The Importance of Domain Names
The essential marketing piece your business may be missing
The importance of domain names in terms of marketing power, SEO best practices, and brand recognition cannot be overstated…..but why? What real-world value does a domain name offer your business? Can’t a free domain name get the job done just as well?
I was asked this question recently by two new clients, both in vastly different types of businesses, but with one thing in common– they were using free domain names from popular CMS website providers, and had been for years. As they were looking to expand their businesses from a part-time gig to a full-time occupation, naturally, they want to start ramping up their efforts at brand development.
As with any development campaign, one of the most important first steps is figuring out where the brand is underperforming, or worse, actively sabotaging its ability to build profit. Typically, this process begins by analyzing the business’ current identity and targeting effectiveness via a digital footprint assessment, so I, as a marketer and designer, can jumpstart the brand’s competitive potential and provide the biggest bang for the client’s buck. One of the first things I suggested was that both clients purchase a domain name.
What is a Domain Name?
A domain name is the human-readable portion of a website’s internet address. It’s sort of a stand-in for the exact numeric address that makes up an IP address. Search engines use the domain name to find your website and display it to users.
Okay, but Why Do I Need to Pay for One?
When you own your own domain name, there are many benefits that come with it. If you only take one thing away from this article, remember that your domain name is the tool consumers use to find you on the internet, and an important way for you to protect and market your business.
When you use a free web domain name, your site’s “name” doesn’t actually belong to you. You can run a long-standing business with the name “Red Threads” and even have a physical storefront with your business’ name, but that doesn’t guarantee you the right to that exact domain name. As far as the DNS is concerned, “redthreads.com” is up for grabs until it’s been reserved and paid for by a user. Anyone can decide they like the traffic you’re getting, and buy it. If you find that someone else already owns the domain name you want, you may still be able to purchase it if you hold an active trademark on your business name. While trademark laws vary by business type and location, generally speaking, if Person Y used the name in question to publicize their brand before Person Z registered the domain, Person Y can typically assert their ownership rights. There are three different tactics you can use to enforce your rights:
- Follow ICANN’s dispute resolution procedure
- File for a trademark infringement lawsuit
- File a cybersquatting lawsuit
It’s important to note that while these methods are legitimate ways to dispute domain name ownership, they are legal procedures, and as with any legal process, it can get expensive and time consuming to reach a resolution. In this case, the saying “it doesn’t hurt to ask” can’t be overstated. Offering to purchase the domain name from the current owner can often yield results much more quickly and cheaply than trying to force them into it. You can figure out who owns the domain you’re looking to buy by performing a simple lookup on the “WHOIS Lookup” database at https://www.whois.net/.
However, be mindful that no one is obligated to sell to you, no matter how much money you offer. One of the most famous examples of stubborn domain name holdouts is Dan Bornstein, a far-thinking programmer who purchased milk.com in 1994. Though various dairy companies and other enterprising users have been trying to get their hands on his domain name for over two decades, Bornstein claims he will never sell for less than $10 million. If the domain you’re after performs well for the current owner, you might be out of luck. Even small businesses typically invest a lot of time and money into publicizing their website, and won’t want to have to start over unless they feel they’ve found something better. If you’re absolutely desperate to have their domain name, do some research first. Demonstrate how a different, (and most importantly, available) domain name would benefit their brand. Finally, you can try and wait for the domain name to expire. Sometimes, the owner will forget to renew it within a certain period of time, and the name will go back on the open market.
The importance of domain names doesn’t just center around proving who owns what site. It’s one of the best ways to develop your branding identity, by telling users what your site is all about even before they see your homepage. In terms of consumer recognition, your domain name carries nearly the same weight as your brand name. So what do you do if the current owner won’t sell and you don’t want to change your business’ name?
This is where alternative domain extensions come in. A .com address is definitely still the gold standard, especially if you want to do business globally, but with competition for domain names becoming more fierce, extension alternatives are going to become more common. Instead of just resigning yourself to choosing a random name or extension, you can actually make the unconventional extension work for you. For example, a friend of mine who runs her own photography business decided to register a domain under the .photography extension instead of .com. Why? Because if someone is unfamiliar with her brand, all they have to do is see the name of her website and they’ll still know that she’s a photographer. This ease of recognition is incredibly valuable for small business owners and large brands alike. Even if you want to stick with less-branded, more ubiquitous extensions like .org or .info, you can still have the domain name of your choice and have an extension that describes your brand. For example:
- Use .us/.ca/.uk if you want a commercial site and wish to market your business to local users
- Use .org if your brand is an for-profit organization or a non-profit charity
- Use .net if your site covers digital subjects or offers digital-only assets like theme downloads
- Use .info if your website is geared towards informational purposes instead of generating revenue
- Use .io if you are a tech start-up (i/0 means “input/output” and is a popular extension within that universe)
Use a branded domain extension like .design/.photography/.blog (etc. etc.) if you want users to understand exactly what your site is about before they log on.
