A Website By Any Other Name

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All the good domain names are taken.

It’s a refrain I hear constantly — and that I say myself on a regular basis. But there’s also a counter that I hear on a regular basis: domain names don’t matter now, because no one types a domain name into the address bar. We all click links, since we constantly have web-enabled devices at hand.

Does Traffic Really Come Only from Search and Links?

Longer domain names are harder to remember and harder to type into an address bar correctly. There’s no dispute about that fact. But the argument that most people click links to navigate the web may be a reflection of the echo chamber: certainly most people who are technically savvy and obsessively plugged in navigate that way a fair percentage of the time.

But we’re talking about a fairly small percentage of the population — it’s the percentage most likely to buy domain names, but not nearly the only people who use them. Outside of the technically savvy echo chamber, there are plenty of people who go online every day and type in each address of each website that they visit every day in succession. Some people will type those domain names into a search box. I regularly watch certain relatives open up their web browser and type ‘gmail.com’ into the search box on whatever pre-bookmarked home page came set up with the computer.

You can’t make assumptions about how people will access your website before you’ve even built it. Even if you know your audience fairly well, there are always surprises when it comes to how some people will interact with the internet.

You might even be surprised by your own habits, if you’re prepared to invest a little time paying attention to them. How often are you chatting with a friend and she mentions a website you want to look up? You might try to make a note of the domain name, type it in on your phone or even trust your memory to trot it out again later. Even if you have a smartphone or even a laptop, you’re going to have to get that friend to carefully spell out the domain name if there’s anything even a little unexpected about it.

Do You Want to Wind Up Competing for Your Brand in Search Results?

The whole process of accessing a website you’re hearing about for the first time can be involved. I’ve had plenty of encounters where people have suggested “Just Google me.” The suggestion has been less than useful, on occasion, when I’ve had to sort through several people with similar names to find the one who clearly does what I’m interested in. Sure, you might be on the first page of search results, but that’s not good enough when you’re suggesting searching as the easiest way to find you.

But what honestly scares me is that if you’re using a brand that you haven’t been able to secure the .com domain name for, the odds are very good that someone else out there is using a similar (if not identical brand). It’s tough enough to compete with people who are offering the same sort of service or product — adding in a level of competition with companies with the same name is just adding an unnecessary burden to your work. Whether that work is more or less effort than finding a fairly unique domain name is a question that you have to answer each time you purchase a new domain name.

There isn’t a lot of hard research on how .coms perform versus other top level domains; I’m going off of anecdotal evidence for the most part. I’d love to run an experiment on this question, though I’m struggling a bit with the experimental design: comparing two sites with different content or different readers is a bit like comparing apples and oranges.

What About All Those Shiny New Domain Names Coming Soon?

My husband is excited about the new top-level domain names. He hasn’t been able to get the .com version of his name, but he’s confident he can grab the .phd domain name. Given that he has that credential, he likes the idea of showing it off as soon as someone looks at his website.

Users have become somewhat more acclimatized to different top-level domains over the past couple of years, especially as companies have found interesting ways to make a domain name match with their company name. There’s still a huge audience that will trip over using any domain name that doesn’t end in .com. However, you can hold out some hope that as big companies back alternative domains (Google is planning to have .google domain names, for instance), more users will become adept at recognizing that a website’s address doesn’t always end with .com. There won’t be an overnight improvement, though.

I’m not necessarily willing to bet on that shift moving fast enough, either. Getting something that I’ve bother to put online in front of an audience is important to me; more often than not, I put up websites with the intention of earning a profit from them. Hoping that a prospective visitor can figure out the difference between a .net and a .com — or any of the many other options out there — is a big risk. If I’m confident of the audience’s abilities to search or I know that they live in that same bubble that I do (where we don’t even use paper!), the risk is reduced. It’s still there, though, making me nervous.

What about you? Do you or would you use a domain name that doesn’t end in .com?

Image by Flickr user Grey Hargreaves

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