The definitive guide to choosing, and registering, the right domain name for your business.
Domain names are one of the foundational building blocks of human-computer interaction. They present a unique challenge to businesses thanks to their inherent duality: they are both a brand asset with personal and cultural associations, and they are a unique identifier of a (digital) location.
There are pros and cons to choosing a domain name before, after, or at the same time as a business name. If you are registering a domain name for an existing brand identity, then your options are considerably narrower. On the other hand, an established starting point can introduce much-needed clarity to the process.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the steps to register the right domain name for your business.
What Is a Domain Name?
Every human being has a unique DNA sequence. You, your mother, the person who sold you your coffee this morning, the last person to fall in love with you, your school bully, are all genetically unique. It is theoretically possible to refer to each other using our genomes. However, it is far, far more practical to allocate a chosen name.
Similarly, every server on the internet has an IP (Internet Protocol) address. An IP address consists of a string of numbers separated by dots, for example, 220.127.116.11
Because human beings have poor numerical recall, but excellent language recall, we use domain names as a shorthand for IP addresses. When a domain name is propagated around the web, servers learn to direct traffic that requests a particular domain name, to a particular IP address.
The Anatomy of a Domain Name
For the purposes of registering a domain name, there are two parts to consider.
The first part is the domain extension, or TLD (Top Level Domain). In the case of this site, the TLD is .com. There are a growing number of extensions available, and the one you choose will have a substantial impact on how your brand is perceived.
The second part is the SLD (Second Level Domain). The SLD is an alpha-numerical phase, between 2 – 64 characters. (Analphabetic characters including acutes, and tildes, are forbidden.) You may use a hyphen [more on that below].
There is a final element of a domain name to be aware of: subdomains.
Subdomains prefix the SLD. For example store.webzagger.com or help.webzagger.com. Or even, www.webzagger.com.
Subdomains only need to be unique to their domain name. Subdomains are not registered, they are created by the hosting service you point your domain to.
How to Choose a Domain Name
The first obstacle when selecting the right domain name for your business is the availability of the domain name.
In Latin-based languages, we write left to right, and our thought process tends to follow that pattern; most people will think of a domain name, then check which domain extensions are available for it. A more effective approach is to begin by selecting the right extension, and then choose a domain name that is available.
Always begin by selecting the right domain extension.
Which Domain Extensions Should I Register?
Ideally, for a commercial company register a .com, for a non-profit register both a .org and the matching .com.
.com has become short-hand for websites, to the extent that many app keyboards include a ‘.com’ button. The power of a good .com is such that it is far preferable to compromise the domain name, than it is to register the perfect domain name with a weaker extension.
However, the web is running out of .coms and .orgs, and there are dozens of domain names that may suit niche cases.
Should I Register a Regional Domain Extension?
Originally, TLDs were all gTLDs (Generic Top Level Domains). As part of the ongoing expansion of domain names, ccTLDs (Country Code Top Level Domains) were introduced.
ccTLDs are intended for use by a specific country or region. For example in the domain name example.co.uk, the ‘co.uk’ is a ccTLD.
In some territories, regional domain extensions are more recognised than in others. For example, .de is widely recognised in Europe as a site that is likely to be published in German, or be specifically targeted at German residents.
The downside to registering a ccTLD is that you are restricted to a single territory. A .co.uk for example, will not aid your expansion into global markets.
In most cases, regional domain extensions are best left to multi-nationals, who can register a dedicated domain for every territory they operate in.
Should I Register a .co or .biz Domain Extension?
In an attempt to satisfy the demand for domain names, and the rapidly decreasing number of available .coms, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) approved the introduction of .co and .biz.
These domains, and others like them, are rarely worthwhile. Your chosen domain extension communicates a lot to your customers, and in the case of .co or .biz what you’re communicating is that the .com was, for whatever reason, out of your grasp.
If the .com is unavailable, then registering a .co or .biz as an alternative puts you into direct competition with a .com at an immediate disadvantage.
Should I Register a Pun Extension?
It is sometimes tempting to register a gimmicky name, to which some extensions naturally lend themselves. In English, the most notorious are .it and .in, as in buy.it or buy.in. It’s largely thanks to these wits that Italy and India are running out of domain names sooner than anticipated.
You should never do this. Misusing regional domain extensions in this way will play havoc with your local SEO, because algorithms have no sense of humour.
