There’s thousands of advice posts on picking a domain name; In this post I’ll try to filter down to the few most important ideas, take a quick look at how the interaction between name and market focus work, and share 6 online tools that I found useful in my hunt for Project Y’s URL.

The basics

Let’s start with the obvious traits of a good URL:

  • The shorter the better,
  • Catchy,
  • Easy to spell and pronounce,
  • Be .com if at all possible,
  • Not give some other company cause to sue your startup for trademark infringement,
  • Perfect for your startup now and until it’s larger than Google.

(That last bullet is not going to happen, especially if you fixate on finding the perfect domain name instead of accepting the reality that you’re looking for a good enough solution based on a reasonable amount of time – say 2 hours – spent on this.)

Discoverable or Brandable?

All that is fine, but it’s not enough. Here’s an question from a Smashing Mag post that cuts to the heart of the matter: Discoverable or Brandable? Are you looking for a domain name that has something to do with what your startup will be selling, or are you looking for a word – real or not – that you can build a brand around?

There is no one right answer to this, but I think if you’re building a self-funded startup, a discoverable domain name, a URL that contains or connects to the problem domain you are addressing makes the most sense.

First, your Prime Enemy as self-funded startup is obscurity: literally every decision you make needs to gravitate towards increasing your Internet exposure, reach and discoverability. Second, building a brand takes time, money, and more money. That’s not in the realm of the doable for you if you’re self funding.

If you take a look at some of the best known brand names in tech – Microsoft, Google and Twitter jump to mind – these names connect with the core ideas (software for micro versus minicomputers, a whole lot of something, and incessant, background communication) – they were discoverable long before they became brandable.

So how do you make a startup “discoverable” via just a short character string? Here’s two words that help: metaphor and portmanteau.

  • A good metaphor packs a lot of information, context and emotion into a small useful package. For example, when you see a job posting for a rockstar programmer, they’re not talking about your musical ability, they’re telegraphing they want someone who stands out from the crowd.
  • A portmanteau is a freshly minted term that combines two objects or ideas, for example smog, wikipedia and spork.

Since you’re building a startup, you should be in the business of creating something new. Think about what widely recognized ideas/associations/keywords orbit your solution and its problem, and how you might be able to combine one of those words with the emotional payload of your product.

Domain naming tools

Here’s an assortment of sites you’ll want to open in your browser when you sit down to find your startup’s domain:

  • Domainr – If the perfect .com URL is already owned, what about some top level domain varient like Del.icio.us or bobwal.sh? Domainr makes it easy to find these kinds of URLs, but the easy way out now means a business lifetime of having to explain just how to spell your domain.
  • Domize – While sites abound that will let you perform a quick URL check, I think Domize performs this service without irradiating your eyeballs with dozens of ads. Its ajax-enabled results list is fast and useful, letting you cover more possiblities.
  • Domainsbot – Is a shotgun approach, quickly generating hundreds of variations.
  • Looking for another word that might be less domainized? Check out both VisuWords and VisualThesaurus to help you.
  • My favorite domain-finding tool is the Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary Online – enter a word, like say peg, and see what it actually is – a very handy way (see below) of finding physically related objects that may be less used in domain names, but still on target.

Welcome to the Jason Test!

So how do you test a domain Name? Jason Cohen, serial startup founder and founder of WPEngine.com, has a bit of wisdom that makes testing domain names easy:

What can I tell about your startup just from its domain name?

My twist on this: For your target market, what does that domain name say about your startup? I don’t care what high school students, people studying a language, or premeds trying to swot all that terminology (although I might one day); I want to know working developers and the like think of the domain name.

Asking 5 people “what do you think such-and-such.com does?” is a great way of gauging just how discoverable your name is. Five is what I consider a quick measurement – the more the better. Asking 20 people who are members of your target market what they think your domain name means is a great start down the customer discovery path.

Put it to the test Bob!

Originally, I was thinking Y would be a more general tool than just for developers who need to commit to long term memory massive amounts of knowledge. Repeatedly, I struck out finding a domain name. Interestingly enough, when I decided to narrow this app to a specific market (another post for another day), it got considerably easier to find a good domain name.

Given my working definition of Project Y as a solution for (“online folk who need a streamlined way to get info from the web into their own personal long term memory“) what’s a good URL? Y is about memory and “online folk” primarily developers: bingo! Say hello to DeveloperMemory.com.

As I researched this article, and I was playing around with the various URL tools, I came up with an alternative – membench.com. Specifically, I was checking the Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary Online for the word peg, realized that a peg is both a term often used in memory systems and “a detachable part inserted into one of the openings on the work surface to clamp an object between its jaws.” While memorypeg.com is taken, it led me to memorybench.com (also taken) and then membench.com and memworkbench.com.

Memworkbench.com is good, but it’s too broad for the app I’m doing. (If I were a funded startup bent on revolutionizing the memory capacity of humanity for a small monthly fee, it would definitely work. Go for it if you’re so inclined.)

Wrap it up

Here’s what I’d suggest as a working heuristic for finding your startup’s name in the Internet heavens:

  1. Obey the basic rules of good URL naming,
  2. Isolate the key concepts/markets/associations relevant to your app,
  3. Use fast online tools to check for availability and variations of those concepts and to dig deeper into those concepts looking for more market relevant variations.
  4. Apply the Jason Test: What does your domain name mean to your target market?
  5. Repeat until you have a winner – but don’t waste time trying to find the perfect domain name.

I field tested DeveloperMemory.com with a 5 friends via IM and liked the results. Now it’s your turn:

What do you think developermemory.com is about? Please add your comment!