​Domain names 101

CNET@Work: What's in a name? When it's a domain name, a lot, actually.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read

With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.

A domain name is a company's virtual real estate on the internet, and it's naturally best if it's memorable. This ranks as one of the biggest decisions a small company or startup will face, particularly in regard to marketing and search engine optimization.

But your ingenuity may go unrewarded as finding a great or iconic name that's still available is getting impossibly hard.

When Peter Yared and his partners looked for a domain name for their enterprise software startup, they came up empty after their first go-around. As well as on the second try. Ditto for the the third and the fourth times.

"We went through like five [rounds of searching]," recalled Yared, the CTO of Sapho, who said the process lasted several weeks.

"It's so hard nowadays to find something viable," he said. "I think you just have to be willing to try for a while and also be willing to take a longer name if you want a .com."

By now, most .com names have been grabbed by businesses who came up with the idea earlier. The scarcity also stems from the presence of speculators, who register for domains hoping for a payday when an interested buyer comes along.

The most common top-level domains (TLDs) are .com, .net and .org. but plenty of companies still find other endings that suit their businesses. For instance, the recently shuttered Sidecar, a competitor to Lyft and Uber, had a perfectly fine domain in Side.cr. Unfortunately for the company, it failed for reasons other than its domain name.

Starting out

You can do a quick search using a Whois-like search engine such as DomainTools. Also, make sure to run a TESS trademark search before purchasing a domain name. It's a free and easy website operated by the US Patent and Trademark Office and it can save a lot of headaches to make sure no one else is already using the name.

After finding an available name, there's no shortage of potential registrars to choose. Does it matter which domain registrar you select? That depends. Sometimes there is a difference when it comes to service levels. Also, some providers have gone out of business, so it's worth examining their track record and their user ratings. Above all, you need to make sure that your domain will get renewed. As you can imagine, that's a superimportant consideration. So, yes, it does matter who you use, depending on your needs.

The cost of registering domains is inexpensive -- you can land a one-year registration with 1and1.com for $4.99 -- but even more well-known sites -- such as GoDaddy, Gandi, MarkMonitor and Network Solutions -- are economical, though prices vary based on the number of bells and whistles that get included.

The registration process isn't complicated. Applicants provide the domain name, an address to use for the domain registration and the name they want the domain to be registered under. They also need to supply an accompanying email address that will get added to the public Whois record.

Venturing beyond .com

Startups frequently select oddball names to avoid paying big fees to domain holders of .com names. That's why Digg chose an extra "g" and Flickr is missing an "e".


Make sure to register names similar to your main one -- even typos.

Charles Cooper

Beyond .com, you can still choose among lots of names with .co -- and save money as well. The Miami company .CO Internet has a contract with the government of Colombia to commercialize that nation's TLD. That's why venture capitalist Om Malik uses Om.co and AngelList uses AngelList.co.

But even beyond .co, there are plenty of extensions now that can fit a business -- or a location, such as in all the .nyc names.

If you're considering any of the other new domain breeds -- such as .us, .biz or .info for example -- research whether there's a potential business penalty in not choosing a .com. If a business's web presence is really important and it matters how high you rank in Google, then make sure all those extensions are treated the same by the SEO gods.

Make sure to register similar names to your main one -- even including typos. Facebook fought hard against all the domain weisenheimers who registered names like Facebook and made a fortune monetizing the typo traffic that came their way. So if you're CoopRocks, Inc., you might want CoopRks.com or some other likely typo that's most important if web traffic is your goal. It's worth thinking about and not that expensive anymore.

There's no one best approach but as you get ready to select a domain name for your company, keep the following in mind:

  • Think hard about the name and how it might figure as a search term or key words someone might type in to find your site.
  • Find a way to connect your brand to the domain name. The more closely you can link the two, the better.
  • Short and simple sticks in people's minds. You want to make your online presence stand out and it'd be great to find a domain that readers can easily remember.