happy to sell you yourdomain.kz or yourdomain.cx or whatever. If you’re clever and/or lucky, you can even choose a country code that matches your domain name in a pleasing way. A voice teacher, for example, could register her site in Gambia:diaphra.gm.

Weird addenda:If you are dead set on a certain name but it’s already taken, you can always tack on “-inc” or “-co” or “-ventures” or whatever before the “.com” part. The annoying part of that, of course, is having to explain to everyone that, no, yourcompany.com is someone else — you are at yourcompany-inc.com.

Other options include creatively misspelling your company’s name, adding hyphens between words, and related weasel-tricks.

But really, from a marketing perspective, it is probably wisest to choose a name for your company such that yourcompany.com is available, which means choosing a non-dictionary-word name. Getting a good, memorable domain name at the outset and branding yourself clearly is probably the best investment you can make as a startup. Five years ago building a new digital brand was the easiest thing in the world, because the namespace was wide-open; now it is far more expensive than building an offline brand on the same scale.


Naming Invention

There are several now-classic approaches to choosing a name for your business when dictionary words are off-limits.

Whimsy: Choosing a made-up word has worked very well for Yahoo and Google, and it may well work for you. This approach has the benefit that it allows you to subtly manipulate what Kothar wa-Khasis (in “Choosing Your Names,” Raritan, 1992) calls “semantic ghosts”: the faint echoes of other words in your name that give an subliminal impression of meaning. Wa-Khasis’s canonical example — taken from the world of academic papers, but easily applicable to domain naming — is this: if you are writing a screed against Stanley Fish, write it under the assumed name “Rotterdam,” which contains dual ghosts of rotting and dams, two things utterly antithetical to fish. Along similar lines, you can conceal within your domain name hints of what your company hopes to represent.

Bits: A very common technique among those who name companies is to piece together new words from the fragments of old words. Vant, ex, tegr, acu, as well as the ubiquitous com, ium, and tel — these can be your building blocks. Use them wisely.

Ent, Ant, Int: A subcategory of made-up names is the trend of made-up but “official-sounding” names ending in -nt. Off the top of my head: Lucent, Aquent, Escient, Scient, Novient, Viant, Naviant, Teligent. This is a much-sucked naming udder that shows little sign of drying up.

Conjoined words: If you are committed to English words, you can always use two or more of them. Yourcompany.com taken? Try theyourcompanyproject.com!

E-i-e-i-o: One last guaranteed formula, that even a first-grader can use: Take a word. Add e or i to the beginning. Voila! A new e-company!

Now, Getting Registered

You’ve picked a snazzy, memorable, meaningful, unoccupied name for your company. Now the trick is to register it. It used to be simple:Just fork over your money to Network Solutions, the only registrar, and they’d give you your domain, in their inimitable desultory style. But then the monopoly was all broken up, the field was deregulated, the system was privatized, and now there’s a ton of registrars. A ton.

Because the field is shifting so rapidly, it’s hard to generalize or make predictions about it. The best I can offer is a snapshot description of the way things are today. You can search for (and buy) available domains at the very popular GoDaddy, but that’s just one option on a long, long list of domain registries.

The price to register a domain ranges from $10 to $35/year. Here is a list of the accredited registrars. Different registrars offer different features. If you don’t have a web host yet, for example, you probably want a registrar that offers domain parking until you get your IP address. But basically, features aside, what you want to look for is a registrar that’s reasonably priced, that’s easy to do business with, that responds quickly to requests for changes, tends to not screw up transactions, and will hopefully stand up for your rights if Mattel sues you.

In addition to those primary ICANN-accredited registrars, you can also go with a member of CORE or a subsidiary of TUCOWS’s reseller system. Now, TUCOWS’s idea is an interesting one. Cashing in on the open-source buzz, they have created a Perl-based open API so that anyone with a little time to invest can easily set themselves up to register their own domain names! If you see yourself registering 25 or more domains per year, OpenSRS will give you tremendous flexibility, and it only costs you $10 per domain! Much better than laboriously clicking through the Network Solutions form fields 25 times.

So pick out a bunch of different names for yourself, get together with a bunch of friends, or just go into business as a registrar and make big money! To get started using TUCOWS OpenSRS, just register using their online form and sign the contract. Then you can either use their simple web interface, or download the customizable client library and really rock out.

So that is the situation. Pick a registrar, a cheap, friendly one, and go for it. If later on your registrar does something to make you unhappy, never fear:Switching registrars in midstream is generally no harder than a Las Vegas divorce. Just fill out a couple of forms and wait a little while, and you’ll soon be back on the market.