The only exception is when a particular domain extension is widely recognised within an industry. For example, many software projects use .io because it looks like a 1 and a 0 (a reference to binary code). If you are going to take this route, be certain all of your prospective audience is in on the joke.
Should I Register a Niche Domain Extension?
There are some hyper-specific domain extensions that are excellent, provided you’re aware of how they might restrict your ambitions.
The web design agency I run uses a .design extension. That communicates far more about the nature of the business than a .com would, and my customers tend to be more educated about the web than the average user.
However, remember that these domains, like regional domains, can paint you into a corner. For example, .luxury may appear to be the ideal domain extension for a fashion label, but .clothing is more in line with the changing needs of an agile business.
How Many Domain Extensions Should I Register?
Whether you register a single domain, or a hundred, is largely a question of budget. If you have unlimited resources, then there is no technical downside to registering multiple domain extensions.
However, you’re unlikely to recoup the cost of such exuberance.
If you have a substantial budget, you are far better to register one good domain and plough the remaining funds into promoting it.
Once you’ve chosen a domain extension, abide by your decision. The reason I advise clients to choose a domain extension first is that once you begin to search for names, the temptation to compromise is too great.
In the vast majority of cases, the best domain extension to register is a .com (or a .com and .org) — even if it means the SLD is compromised — because it communicates a degree of credibility that other domains do not match.
Which Domain Name Should I Register?
At this stage, it is important to accept that no domain name starts out as perfect.
Certainly, some domain names start out better than others, but all domain names acquire their value over time as a result of marketing, and user experience.
Instead of trying to find the perfect domain name, register a domain that has the potential to become perfect.
You need a domain name that doesn’t limit your business model, and that you’re not going to be embarrassed by. Think of a domain name as a tattoo: you’ll see it every day, it will become part of your identity, and changing or removing it is both expensive and painful.
Should I Register a Domain Name With Keywords?
SEO should be one of the primary concerns of any site owner because it drives organic traffic (users that don’t come from paid advertising) delivering the best return on investment possible.
SEO still relies — although decreasingly so — on keywords in your content. Consequently, you’ll find plenty of advice online that you should work keywords into your domain; there are several compelling reasons that you should discount that advice.
Firstly, it is inevitable that your keywords will change over time as you pivot your business to adapt to new markets and opportunities. Even if your business remains unchanged, your industry almost certainly will not.
Secondly, it is well-established that domain names containing keywords are seen as generic, budget options. Generic naming is less memorable because it matches a search term — users may recall the search, they won’t remember your site in the results.
Finally, search engines are primed to begin penalising domain names that make excessive use of keywords. Just as EMDs (Exact Match Domains) are no longer beneficial to search rankings, the SEO value of keywords in a domain name is negligible.
Unless you’re registering a domain for a short-lived project, domains containing keywords are risky, and ineffective.
Should I Buy a Premium Domain Name?
Premium domains are domain names that someone — colloquially referred to as a domain squatter — has registered speculatively in the hope of reselling at a substantial markup.
Like all speculative investors, domain squatters have no way of knowing what domain names are going to be desirable, so they bulk-buy domains with common words and phrases in the hope of attracting a sale. The enormous wastage means domain squatters are forced to charge huge fees in order to realise a profit.
Buying a premium domain from a premium marketplace will cost anywhere between 1,000%–100,000% of the actual registration cost. (It’s a one-time fee, with reregistration being charged at a registrar’s normal rate.) No domain is so effective that the cost would not be better allocated to marketing or advertising.
Price aside, second-hand domains often come with legacy problems like a toxic domain authority score, or a search engine black-listing.
There are virtually no circumstances under which I would ever advise a business to buy a premium domain.
Should I Register Misspellings of My Domain Name?
If there are clear and obvious misspellings of your domain name, then you should register them if you can. The misspelt domains can forward traffic to your primary domain, so you don’t lose customers.
A common misspelling to register is the plural of your domain name, because users often erroneously add an s to domains, typing examples.com instead of example.com.
It is a fact of global business, that some people use correctly different spelling. The most obvious example being American-English omitting u from colour. There are simply more speakers of American-English, so if you’re operating globally, the American spelling should be your first priority. However, if you’re avoiding keywords in your domain as you should be, this is less likely to be an issue.
You shouldn’t feel the need to register every possible misspelling. For example, “macintosh.com” might justifiably register “mcintosh.com” but registering “macingtosh.com” would be unnecessarily cautious.
