Monday, November 5, 2012

How important is the domain name today?

Even though domain names have become less important in the past decade, we can still find the old patterns in those of successful websites.

Why domain names were so important

For those of you who weren't there in the mid 90s, here's a bit of history. Don't laugh.
When the www became popular, domain names were a new thing. Not every business had a website. New internet businesses were founded with the domain name as company name.

An advertisement for a business such as amazon in the mass media (think television, or newspaper (in paper form)) had to make it clear that you can go and type that into the browser's address bar. Thus it needed to tell you the web address ... and that meant the full web address. Yes, including the top level extension .com. And yes, with the www, because that was the ultimate "web" indicator. And, not joking, including http://, because browsers required you to tell them what protocol you want. It could have been ftp, or gopher, how could it guess.

The older generation (my mother) was going bananas on all these strange characters... http//:? //http?  www.http? http@www? www.com@amazon?

Email was new too. My mother's email address was www.eleonor1948.com@hotmail... or so.

To not add to the confusion, you'd better stick to the .com extension like everyone else.

If you mistyped the address in the browser, all you got was an error message. Sorry. You could then goo... no wait, you could search for it on Altavista. If you had a bookmark or knew the address by heart. It was http://www.altavista.digital.com. (Yeah, the www in there is useless, but it probably wouldn't load the site without ...). Autocomplete wasn't invented yet.

Years later, because http became the most popular protocol, and "the internet" meant the web, browsers started to add the http:// prefix automatically if omitted.

Then, even more artificial intelligence was built in: converting a word such as amazon into http://www.amazon.com. What a salvation!

OK, it wasn't real AI, but it helped. And because everyone important used .com, it worked well. Everyone? well, mostly. The white house is on a .gov address. And because the .com belonged to someone showing pictures of naked women (safe for work), browser programmers went back to work to come up with even more magic: exception rules.

And today? 

Having .com in the business name isn't important anymore. Everyone's online. (Online? Yes, online/offline you know, modems...)

Amazon 2004
Amazon 2012




People don't type addresses anymore. The address bar is just to copy/paste, or for auto-complete, or to google the name because it's quicker, or to spell-check a word.

Users will find your site based on the name, no matter what address you have.

Patterns in domain names of the top visited sites

Here's what I've found when looking over Alexa's top ranked sites list, mostly the top 100.

They're all .com

And if they are not, then
  • Either they redirect .com to the primary domain (#6 wikipedia.org, #43 craigslist.org, #146 mozilla.org, #160 sourceforge.net)
  • Or it's a country specific domain (16x Google such as google.de)
  • Legal issues (#69 thepiratebay.se)
  • Domain hack  #80 adf.ly

2 syllables

Practically all internet brands have a 2-syllables, 1-2 word domain name, without hyphen, ending in .com. Goo-gle, face-book, you-tube, bai-du, twit-ter, ama-zon, linked-in (argument), blog-spot, tao-bao, si-na, yan-dex, word-press, e-bay, ...)
Exceptions are wikipedia (known as "wi-ki"), 1-syllable domains (live, bing), and abbreviations (qq, msn, vk).

Number domains

There are some number domains: #107 360.cn, #117 4shared.com, #157 56.com, #223 58.com

No hyphen

There are practically no domains with a hyphen. The first real website with a dash is #334 t-online.de, and that's because it's their business name. In case you're bored you can also take a look at #342 sergey-mavrodi.com and his Wikipedia page. The first site that went with a domain name with a minus in it is #442 over-blog.com, but apparently only until they got enough cash to buy the real one, and are redirecting now to overblog.com (#6177). So there really isn't any worth mentioning. A hyphen is a no-no.

Domain hacks

Domain hacks are becoming more popular. The well known del.icio.us #523 is now at delicious.com. Google uses #962 goo.gl for its url shortening service. (I surely missed some important ones, please comment.)

Typo domains, missing schwa

A new trend is domain names with a spelling mistake. Simply because every possible name you could come up with isn't available as dot com. It's often the schwa in the last syllable that's omitted. Examples are #36 tumblr.com, #201 scribd.com. Twitter #8 initially launched as twttr.com. #717 disqus.com is more than a typo, but falls into that category. (I surely missed some important ones, please comment.)

Conclusion about today's domain selections

When choosing a domain name for a new global site (the next twitter killer), people go for
  • a relatively short (not 3 or 4 words),
  • possibly with a typo (because nothing else is available)
  • never hyphenated
  • dot-com domain.
  • Or they invent a new word (that's hard to remember).
  • Or alternatively a very short domain hack.

And the future?

Next year, in 2013, up to 2000 new top level domains will become active. Even though we have lots of global tld's already (not cctld's, those are fine), no one important uses them. Will this mess make .com even more important, or will lots of domain hacks appear? What's your opinion?

What do you do when you're in need of a new, attractive name? Do you try to buy one? Even though most domain names are inactive, the owners usually have a different opinion about their value. Do you misspell, hyphenate, choosealongname, invent a new word, go .net or .org, or look for a domain hack?




WWW or not?

Up until today the web still hasn't found consensus about whether addresses should use the www or not. It's a useless leftover from the past. Most websites still use it, including the tops (google, facebook, yahoo, amazon, ebay, bing, msn, paypal ...), newer ones (twitter, wordpress, stripe) don't.  

What's important is that both addresses are functional, and that one redirects to the other.
Example rewrite rule for Apache to redirect to non-www:
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} ^www\.(.*)$ [NC]
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://%1/$1 [R=301,L]
It has become common practice to not use www with 3rd level domains, but to optionally make it a redirect. Example: de.wikipedia.org, with a forwarding from www.de.wikipedia.org



4 comments:

  1. #56 flickr of course.
    This blog post http://www.pemet.com/2010/list-of-websites-that-end-with-a-random-r-like-flickr-tumblr-etc/ has a list of sites with such domain names. Most of them are offline now, so apparently the cool name didn't work for everyone. Also, they follow the patterns you mentioned.

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  2. And fiverr #184 is another very popular misspelling domain.

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  3. The .co extension is on the rise. Examples: t.co (Twitter), angel.co, enter.co, 500.co, aspen.co, g.co, cloud.co, amex.co, sbux.co (Starbucks), and surfr.co. Overstock.com bought o.co for a reported $350k and changed the logo. And mega.co is currently trying to sell high, and profit from the launch of mega.co.nz.
    The domain mega.co.nz reminds me of lyrics.ch, once the most visited website under the Swiss top level domain. Both sites (are/were) targeted at an international audience, are not domain hacks, and still use(d) a country top level domain. Lyrics.ch was shut down in 1999 after music publishers sent in the police to seize the servers - it published lyrics to over 100k songs.
    Mega planned to launch under me.ga, another domain hack, but that failed, see http://torrentfreak.com/me-ga-hackers-were-real-pirates-well-sell-dotcoms-domain-to-universal-121107/

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