In the mid to late 1990s I used to play the domain availability game, attempting to guess which domain name was taken or not. Looking up domains was done at the Internic WHOIS page, which has not changed since 2001.
In those early days, I was simply window-shopping; like most people in their right mind, I would not consider spending $100 dollars for two years of registration fees for a "domain name." It was far from mainstream, and definitely expensive.
Today, the domain registration numbers are staggering: more than 350 million domain names in existence across all TLDs, along with 141 million dot .com alone. Registering a domain name is an easy, quick, and affordable process, that completes in seconds - a far cry from the manual process existing in 1995.
Having the ability to register a domain name on the spur of the moment, with any justification and for any occasion, can also mean one thing: there are plenty of bad domain names out there.
Whether they are too long, not easy to spell and pronounce, or simply bad choices by any definition, such uninspiring domain registrations are a waste of money that can cause a long-standing damage to one's business and brand.
In two decades as a domain investor, I've seen some domain choices that could be seen as humorous, if only they didn't cost money:
- Words stripped of all their vowels, to create an unpronounceable, yet "cool" brand
- Alternate spellings that are obscure, and can be seen as typos
- Impossibly long-winded, descriptive brands that could eliminate one or even two words
- Domain "hacks" that fail the radio test completely
- The use of "opportunity" ccTLDs that maintain an esoteric usage for their targeted registrants
Just because a domain name is available to register, does not mean it's a good idea to do so.
To avoid the pitfalls of bad domain name registrations, a savvy investor, brand developer, or product designer must follow a few rules that help sort through the noise of available domains.
First and foremost, double-check the domain for typographical errors. It doesn't matter how good a word looks if it's not the correct spelling it is a typo. Some words do have alternate, less popular spellings, so it's a good practice to avoid the ones with considerably fewer Google results.
While it's true that anything newsworthy can be turned into a domain name these days, consider the following side-effects of such viral domain registrations:
- They are short-lived and tend to lose exposure quickly
- There are too many variants based on the particular event or incident they address
- They can be controversial or even insulting
- If they involve politics they can become very polarized
Outside of dictionary domains that are almost always registered, even after they drop, descriptive, two- or three-word domains can help define a brand, product or service. They can be objective, such as BlueWhaleShipments.com, or abstract, such as GreenMonkeyMakeup.com.
As long as the coherence of the words is there, the brand is definable and memorable— an important characteristic of a domain that only costs a basic registration fee.
In general, it's good to avoid registering domains that simulate a letter's sounds by using an alternate letter. For example, Bananaz and Oreganoh might seem creative, but they can cause confusion with their stylized spellings, until they become household names - and that can take a long, long time.
Shorter tends to be better, and sometimes a dash can be incorporated into the mix to achieve that result. Dashes are the only symbols allowed, and some words or phrases are valid with a dash. Still, that's a last resort to a series of alternate domain names that should be avoided. Proceed with caution, unless you live in Germany where dashes are part of the local digital folklore.
Some domain names that are available can be outright trademark violations. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) maintains an internal search tool that can perform a wide variety of phonetic searches.
While this is not available to the general public, one can use the asterisk (*) to mask out the beginning and end of a search string, or use the question mark (?) to substitute characters. This type of search can return existing registered trademarks very close to the keyword that is available to register as a domain name - and you want to make sure to avoid these.
The Radio Test, Failed Brands, and Conclusion
Don't forget to run the "radio test" — by yourself, or with the help of others — to decide if a domain name can be understood how it's written, without seeing it.
If you wonder why it's called the radio test, here's a tip: In the good old days of radio broadcasting, before television took over, there were no pictures to put emphasis on words, just audio. Everything had to be listened to tentatively, or risk the potential of being misunderstood.
In a similar fashion, when a domain name fails the radio test part, it has one more weakness for you to worry about, and thus avoid registering.
While negative terms can be used as brands creatively, they arrive with a risk of disassociation from the true meaning of the word, so be extra careful about making such choices for your domain names. Even positive words have their problems: let's not forget how Kim Kardashian's beautiful domain name Kimono.com became one of several failed brands when she attempted to associate a traditional Japanese garment with her commercial shapewear.
In a nutshell, spend as much time as possible examining the pros and cons of domain names to be used with your upcoming service or brand. Sorting through the noise means that you take the time to listen to the voice of reason, and hopefully, the sound of money from your future earnings.