Ideally, register a domain name that is not easily misspelt.
Domain Name Best Practices
At the time of writing, there are around 400 million registered domain names, and the total is growing exponentially.
Not all of those 400,000,000 addresses have been successful, but by examining those that have, web professionals have established a set of best practices for domain names.
Make Your Domain Name Flexible
First and foremost, it’s vital that your chosen domain name is flexible enough to encompass your ambition.
Don’t build keywords into your domain name, and don’t limit yourself to a specific market, or niche.
Keep Your Domain Name Short
It is generally accepted that six to twelve characters, and between two and four syllables (excluding the domain extension) is the sweet spot. Yes, webzagger.com hits the nail on the head.
Short means simple. Short domains are easier to remember, and because they require fewer keystrokes, are less likely to be mistyped — the latter is especially important on mobile devices.
There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that some types of user infer greater quality from a short domain because the organisation is deemed to either have been an early digital adopter, or have the buying power to secure a short domain.
Ensure Your Domain Name Is Memorable and Recognizable
The core function of a domain name is to act as a memorable alias for an IP address. The domain name itself should be memorable.
Speak your domain out loud. Does it trip off the tongue? Does it have a musical rhythm that aids memory?
Choose A Brandable Domain Name Over a Generic Domain Name
A brandable domain is a name that is unique, or at least unique to its market. Compare google.com (brandable) with search.com (generic).
There are many posited reasons for brandable domains outperforming generic names, but the most persuasive is tied to memory.
The human brain registers the unexpected and unusual. You probably can’t remember yesterday’s breakfast, but you probably can remember your wedding breakfast.
When you search for a keyword, the keyword is already in your mind. Finding a domain containing the keyword is not unexpected, and so while you may recall the search, you are less likely to remember the domain.
Avoid Slang Terms in Domain Names
One of the key qualities of a slang term is that it has a short life span.
Ageing is a victory, something that happens to us all if we’re lucky. But often it’s a process we’re not conscious of; most of us feel more in touch than we actually are.
The use of slang is rooted in a time and a (youth) culture. Unless you want your domain name to be transitory, avoid slang.
Domain Names Should Be Easy to Communicate
Verbal referrals are still one of the most powerful ways of building a business. As such, domain names that are simple to pronounce, and spelt phonetically, are ideal. In the industry, this is known as the radio test; if your domain is name-checked on the radio — or more likely these days, a podcast — is it easy to understand.
Domain names that are easy to pronounce are more impactful due to a mental principle called processing fluency; the less effort involved in understanding a domain name, the more likely we are to remember it.
Do Not Use Hyphens in Domain Names
For many years, hyphens were considered a legitimate character in a domain name, and although they are still officially supported — the nature of backwards compatibility means they will probably always be supported — you should never register a domain name containing a hyphen.
There is no way to pronounce a hyphen, other than “hyphen” or “dash” which elongates and complicates your carefully selected domain name, impacting memorability.
Additionally, search engines are beginning to treat domain names with hyphens as potentially spammy, and may penalise their ranking accordingly.
Do Not Use Numbers in Domain Names
Avoid including numbers in domain names, unless you want to spend the rest of your working life saying, “the number, not the word.”
If you must register a domain with a number — if, for example, a number is part of your brand name — try to register the word variation as well. For example, cloud9.com would aim to also register cloudnine.com.
Avoid Blocks of Letters in Domain Names
Avoid domain names that group letters together in a block. For example, dressstyle.com is likely to have an s missed out, and be entered as dresstyle.com, losing traffic in the process.
Make Your Domain Name Mobile Friendly
In the past few years, many sites have found their traffic migrating from desktop machines to mobile devices. On average, mobile traffic now exceeds desktop traffic. This introduces two main consequences for domain names.
Firstly on mobile, the hyphen character is hidden and harder to access, and longer names are more difficult to type.
Secondly, users are more likely to have auto-correct enabled on mobile. If your domain is a slight misspelling of a common term, you may find yourself losing a lot of traffic.
Ignore Social Media
Don’t discount a domain name simply because the handle is unavailable on social media platforms.
The business value of social media varies from company to company, and even if social media is essential to your business model, there are marketing strategies that will solve username availability issues.
The social media landscape is likely to change over the course of your business’ life, and one service should not dictate your identity. Yes, Facebook is huge, but then so was the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Carry Out Due-Diligence
When you’re considering a domain name, research it thoroughly. Write it out. Write out the syllables. Show it to your partner, your friends, your parents, your children.
