How to Choose a Domain Name: The Definitive Guide
Choosing a domain name is one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make on your website journey.
It will be your online brand – It’s how your visitors will find and remember your website.
A good domain name can easily be the difference between success and failure.
So, what is a domain name?
How do you find the perfect domain name for your website?
Where do you buy a domain name?
I’ll answer all of those questions, and more, in this detailed guide.
What is a Domain Name?
A domain name is your website address, an address that uniquely identifies your site.
It’s the address people will type into their browser when they want to visit your site.
Google.com and Facebook.com are two common examples of domain names.
To avoid confusion, let’s explain the different elements of a URL.
Top-level domain (TLD): Refers to the last segment of the domain name. It’s the part that is immediately after the “dot”. TLDs are mainly classified into the following two categories:
Generic top-level domain (gTLD) – These are the most common TLDs and include familiar TLDs such as “.com”, “.org” and “.edu”. “.com” is by far the most popular and familiar TLD available, and will often be the recommended choice.
Country-code top-level domain (ccTLD) – A ccTLD is a TLD that identifies one particular country. Although they are not as popular as some of the gTLD’s, they can be a great choice for a website that only targets an audience within a given country. Examples could be “.us” for the United States, and “.no” for Norway.
Domain name: A combination of a TLD and a string of characters. The combination of the two will uniquely identify your website on the internet.
Protocol: Refers to the technology that will be used to exchange or transfer data within a computer network. For websites, it will typically be http, or the secure version https.
URL: A combination of all the elements above, which identifies an existing resource on the internet, and explains how the data should be exchanged or transferred.
The technical explanation
Internet is basically just an enormous network of computers/devices communicating with each other. Each of these computers/devices, even the one you are using now, have a unique address on this network, also called an IP address.
The IP address, which typically is a set of numbers, usually looks something like this:
Remembering these numbers can of course be a bit tricky, and that’s where domain names can help us out.
With the help of the Domain Name System (DNS), domain names help us translate IP addresses into names that are (hopefully) easy to remember. It also helps computers to translate domain names into IP addresses that the computers understand.
So, domain names are basically a translated version of the actual website address.
How does Domain Names work?
Still curious about how all of this works?
Ok, here’s a simplified illustration of what happens.
- You type in a domain name in your browser, and that gets sent as a request to the DNS Servers
- The DNS Servers goes through several steps to figure out the IP address for the domain name and sends it back to the browser. Check out this post for more details about the DNS steps.
- The browser sends an http request to the IP address
- The server with that IP returns the website to be rendered in the browser.
The Perfect Domain Name
As stated earlier, choosing a domain name is one of the most important decisions you’ll have to make.
Finding the perfect domain name can, however, be quite difficult.
Let me rephrase that – Finding the perfect domain name that is also available, can be quite difficult
The main reason for that is the fact that 339,8 million domain names are already registered, so the most obvious ones are usually taken.
So, how do you know if a domain name is good or not?
Here are 9 traits you should look for.
1. Make it brandable
I guess you’ve heard this before, but coming up with a brandable name
should be your top priority when picking a domain name.
It will help you stand out from the crowd, it will be easier to remember, and it will convey character to your target audience.
Now, there’s no exact definition of what makes a name brandable.
In theory, basically anything could be brandable in the right niche, in the right context, at the right time.
Just think of “Apple”, the name of a very common fruit, but also the name of one of the most well-known technology brands in the world.
So, although there might not be a “golden rule” for what makes a name brandable, some of the most well-known brands have quite a few characteristics in common.
Let’s have a look at those
Can you think of many well-known brands that are difficult to pronounce?
One of the main reasons for that can be explained with Cognitive Fluency, or in other words, “how easy it is to think about something” (That includes pronouncing something in your mind).
The simplified explanation for that is that people tend to prefer things that easy to think about over things that are difficult to think about.
The more advanced explanation is that people often misinterpret the sensation of ease or difficulty of thinking about something, with the thing itself.
The result is that people are more likely to remember, have a subconscious preference towards, and even trust brands that are easy to pronounce.
Keeping the domain name relatively short goes hand-in-hand with the idea of pronounceability and cognitive fluency.
A short name is often easier to say and remember, and also reduces the risk of mistyping and misspelling.
That being said, I would rather have a somewhat long, but intuitive and easily pronounceable name, instead of a short and complex one.
Keeping the domain name relevant to your purpose, products or services, can be a good way to attract visitors and make the name easier to remember through association.
