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Hello (World), My name is…. what really is in a web company name?

Posted on: September 4, 2006


I hope I never think about a company name again. Chao and I have collaborated since way back in 1999, and we’ve never had a single contentious discussion till we butted heads on the topic of company name – and by default association – our URL. It was painful, hugely educational experience. Hopefully this post will summarize just a few of our realizations

Founders instinctually care too much about the name.

Names mean a lot. Names are synonyms for all great things a brand represents. In every job I’ve had, I became proud of that logo on my business cards…

I fooled myself to believe that the killer name will give us a head start to everything great about our brand identity… a name people would want on their business card.

Thanks to a rattle from Chao, I’ve matured to a strong viewpoint that -in a startup context- we expect way too much of our name.

Yes, the name is and always will be a sacred word to us. Sure, it will ultimately be a single-word embodiment of our brand identity, but today, it is just one little tile in the mosaic of brand identity. Here’s the kicker… early on – that mosaic is sparsely populated with just traces of ideas, some alpha code, but no history, no customers, and no passionate community. When you see a mosaic of one tile, you just see one tile – so you want that tile to be shiny, beautiful on it’s own. This is the paradox of a startup naming exercise.

When naming a startup, we need to (and I failed at this) elevate the other parts of our identity– our team, principles, values, innovations. And put blinders on this name thing. Be comfortable with the name, but don’t expect it to somehow embody the existence of the brand you aspire to become.

 

Where’s the value in a URL? Probably mostly in the SEO

 

So here’s the paradox – we will develop our brand identity over time, and grow into any name we choose – but a domain name seems to have instant ramifications. Or does it?

Clearly, the market reflects a strong opinion that domain names matter. I’ve heard the industry has surpassed $2 Billion, and transactions like wiki.com’s recent $3M sale makes this easy to believe. Nonetheless, as I combed through the bone yards of names passed over by legions of squatters, I began to question exactly what strategic value a URL really carries. I found boatloads of propaganda, but almost no compelling analysis. Maybe I didn’t search hard enough.

 

 

By strategic – I mean how does a fancy domain name really cause users to come to your site? And how does it really help them come back? (Caution – I’m nibbling at a broader study of customer acquisition and retention.. which is way beyond scope of any single post).

I now believe that – outside of traffic-driving SEO optimization – a URL is unlikely to be a significant driver of user acquisition or retention. Furthermore, the logical claims of “usability” and “memorability” may be way over-inflated and deserve closer analysis.

SEO does matter. A search-keyword optimized domain name will likely help you GET traffic. Google, etc still factor domain names in organic search keyword relevance, therefore – for the right target segments – it makes sense that you will get users merely because of your URL. It seems to be a fairly well analyzed concept and – if it fits your model – it may rationalize a hefty price. Shoes.com is a great example of this. Bike.com (recently sold for $500k) is another. However, I do wonder if the weight of URL as a factor in search relevance will dilute as search engines continue to refine algorithms with such wizardry as social search, etc. Then again – in a perfect economic context – is paying for a domain akin to bidding on adwords and thereby a fair indicator of transaction-related search relevance?

Now, on to the two other aft-discussed, but (as far as i can tell) unstudied “values” of fancy URL’s.

Claim 1- “A more usable (short, easy to type, phonetic spelling) domain name is it more will make people more likely to come back…” On face, I’m inclined to agree that a 4-letter URL is more “usable” than 5-letter URL…but will it drive retention? Do we truly not come back to a site because typing the URL is a pain? Now that search contributes a vast percentage of quasi-direct navigation, what is the true traffic lost to URL misspellings, or sheer laziness in typing long URL’s?

Claim 2- “People come and come back because the domain is memorable”. This one frustrates me on two levels. First, what REALLY is memorable anyway? Was “eBay” really more memorable than, say “svxx”? Second, even if a particular word/url is more memorable than another – does this truly make someone more inclined to return? What ever happened to users remembering the great experience they had on your site? In August, I ran a little test on our Guiding Voices group (an awesome team of 50 friends, family, and mentors who’ve become a sounding board for our search project) where I flashed all with a list of potential domain names, then at the end of a survey, asked what domains they remembered most. The results were disappointing – there was hardly any consensus amongst the group as to what people remembered most. I would LOVE to see more research on this topic. If someone forgets your exact URL – won’t they just type it into their favorite search engine anyway?

Quickly, I want to cast a quick vote for acronym-driven URLs, which treat the URL more as a phone number than a true brand. VRBO – “Vacation Rentals by Owner” is my favorite example of this. Their NAME is cumbersome, their URL is about as distinctive and memorable as a third-grader’s scribble. Yet the company has absolutely romped their nearest competitor (and a vanity URL owner) Homeaway.com.

 

Finally, are community names different?

Given the extreme levels of stewardship that strong communities take on their service, it could be true that names mean more for a web community. For example, the communities themselves apparently often contemplate the name of their service – I found over a dozen cases where the Yahoo Answers community has asked itself “why is this called Yahoo Answers” . At eBay, i explained Pierre’s “echo Bay story” hundreds of times. Are users proud of eBay the name? Do people think they’re talking to Craig on craigslist? Did they at first?