Search for it online. Run the syllables through a translation tool to check you aren’t registering something offensive in a foreign language — especially if there’s the slightest chance you’ll be operating in a territory that uses a language other than your own.
Check If Your Domain Name is Copyrighted or Trademarked
There is a common misconception that a company has an automatic right to a domain name simply because it holds a partially matching trademark or copyright. If there were any truth to that, domain extensions would be redundant, because every SLD would be unique by necessity.
There are plenty of justifiable reasons for holding a domain that someone else makes claim on, from prior art, to operating in an unrelated industry, but do you really want to expend the legal costs involved in making that case?
Legal entanglements aside, it’s not wise to be competing on search engines with a more established company.
(Different jurisdictions make and apply laws differently. However, it is commonly the case that if the SLD you are registering is not trademarked at the time of registration, then any future trademark would be invalid for reasons of prior art.)
Check If Your Domain is Carrying a Penalty
Occasionally you will find a domain that has previously been registered, used for a less than savoury purpose, and then dropped when it became toxic.
Run a check on archive.org to see if the domain name has ever been registered. This will tell you what it was used for, and if it’s carrying any potential issues.
How Do I Register a Domain Name?
You cannot buy a domain name, you only ever rent it. You pay a fee to a registrar, or an intermediary, who will register the domain on your behalf.
The fees involved vary from registrar to registrar, based on the type of domain extension and the number of years you want to register for. A .com will normally cost around £7.50 ($10, or €8.50) per year.
Once you reach the end of the registration period, you’ll need to renew by paying the fee again. As the registered holder of the domain, you’ll have first refusal on the registration when it comes time to renew.
Can I Register a Domain Name Myself?
You can, and should register a domain name yourself. It is an essential business asset and you should control it with the same iron grip normally reserved for your credit card.
The process is simple, the only real risk is getting trigger-happy and blowing the annual budget on too many extensions.
How Long Should I Register a Domain Name For?
Normally, domains are registered annually, for anything from one to ten years.
There’s no benefit to registering for a longer period, except that some domain name registrars offer a discount for doing so.
Should I Buy Hosting Space With My Domain Name?
Unless you have had extensive discussions with a qualified developer, or you have sufficient technical knowledge yourself to identify a technology stack, do not buy hosting space with your domain name.
A decision about hosting is best made strategically, in consultation with your developer, who can pinpoint precisely what technologies, scale, and security measures are required for your project.
Your domain does not need to be registered with the same company that will provide your web hosting.
Should I Buy Domain Privacy With My Domain Name?
Domain privacy is a way of anonymising your details, so that private information, such as your phone number, is not published online.
It is always a good idea to buy privacy protection when you register a domain. It is especially important if you have yet to acquire business premises and you are using your home address for the registration.
I’ve Registered a Domain Name, What Should I Do Now?
Congratulations. Registering a domain name is the first step in a journey that will hopefully be both rewarding, and affirming.
Before you start thinking about building your website, there are a few things you should take care of to safeguard your domain name.
Should I Lock My Domain Name?
Domain locking prevents a domain name from being transferred away to another provider, and out of your control. Most registrars will automatically lock your domain as soon as it is registered so that it cannot be transferred away without your permission.
As a precaution, reach out to the registrar’s support team and ask them to verify that your domain is locked.
Should I Auto-Renew My Domain Name?
Yes, unequivocally. At some point — be it a year, two years, or ten years — your domain name registration will expire. Make sure you set your domain name to auto-renew so that it isn’t released back onto the market at the end of the registration period.
Your registrar will be happy to help you set this up — most enable it by default — after all, you’re promising them future business. Make sure you keep a valid credit card on file with them so you can be billed when the time comes.
As the renewal date approaches you should get emails reminding you. Provided the auto-renewal is enabled, you can ignore the emails.
Should I Verify My Domain Registration?
The RAA (Registrar Accreditation Agreement) requires registrars to verify some information about you, most commonly your contact details.
This verification frequently comes in the form of an email, commonly a few days after a domain is registered. The email normally contains a link to click to verify your identity.
It is never a good idea to click links in unsolicited email, but in this case you have no choice; if you do not follow the expected verification process the registration will be deleted.
If you’re uneasy about the verification, reach out to your registrar who will confirm whether the email is genuine.