Understanding Domain Names: Why and When?

As a web professional, there are things we have to deal with outside the realms of development and design. Sometimes it’s a matter of business, sometimes it’s keeping our finances in order, and every now and again, the subject of branding, re-branding or protecting our brand hits our to-do list.

Understanding Domain Names: Why and When?

When you begin your journey into starting up your first freelance portfolio, this information will play a vital role in how you represent yourself, however, that’s not to say that this subject won’t recur later on.

Online Brand Availability

If you ever want to launch that start-up idea you have, or if you want to build a new business, a basic knowledge of domain names is critically important. After all, it represents your office’s address.

Website Address
Figure 1: The website address is critically important, thought should go into its branding.

Within this article, we’re going to explore your options, once you’ve got yourself an idea for what (if anything) your new project should be called, and critically, what your project actually does. Because it’s not a sexy chore, and somewhat frustrating to find that perfect domain (with lots being sucked up and left unused), it’s one of the hardest challenges you’ll likely encounter.

With the advice below, you’ll at least have an idea of which domain types matter, and thereby, which you should focus on attaining (and if you can’t get it, when you should reconsider your brand due to unavailability).

Prioritize: The Trendy Three

Domain names in truth are a little biased to whether the audience can remember the extension. It might seem ideal to snag yourself a free .TK domain in preference to buying a more easily recognised extension, but that will work against you when your visitors begin trying to locate you for the first time. While increasing numbers of TLD’s are becoming available on the Web, the truth is that visitors will automatically assume your site uses one of three extensions: dot COM, NET or ORG.

Perhaps this feels a bit unfair due to the lack of good available names in the system, but if you can get one of the top three (or all three if the brand is named really creatively), you’ll put yourself in an ideal position.

Most widely recognised extensions
Figure 2: Dot COM, NET and ORG and the most widely recognised extensions. Get them if you can!

When you’re working with the top three domains, the great thing is that they’re often among the cheapest to register, and even more critically, all domain and hosting providers will likely support them (in terms of offering the ability on how to register a company and renew ownership). While I would say it’s not as essential to own one of the big three as it used to be (due to more people becoming web aware), there are still a huge number of people who don’t understand the web, and won’t likely realize that extensions exists outside of .com, .net and .org exist, so they do still hold sway over consumers.

Localize: Geo and IDN

While the big three are pretty important and useful assets to have, there is a major exception where the need for a globally recognised identity may be second in the priority list. If you’re an individual or group that only operates locally to a country, then the registration of internationalized (specific to a language) or geographic country domains (like dot CO.UK, EU or US) will become equally worthwhile as the big three.

If you’re based in the USA, the .us extension will be easily recognized and worthy of purchase, elsewhere around the world, you’ll have that country’s own regional domain to register if you serve people in those areas (even if you just use it for offering localized specific site translations).

Countries native ccTLD
Figure 3: If you live in Europe, it makes sense to get the dot EU as well as countries native ccTLD.

Choosing whether to use .com or .us can be tricky if you only serve a small audience from a specific nation, however generally speaking, I’d prefer to edge on the side of caution and get them both to avoid unnecessary mistakes based on user expectations (it also gives you room for expansion). Also worthy of mention are the fairly new Internationalized domain names that potentially will be useful if you serve an audience who don’t natively use the standardized English alphabet (like China, Japan and Russia).

When it comes to IDN’s, however, my advice is to just use them to supplement a ccTLD or .com address, as visitors whose primarily language is English will find entering those URL’s tricky.

International domain names
Figure 4: International domain names are useful, but don’t force English users to try to enter them.

Customize: Hacks and ICANN

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try (or how much thought you put into the brand), the domain name you’d really like to register just isn’t available. In times of trouble, and if you’re really stuck for getting something close to an ideal URL, many choose to cheat slightly and use a technique called domain hacks. The idea behind the technique is pretty simple, as either subdomains or the extension itself forms part of the brand name.

Ideally it would likely cause less confusion if you could get the name you wanted without the need for hacks (as users don’t need to try to remember where the dots need to appear), but it’s certainly a favourable and highly utilized alternative to get a good url.

Identify potential domain hacks
Figure 5: There are some cool sites out there that will help you identify potential domain hacks.