Sadly, again, I found little research on this topic.

So, where did we land? Perhaps you’ll crack the secret :-)

 

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13 Responses to "Hello (World), My name is…. what really is in a web company name?"

very cool post

Very insightful post here. It does bring up a bunch of topics that could each probably be debated at length. I tend to agree that the brand will end up defining the usability and merit of the url. BUT this connection can be a difficult one if the brand of the company and the url for the company don’t sensibly match.

The example that used to frusturate me the most was when Southwest Airlines didn’t have http://www.southwest.com. I’d have to go look it up and find out that it was http://www.iflyswa.com. That was annoying to me and lowered their credability a small amount since it made me work every time I wanted to fly them. It didn’t keep me from them, but my whole experience with them started out on a frusturating note every time… United’s short url of http://www.ual.com is quick, easy and efficient and makes sense (it’s their parent company name). But I’ll also be able to get to them at their company name http://www.united.com.

To this I would say that if you url is going to be http://www.url.com, then your website/company name should be something close to that.

I agree with RP. Very insightful post.

And after looking up Kikwi (and finding http://research.yale.edu/cgi-bin/swahili/main.cgi?right_frame_src=http%3A//research.yale.edu/cgi-bin/swahili/lookup.cgi%3FWord%3Dkikwi%26EngP%3D0), I like that for a name, too…unless you’re saving it (and the logo) for something else?

Reasons I like it:
-sounds of “wiki”
-Swahili translation
-seems to go with ClipClip

That said, it’s hard to forget URL.

Interesting questions indeed. Your SEO point is dead-on. Chess.com gets between 1500 and 2000 hits daily from just type-in traffic. Uniforms.com gets hundreds as well (they turned down a $500k offer). Frankly I’m shocked bike.com didn’t go for more. Was that an auction price?? I’d be curious to see more examples if you have them.

I’m not sure though if I agree entirely with the conclusions from your VRBO.com example. Another similar one is IMDB.com. I would attribute this to “back in the day” when domains were popularly selected as acronyms, and the fact that IMDB succeeded has more to do with early web momentum than branding. The fact that they survive is due to their ability to deliver the content users wanted, no doubt. But the more interesting question is what would have happened to IMDB if it had the same service under the “movies.com” domain? My thought is that it would have been dramatically more successful. What if Google had been named “bsiw.com” (best search in the world)? I don’t think it would have had the same success.

You can make a great idea succeed on a subpar brand/domain. And you can drive traffic with a premium brand/domain. The combination of the two? Now that is a beautiful thing :)

When naming a startup, we need to (and I failed at this) elevate the other parts of our identity– our team, principles, values, innovations. And put blinders on this name thing. Be comfortable with the name, but don’t expect it to somehow embody the existence of the brand you aspire to become.

Working in the automotive industry I have learned that “branding” is not about the name but what the company itself stands for. Toyota is a great product but if the dealer where you buy your car, get it serviced and go buy your next car isn’t top notch it doesn’t matter if you get 40 miles to the gallon or not. Sustainable success comes about not from the brand that you represent but how you represent your brand.

The idea for auto retail dealers is not simply to be able to roll out cars but to be a dealership that you feel that you would rather switch car brands than purchase somewhere else. When it comes to naming a business it sounds like you nailed what was most important.

OK…what’s in a name? A lot, but only after the name is made or doomed. Initially, there’s really nothing to a name. Let’s be frank; a name at best/worst has connotations merely. (let’s forget about extreme cases like say http://www.stupidboy.com or http://www.sex.com . These ones are sort of way out there). Even yet, a connotation can be debunked after a while. Crash is right — it’s all in the values of the name bearer. For example, why does Shelly sound more or less romantic than Vladkia. Well…firstly, that could be a falsely premised question since it is based on a given view point. You go to Croatia and ask the same question and you get a different reaction from an American audience. What does Google mean? Nothing, but an erroneous expression for multiple zeros. What does “yahoo” mean? Well, it’s got to do with stupidity. But these two are great companies. How did this happen? The answer is this: 1. The buzz 2. The offering. These are the key factors to success in redefining a name (group of words). Remember, a name/url is merely a combination of words, just as is dam, mad, net, ten, tale, late, or ate. So, if you pick a random combination e.g. qaz.com (I got q-a-z from their convenient keyboard locations), it’s still OK if the offering is powerful enough to spread the buzz fast. They key, again, is “what is qaz.com offering that makes it so buzzing?” Think about this: who will forget a site like ojsimpsonmurdertrial.com? It doesn’t matter if it’s long or if it’s 3-lettered. What matters is what it’s about.

So, the memorability of a URL becomes matters most after it has been chosen and used to channel a service. I tell you, even a hypothetical “error.com” could successfully deliver offerings that are all about “accurate facts”

O.O.

[...] With our platform in place, and (of course) a company name settled, September’s focus has been to expand our community. We’re moving beyond just GV’s to build a credible & authentic group of real users. The challenge is to do it discretely – in a secret pre-launch beta site. This way, when we do “launch”, visitors will discover an experience and a real community to search with. [...]

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