The idea behind my domain name was to indicate that the site would provide a roadmap that guides you through every step of the website journey.
But if you look at a brand like Google, they’ve chosen a subtler connection. Google actually originates from the term googol, which means 1 x 10^100, a fairly large number. Considering how Google now lets us search through millions of websites, that relation is actually quite fitting.
My point is that it’s nice if your domain name has an implied or complementary meaning to what your site is about, but don’t overdo it.
Make sure the domain name is unique.
This will help you distinguish yourself from your competitors, and I will also ensure that visitors/customers don’t confuse your name with someone else’s.
You wouldn’t want a visitor looking for your site to end up at your competitor, would you?
1.5 Easy to spell
You want a domain name that your visitors will be able to easily type correctly. You wouldn’t want people to end up on the wrong website!
Avoid hyphens – Explaining to people that they need to put a dash between two or more words can be a troublesome process. In addition, if another website uses the non-hyphenated version, it’s very likely that a lot of your visitors will end up at that site instead.
Avoid numbers – Numbers often causes confusion with regards to spelling. Did you mean the numerical (2) or the spelled-out version (two)?
- Should sound like words, and not like random letters
- Avoid repeating characters to reduce the risk of mistyping
- Avoid random abbreviations
2. Think long-term
With the brandable part out of the way, I would also strongly suggest that you think long-term when picking a domain name.
If your brand becomes widely popular, and you would like to expand the scope of your business, you wouldn’t want a name that locks you into a very specific niche.
Changing your domain/brand name down the road can be quite expensive, and if it’s not done right, you risk losing your visitors and potentially your search result rankings on the way.
3. Check availability
Found the perfect domain name? It’s available? Ok, there are two more things I recommend that you check before you decide to buy it.
Social media – If you’re serious about building a brand around this domain name, it will be essential to also have a presence on social media. That’s why you should remember to check if the name is available on (at least) the most common social media channels.
Trademark – Make sure that the domain name is not identical or confusingly similar to an existing trademark. That could potentially cause you a lot of trouble down the road.
To check both these things, you could use a tool like Knowem that checks trademarks and the availability across 25 popular social networks
4. Choose the right top-level domain (TLD)
Today there are more than 1,500 top-level domains to choose from, ranging from the familiar .com to special ones like .pizza and .coffee.
Still, there’s no doubt that .com is the most popular and recognized TLD, by far. So, in most cases, I would strongly recommend .com over any other TLD, simply because that’s what people are used to.
An exception to that “rule” is if you’re targeting a specific country because then you might, in fact, appear as more trustworthy if you choose the country TLD.
So, if I were to make a website targeting the Norwegian market for a given product, I would have written in Norwegian, and I’m pretty sure I would have chosen the .no (Norwegian) TLD.
Bonus tip: If you end up with a different top-level domain than .com, I strongly recommend that you secure the .com version as well, just in case you need it in the future.
Discover Domain Name Ideas
With the basic rules out of the way, it’s time for the fun part, finding that perfect domain name.
Do you have one in mind already? Check if it’s available
Was it taken? Let’s try to find a better one.
The first thing you should do is to write down words or phrases that describe your website.
For this website it could be something like:
“How to create a website”
“Website beginner guide”
Once you have a few words or phrases, we want to start expanding on those, by finding words and phrases that have a similar meaning. The best way to do that is to use a Thesaurus, a reference list that provides you synonyms and antonyms of words you enter.
If I do that for my phrases, I end up with a whole lot of variations that describe the same thing, just with different words:
“How to build/make/construct/create/start/setup/ a website/site/webpage”
“Website/site/webpage beginner/learner/amateur/starter guide/manual/handbook/roadmap”
Just getting your hands on all these variations might actually be all the inspiration you need. This was the process that led me to the name TheWebsiteRoad (Whether or not that is a good name is up to you to decide).
If the new words didn’t spark any new ideas, it’s time for the next step, domain name generators.
Domain name generators
If all the domain names you can think of are taken, there are luckily tools out there that can help you spark some additional creativity.
Most of them will typically require you to enter words or phrases describing your website. So, remember to bring all the words and phrases you found in the previous section.
I’ve listed three of my favorites, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
Make sure to note down your favorites as you go along, and remember to check if they’re available.
Namemesh is probably my personal favorite.
It combines words in many different ways, leaving you with a massive amount of name ideas, neatly divided into categories such as Fun, SEO, Short, and Similar.
Start with one or two of the words identified above and click Generate.
Namesmith is another great option that uses a variety of different ways to combine and use the different words you’ve entered.