Beyond using hacks, some users like to customize even further by using services like new.net. These services essentially offer an alternative system (aTLD) by providing extensions that aren’t endorsed by ICANN or other registrars. However, because these extensions aren’t natively supported and thereby require a plug-in, the potential for conflicts and the invisibility of domains for those without the required extension exist.

As it’s obviously not an ideal solution, I’d recommend that such services be avoided (they’re not worth the cost). It’s also worth mentioning at this stage that

ICANN accept applications for new TLD’s, and even though they’re out of the average person’s budget, the benefits of all of these new domains will be passed onto us as those fresh domains go global in the future.

Alternative domain extension supplier
Figure 6: New.net is an alternative domain extension supplier but it’s poorly supported worldwide.

Accessorize: Protect and Redirect

Let’s say you’ve found your domain (the top three, applicable ccTLD’s, IDN’s and maybe a hack). The focus now needs to go onto ensuring that you don’t fall foul of the various issues that exist when it comes to domain names. The first thing you need to ensure is that you’re actually legally able to use the domain you’re thinking of purchasing.

Keeping it simple, trademark law can complicate matters if there is a chance that your brand might be mistaken for the property of someone else. For your own safety, ensure that you don’t register a name that’s similar to anyone else’s who does the same thing as you. Such misappropriations might result in you losing the domain and a hefty legal bill.

“Mike Rowe Soft” site
Figure 7: One classic example of this in action was the highly publicised “Mike Rowe Soft” site.

If you’re sure that you’re entitled to own a domain and you aren’t just swiping someone else’s brand identity to try to catch their visitors, you want to ensure that your own digital property is going to be as protected as other major brands. While applying for a trademark can be useful if the site is likely to become really successful, it’s pretty expensive to purchase.

As such, many simply choose to register as many applicable TLD’s as they can, using them as redirects to the central .com domain. Bulk purchases can be cheaper if your registrar offers bulk discounts or domain credits; however, it’s definitely something you should consider, as misspellings or fake sites often catch people out online.

Redirect
Figure 8: Take the most popular TLD with users (like .com) and have all others redirect to it.

Authorize: WHOIS and Registrars

Finally, I’m going to mention a couple of tips when it comes to the registration process itself. While the picking of a domain name is fraught with a lack of choices, and protecting your domain can be a hard task, there are two things that occur commonly in the registration process itself, which can lead to problems.

My first piece of advice when registering domains is to ensure your domain registrar and host aren’t the same company. I realize that not all hosts are bad registrars and not all registrars are bad hosts, however, I’ve noticed correlations between businesses that branch out into too many directions having their core (or complementary) services suffer (in quality or stability) as a result.

Reputations
Figure 9: Reputations are made and broken on the quality of service, and bigger isn’t always better.

As a final tip in relation to domain registration, never ever use WHOIS privacy services! While valuing your privacy is a good thing, the issue is that these tools use the registrar’s own contact details to fill in the blanks, and this becomes a critical issue if your domain is hacked or if you want to leave your registrar.

According to ICANN policies, it’s the person in the WHOIS details who owns that domain, so if your domain is hacked and transferred away, you’ve got little to prove prior ownership. Trickier still is the problem that if you want to move registrars and your provider doesn’t want to let you, as their name is in the records, they technically own it and can take it away, whenever they feel like it.

WHOIS records
Figure 10: Keep your name in the WHOIS records, if you don’t you put your domains at risk.

Branding and the Internet

Sites are wonderful, and having that perfect domain name can really make a difference, even in this age of being redirected by search engines and social networks. Easy to remember names are likely to reduce the burdens upon users who hand type a URL.

Top-level and the right secondary domains can help search engines ensure that you reach a good global and local audience. With all of this in mind, moving forward with your various projects, spending the time to get to grips with your options and how they may affect you is worthwhile.

Ultimately, a weak brand (such as one which could easily be confused with another) may damage opportunities for success, or risk becoming forgettable.

Do you have a particular technique for finding a brand name? Are you a fan of auction services like SEDO? Do you even believe that domain names still matter with the likes of Google?

Let us know your pro tips in the comments for ensuring you’ve snagged the best domain in the universe!