One word of caution- internet users tend to trust sites that look and feel “normal.” The extensions .com and .net are popular because they are familiar. If it’s possible to register under a .com, it’s usually a good idea to make it your first choice, even if you have to change the rest of the domain name to an available variant. Using alternates such as spotspectrumdesign.com vs. your first choice, spotspectrummedia.com, can ensure you get the branding you want with a familiar extension.
One reason marketers are so choosy about the words they use to develop a brand is due to SEO, or “search engine optimization.” SEO is a series of best practices guidelines used to create high value, user-friendly content and interfaces to increase the ranking of a website for certain keywords. The higher the site rank, the more likely Google and other search engines are to show your site to a user who queries words or phrases that deal with your business or products.
For example, if your business sells running shoes, you would want your site to be optimized for words users are likely to search when trying to research and purchase running shoes– so, keywords like “jogging shoes”, “athletic shoes”, “purchase running shoes”, etc. However, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of competition for broad search terms like “running shoes.” A true SEO expert will encourage you to look deeper, to figure out what specific words best describe your brand. If you sell running shoes, but you specialize in narrow-fit, cutting-edge design, you might rather optimize for keywords like “running shoes narrow width”, or “high-end running shoes.” This same idea can carry over to your site’s domain name.
Now, there is still much debate on whether having a keyword in the domain makes a true difference, but most experts agree it does have some bearing on your overall score. However, a keyword-rich domain name won’t make up for a badly designed site that contains no quality content. When choosing your domain name, there are several widely-accepted best practices to keep in mind:
- Relevancy: Try to include at least one word that has something to do with your business. For example, you can name your site after your dog, but if it’s a site about coding, try to include that too. If a user sees rovercoding.com, they still have an idea of what information and services they’ll find on your site.
- Memorability: Keep the name short, easy to type, and easy to remember
- Keyword-balanced: The relevant keywords we mentioned above are important, but don’t go overboard. You typically want to optimize for one particular keyword over three or four. The keywords in your site’s name will match with the keywords typed by a user and typically boost your site higher in the search, so be careful to choose a word or phrase that matters most to your business, as you don’t want your name to be too long.
- Readability: Avoid smushing a long string of words together, like buyblueyarnhere.com. If your name is more than one word and those words are easily mispelled or misread, consider using a hyphen between the words for readability, like knitting-specialists.com. However, do not use more than one hyphen, as search engines tend to mark domains with multiple hyphens as spammy.
Overall, domains with a target keyword can increase click-through rates and consumer trust. However, ever since Google de-prioritized keyword-rich domain names with inferior-quality content, developing a keyword-heavy domain name should not be a greater focus than developing interesting, unique site articles and media.
More Professional Look:
Marketing isn’t just about brand continuity; it’s also about projecting a trustworthy, respectable image to your clients. Not having a dedicated domain name looks unprofessional, which is not the impression you want to leave the people you’re trying to solicit business from. If you’re asking people to trust you with their money, they need to know you’re serious about your business. Committing to a domain name sends that message.
Domains cost approx. $12 per year, so it’s a worthy investment that won’t require much cash.
Monetization and Advertising Freedoms:
Remember earlier in the article, when we talked about ownership? With ownership comes responsibility, but also, freedom. Just like a homeowner has the right to rent out a room to make some extra cash, or refuse to rent a room in favor of privacy, a site owner can decide if they want to generate ad revenue. If you’re using a free site, you’re missing out on these opportunities.
For example, if your brand uses a free domain name from Wix, did you know that Wix is allowed to advertise on your site, and you are not? That is, unless you receive 25k + views per month, which is a large number for a new brand. If you pay for your own domain, you can create revenue from ads– and more importantly, you can control which ads appear on your site. Why the concern over that last bit? The importance of domain names in the advertising world is your ability to keep your site free from the ads of your competitors. That’s right– competitors’ ads can appear on your free site, because you’ll both be competing for the same keywords. Obviously, you don’t want to spend money developing content that ends up hurting your business, nor do you want to lose money by not being allowed to generate ad revenue. And even if you don’t want to put other people’s ads on your site, you can keep your site clean and cohesive with no ads at all. The ability to choose what works best for you is worth the price of ownership.
Uptime and Technical Assistance:
When you purchase a domain name, you don’t have to purchase through a hosting provider– but many site owners do. Why? Hosting providers assume responsibility for keeping your website up and running. A web host maintains the space on a computer server your site’s database needs, and provides a continuous, fast, and secure connection to the internet. Some hosting providers will offer additional security features like hot link protection, which prevents users from stealing your images or content, as well as regular data backups. If your site gets hacked, a good hosting provider can restore your content without you having to worry. Some hosting providers will also remind you when your domain name needs to be renewed, saving you the hassle of trying to get it back if you let it expire.
The Big Picture:
The importance of domain names lies in the value they bring to your marketing strategy and overall brand identity. More than ever, businesses large and small rely on their internet presence to compete.