While it may be true that the rose under any other name will smell just as sweet, in a world where thousands of new roses sprout each day, a bit of sweet fragrance just doesn’t cut it anymore. Even if the interested buyer was fully aware of the olfactory uniformity across the category, if presented with a choice, they’d be far less willing to gift their loved one with a “thorny withered petal dispenser” than with a nice plain rose. Even though how sweet you’ll smell to your customers depends only on your product, quality of service, willingness to grow and learn along with your industry, and so on, it is often the choice of your name that will determine how many people will be persuaded to come closer and take a sniff.
Seeing how the discussion on the perfect domain or brand names for startups and small businesses is a fiercely complex issue, as well as one that has been discussed at great lengths, we decided to narrow it down. This article should provide you with an overview of the factors that go into choosing a TLD (Top Level Domain) for your website, current trends in that area, and our humble suggestions.
Name Availability – How much do you want that .com?
(To .me or not to .me)
Even without wishing to go deeper into the issue, we have to acknowledge the limitations set by your brand name. If your branding is already established, or you have your heart set on a particular name, you might need to engage in some domain hacking, and the .com option might not be for you. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as long as you understand the benefits and downsides of either choice. Hopefully, you’ll be familiar with them by the time you’ve finished reading this.
Having to find an alternative TLD is by no means a sentence to online obscurity, but neither is it an instant visibility boost as some might claim. Google has been perfectly clear on the fact that new generic TLDs, or the already established country-code TLDs that have spontaneously come to be used as non-geographical labels (.ly, .io, .me) won’t carry any inherent SEO value, but neither will they be seen as inferior to .com. While some gTLDs will in time come to serve as established denominators for certain industries or types of websites, just like the ccTLDs we listed above have, right now the playing field is level, at least when it comes to search engines. User behavior and expectations are a different matter altogether, but more on that later.
(Something is rotten in the state of .DK)
The location of your business, or more often, the location of your target audience can be a major factor in your choice of a TLD. While the new generic domains monitored by the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) are geographically neutral for the most part, you need to be aware of how country specific ccTLDs are treated. While all of them used to automatically set your geo-targeting to the country they are associated with—.me for Montenegro, .ly for Libya and so on—some of them have since come to be treated as generic TLDs. While some ccTLDs still don’t allow you to choose your target audience, the extensions that have been adopted for general use now offer you the option of setting your geographical preferences yourself. For the complete list of these cross-over TLDs, expand the article on the following page by clicking on the “More about domain determination” at the bottom.
While those commonly adopted ccTLDs have lost their country denominating status (but do allow you to designate your desired location in Webmaster Tools), other country code Top Level Domains will still make you pop up more often in searches relevant to their location.
Another relatively new way to target your audience according to this criterion is by using the IDNs (Internationalized Domain Names). This allows you to use different country specific characters in your domain, such as Cyrillic script. It should be noted, that while using these could bring you closer to specific demographic, it might make it much more difficult to reach other audiences, and as such, IDNs are to be used with great care and only when you are sure that you want to focus your attention on a specific group of people.
Type of Services Rendered and Audience Pursued
(Tempting of the shrewd)
If you decide that you don’t want to limit yourself to a particular location, this eliminates the use of typical ccTLDs, but, like a kid in front of a vegetable tray, you are still left with an uncomfortable overabundance of choices. Should you go with the probably pricier, and due to the lack of remaining options, less flexible .com; one of the new generic TLDs; an extension that has been around forever but remained limited only to specific kinds of websites like .net or .info; or a generalized former ccTLD (like we did with our link prospecting tool Dibz.me)? The decision will often be leveraged on how your desired audience behaves, and what kind of expectations they have.
For instance, while having a hip new extension like (the somehow still not registered) .petloving might appeal to certain demographics, others would see it as unprofessional or confusing. Startups that want to seem more robust or to cater to as wide an audience as possible would still prefer a .com, but that choice comes with the discussed limitations. Should you want to compromise between the two, opting for one of the no-longer-country-specific TLDs might be just what you need. While getting the .petloving extension might make it clear what you’re about, it also immediately informs your more tech savvy visitors that you haven’t been around for that long (which doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing if you’re a startup). In cases where this is an issue, choosing an established and recognizable generalized ccTLD, like .io or .me might be the way to go. The online community has pretty much been indoctrinated on what they should expect when they see one of these TLDs, and even without the domain hacks they allow for, you still have a much wider array of options to choose from for the rest of your domain than you would with .com.