What’s great about Namesmith is that it works really well with actual phrases describing your website (up to five words).
So, if entering words in Namemesh didn’t work out, try to enter phrases in Namesmith.
Wordoid is a bit different than the other two, as it tries to boost your inspiration by suggesting made-up words, that still sounds great.
So, if you’re looking for a name that not necessarily have to be a real word, you should definitely check it out.
Wordoid also provides you with a set of options, allowing you to choose which language it should sound good in, the maximum length of the name, and the quality.
Once you have found an available domain name suitable for your site, my recommendation is to secure it as soon as possible. You never know when someone else might think of that exact same name and ends up buying it before you.
So, where do you buy domain names?
Domain names are bought from domain registrars
What is a domain registrar?
A domain registrar is a company that manages the reservation of domain names.
In order to become a domain registrar, the company needs to acquire an accreditation from ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) or a country code top-level domain registry.
To earn an accreditation, the company has to demonstrate that it meets the operational, financial and technical criteria to qualify as registrar.
The amount of available top-level domains (like .com, .net, .org) will vary from registrar to registrar depending on the accreditations they have acquired.
How to choose a domain registrar?
By now, there are several hundred registrars spread across the world, and as with any service, some delivers a better service than others. Below are some of the main things you should look out for when deciding on a registrar.
1. Customer Service
You’ll want a support team that is actually on your side and does whatever they can to help you out with the problem at hand. You also want a support team that is actually available when you really need them.
The best way to identify good customer service is to test it yourself. Give them a call or send a support request to find out more about the company, and get a feel of their responsiveness and eagerness to help.
Most people care about the price when they buy a product/service. So, I would assume the price will be a key focus for you as well. Registrars know this, and some will go to great lengths to make their offer appear extremely cheap.
My recommendations with regards to price:
- Don’t get blinded by the initial 1-year cost, remember to look at the renewal fee as well. A company offering very cheap (maybe even free) domains the first year, might be very expensive the following years.
- Check what is included. E.g. Some registrars now offer free WhoIsGuard, whereas others might charge $10/year.
3. Domain transfer
You probably won’t have the need for transferring domains right away, but it’s something that might become a need in the future if you’re unhappy with your registrar.
The first thing you should know is that you cannot transfer a domain name during the first 60 days after registration. After that, you should be allowed to transfer it to any registrar you want.
If you do need to transfer, you don’t really want a registrar that complicates the transfer, and maybe even charge you a transfer fee.
In my opinion, it should be free and easy to transfer domains to and from a registrar.
A good registrar will not need fees and troublesome transfer procedures to keep their customers.
The domain management system should be easy to use and well documented, ensuring that everything from buying new domains to configuring DNS settings, is a breeze.
If you’re curious about a few registrars, try to sign up with all of them to make up your own mind on how intuitive the user interface is.
Buying a domain name
Personally, I’m using Namecheap as my registrar for all my domains.
They offer competitive prices, free WhoisGuard, and an intuitive user interface. But most importantly, they provide great customer support – so I definitely recommend checking them out.
Here’s how to register a domain name with Namecheap.
Enter your preferred domain and click “Search”.
Click the shopping cart and choose View Cart.
Signing up for more than one year gives a very limited discount, so my recommendation is usually to start off with 1 year.
WhoisGuard is included for free and is a privacy protection service that prevents people from seeing information such as your name and email when they do a Whois search on your domain
To create a new account, you just have to
- Create a username and password
- Provide your real name
- Provide your email address
- Click “Create Account and Continue”
Once you’ve created an account, you’ll be asked to provide some additional contact information.
You’ll need to add your first name, last name, street address, city, zip code, country, phone number, and email address
On the next page, you’ll have the chance to review the contact information and add additional contacts if required.
In order to complete the purchase, you just have to
- Enter your payment details
- Click “Continue”
- Review your order details
- Click “Pay Now”
That’s it, you now own your first domain.
But before you move on, remember to verify your contact details in the NameCheap Dashboard or Domain List
Finding and buying the perfect domain can be a long and troublesome process.
You’ll quickly realize that a lot of great domain names are already taken, and you’ll probably also wonder if the available names you do find, are any good…
In the end, I’m certain that you will find that hidden ‘gem’, so don’t give up!
Just remember these two takeaways from this article:
- Aim for a domain name that is easy to pronounce
- Remember that a good domain registrar doesn’t need hidden fees and complex user interface to keep their customers. Good domain registrars keep their customers by providing an awesome service at a reasonable price.
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