Some Thoughts on Domain Names

Some Thoughts on Domain Names

Names are pretty important in human culture. Grab any linguistics primer or reference book on the human mind and you’ll learn about the role of language in human understanding. Nouns are a major part of our labeling lives, and proper nouns are powerful magic.

According to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language,

A name is a word or phrase that identifies a specific person, place, or thing. We see the entity as an individual, and not as a member of a class: Everest, for example, is a unique name (a “proper noun”), whereas mountain applies to a whole class of objects.

Onomastics is the study of names, and there are more particular fields for the study of place names and personal names. Internet domain names are special, for like brand names, they are typically contrived and procedurally created: more design and planning goes into the naming of the model automobile you own than you’ll ever spend on the naming of your children.

A domain is somewhere between a product, a place, a brand, and an experience, so coming up with the perfect domain name won’t necessarily be a simple task. There are companies that specialize in creating names, but I’m no expert in that. The scope of this essay is to provide a basic framework for understanding positive and negative success indicators for domain names.

What makes a good domain name? I think the answers to this question will range from the merely subjective to the arbitrary. The nature of a good name depends on the thing being named, the connotations mapped to the thing being named and to the name, and probably on a host of other factors that won’t be clear until experience and time and hindsight makes them painfully clear. Remember those big Internet companies that changed their names and domains? Miningco.com (now about.com), for example?

What Makes a Domain Name Good?

What makes a domain name good? No concrete across-the-board standard exists to my knowledge, but we can set certain general requirements. A domain name should be

meaningful
Your name should serve as a meaningful label for the site…does it make sense? In practice, this may be difficult: the rapidly shrinking base of common phrases from which to choose forces new sites to adopt names more distant from the core conceptual domain of the site. In effect, new sites get names so obscure with respect to what the site is about that the names cease to have pertinence or relevance for that site’s being. If you are creating a name out of made-up words or phrases, try to map a meaning to that name as quickly and consistently as possible. If you are re-purposing a word with a new meaning, ditto.
uniquely identifying
As a name, a domain name should be unique enough to identify the site as being that site, and no other. The name should be recognizable. An interesting consequence of the domain name crunch — with so many common words taken and so many made-up words being used for names — is that a mistyped name may not give users the dead-end of a 404 file not found error. Instead, mistype a name and you have a good chance of ending up somewhere. Are you willing to take the gamble that your visitors won’t enjoy the site they reach in error more than yours? How much difference is there, for the uninitiated and inexpert, between shopper.com, shoppers.com, shopping.com, eshopping.com, etc. etc.?
memorable
What good is a name if people can’t remember it? This is a moot argument if you never expect people to have to remember the name; for example, if you always expect people to follow links to the site and never type the name into a browser’s location field, then perhaps memorableness isn’t a big deal for you. But if people have to form a desire to visit your site, and have to follow up on that desire by typing in your domain name, then they have to remember that name — and remember it correctly — to get there.
manually reproducible
Make your name easy to type, unless you expect people to always follow a provided mechanism for getting to your site, such as links on other sites, shortcut’s on their desktop, or even shortcuts on software CDs (that you give them).
special
Some names just “click” with users; these names resonate and have a meaning and relevance easily understood. There’s an art to any act of creation — if that creation is compelling — and this characteristic of “specialness” isn’t always easy to pin down. Some names are just inspired. Hint: if you try to make it special, you aren’t going to succeed. Just let it happen, and if it does happen, enjoy it.

What Makes a Domain Name Bad?

By now, we’ve all seen some pretty silly domain names on the web. You know, those long run-on sentences masquerading as words. These tongue-twisting mouthfuls aren’t all that surprising now that the general words and category words and just plain-old-words have been snatched up by the endless parade of start-ups and domain name squatters.

A name doesn’t have to consist of words. Fact is, the term word itself is open to interpretation. Steven Pinker identifies two meanings of “word” in The Language Instinct: “a linguistic object that, even if built out of parts by the rules of morphology, behaves as the indivisible, smallest unit with the respect to the rules of syntax”; or “a string of linguistic stuff that is arbitrarily associated with a particular meaning, one item from the long list we call the mental dictionary”. So the rules for what can be considered a name are pretty wide open. Nonetheless, we can make some observations about what characteristics of names — and what degree of these characteristics — are better or worse than others.

Length in Domain Names is a Bad Idea

Long domain names are more difficult to type into a browser; the more characters you must manually type, the more chance users have of introducing errors. And don’t forget your expected user-base: some populations may have more difficulty typing than others, for example young children or the mobility impaired and, on bad days, me.

So, when choosing a long domain name keep in mind just how people are going to access that domain. If you will provide the majority of users with pre-coded links to your site, then length may not be a critical issue. If you have managed to get shortcuts to your site onto the OEM Windows desktop, then you have a pretty good workaround for lengthy domain names. If you can get a software launching pad in front of your users, you may be set.

And, of course, late-learned lessons can be put to good use. Several sites with relatively long domain names have added shorter versions to their domain stables. So typing in av.com gets you to altavista.com, and bn.com gets you barnesandnoble.com (whew).

But back to the point: if you are running an ecommerce or business-to-customer site that involves emails to your users, that long domain name will have to be supportable within the broad range of email clients. Links with long domain names will tend to line break at best awkwardly. Many, many sites have discovered the need to configure tedious redirects and domain mappings to work around those pesky links in emails.

Complexity in Domain Names is a Bad Idea

All other things being equal — such as referents and meaningfulness — longer names are more complex than shorter names. For example, using completely arbitrary examples, the name somemoredumbexample is more complicated than the name examples. This seems clear, considering that the first has 3 separate words and 27 letters while the second name clocks in at 1 word and 8 letters.

If you consider that many words have multiple meanings, any combination of words is likely to have more than one possible meaning.

Complexity in domain names is not a good thing for several reasons:

  • The more complex a domain name, the more trouble users may experience in just understanding the name. Multiple meanings will lead to misunderstandings of the string of letters, let alone of the meanings of the component words. Your brain has to go through some contortions to make sense of completelyarbitraryexamples. Heck, every time I look at the philosophe.com referrer logs the word “philosophe” starts twisting around and changing letters on me, and that’s just one word.
  • The more complex a domain name, the more difficult it will be to remember. Sure, some long phrases are easy to remember (supercalafraga…etc.), but is your domain name likewise memorable?
  • Even the most memorable of phrases can be a pain to write down, and the longer that phrase, the tougher it will be to type without errors (more on that below).
  • What’s the return on complexity with your super long and complex name? Is your name a convenience for your user, or for you? If every common category word was taken, and you settled for that 5 word cutesey phrase, well, that’s not necessarily optimizing the user experience.
  • Made-up words, butchered spellings, and funky non-alphanumeric characters are good ways to pack denotations into a string, but those denotational meanings may never reach your users.

Un-Pronounceableness in Domain Names is a Bad Thing

As noted above, a name doesn’t have to consist of a word or words that are real. But, really, the best names are those that are pronounceable without having to go through contortions and without having to practice in front of a mirror. Generally speaking, good names aren’t embarrassing to say aloud (www.smileyface.com) and aren’t misunderstood until spelled out loud for listeners (“no, that’s ‘dash underscore’ not ‘asterix 4′”).

Come on, just use some common sense here.