One of the factors that will determine which way to go is how you intend to advertise, and how your audience is likely to reach your website. A survey by eMarketer conducted back in 2014 shows that a significant portion of users (especially in the more developed countries, which are presumably the ones you want to target) will more frequently type the company name in the search bar than they will enter the entire domain.
This goes to say that having a unique name, combined with a TLD that clearly states your area of expertise, might be preferable to simply going with the safe bet of .com.
If, on the other hand, you think that most of your advertising will be hosted on off-line platforms—radio, TV, print—you can expect a part of your would-be visitors to focus on your brand name and simply assume that the extension is .com. This is, to a point, offset by domain hacks that incorporate the TLD—visual.ly for instance, but you might still stand to lose some visitors who try to type in visually.com.
Security and Brand Protection Issues
(By the swiping of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes)
This section will not deal with choosing the TLD for your website so much as it will with ways to protect yourself from squatting and other exploits, but a crash course in how this is usually handled can only do you good.
The registration of the new TLDs and monitoring of the already registered ones is handled by the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers. They have set up the Trademark Clearinghouse, where, for a relatively low fee of $100 – $200 you can register your brand, and receive notifications if someone applies for a domain with your trademark. While the Clearinghouse will inform the party registering under someone’s trademark that the name is, technically, not available, they can’t actually prevent them from proceeding with their intention. People with protected trademarks can usually make use of Sunrise periods—a time just after a new TLD becomes available, usually one month long, when registration is only allowed to trademark holders. After that period, however, all the combinations with the new TLD become publically available.
This is basically how it works. Coca Cola registers their trademark with the Clearinghouse, and when a new TLD becomes available, let’s use the actual example of controversial .sucks, for the first month of registration period, Cola will be the only one permitted to apply for cola.sucks. If they choose to ignore this privilege, the combination becomes available to anyone with the right amount of money.
We didn’t need the new generic TLDs to see just how much potential for abuse there is in this kind of system, but they have certainly made things even more interesting. From phishing scams, cyber squatting, corporate identity theft or misrepresentation, to outright extortion, gTLDs have opened up new ways to engage in old mischievous practices, but this might ultimately be a good thing.
How so? To continue with the Cola example, once they would not only buy cola.com, but also preventively register cola.net, cola.co, cola.info and so on. This kind of defensive buying used to be common, but only larger companies could really afford to cover all or at least a majority of potential exploits (truth be told, it is probably also only those larger companies that had to bother with this in the first place). With the introduction on the new gTLDs, engaging in the same type of defensive buying is simply not feasible. Even if you cover all the currently existing options for abuse of your branding, new TLD strings are constantly being added into the registry. This might result in a significant drop in value of the commodities that these identity scavengers are dealing in. This might be an optimistic assumption, but if the companies place their faith in the constantly growing ability of the general public to differentiate between the real deal and attempts at abuse, they might end up pleasantly surprised.
If that doesn’t turn out to be the case, we’ll just have to keep refining the ways in which we deal with such attempts at extortion. There are already some services available that allow you to block your trademarked name from being used with certain TLDs. Naturally, registering with each of them only protects your branding in combination with the extensions they own (in the case of those linked above, usually no more than thirty or so each), making this less than a perfect solution, but still an option worth considering.
(… Such sweet sorrow)
Choosing the Bard’s work as a device might seem a bit arbitrary, but it actually serves a purpose. Deciding on your TLD should be guided by the same principles as this article attempted to adhere to: a foundation of recognizability interspersed with a dash of a new twist. Some of the familiar with a bit of novelty. While his doths and thous might seem foreign to some people, they still converse with an intuitive part in all of us, and despite their apparent inscrutability, they rarely fail to convey the deeper meaning.
Such is the case with the choice of the perfect TLD for your website, once you know your audience, what it is that you can offer them, and ways in which you plan to promote your business, the result will depend only on your ability to distribute a string of letters so that they make something that resonates with the audience, to take simple words and arrange them into poetry.
Boris Novakovic is an SEO and inbound marketing expert at FourDots. Additionally, he takes personal interest in branding strategies and follows the latest trends in startup life.