If you want to market your products and services online, one of the most important initial steps is selecting a domain name.
At a cost of a few bucks a year, the right domain name helps your business develop a recognizable online brand. It promotes name recognition among your customers and keeps them coming back to the right place.
When you set up a standard account with an ISP, you're allocated an e-mail address and, in most cases, a Web site at the ISP's domain; firstname.lastname@example.org and http://www.isp.com/~yourname are common formats. The e-mail address and the URL belong to the ISP, however: If you switch service providers, you have to change both of them.
A domain name that you register and control essentially makes your Web site and e-mail address portable. You get the flexibility of being able to change your hosting service without having to also change your Web and e-mail addresses.
A good domain name should be short and memorable. Some successful sites use coined words, such as ebay.com and youtube.com. Others use a business name, such as microsoft.com. Be cautious when using homonyms or other sound-alike terms. These make it easier for customers to misspell your name and may send them to a competitor's Web site. Also, ensure there are no unfortunate connotations to your prospective domain, such as the ones chosen by celebrity agent lookup service whorepresents.com and mental health professional directory therapistfinder.com.
Dotcom Is Still King
According to the most recent information from VeriSign's Global Registry Services, there are 112 million registered domains. VeriSign, which manages the .com, .net, and several other top-level domains (TLDs), says that .com remains the most popular, accounting for about half the total. The top five TLDs also include .de (the country code for Germany), .net, .uk (United Kingdom), and .org.
In general, as long as a domain name hasn't been registered by someone else, you can register it. There are some exceptions, such as reserved names. For example, .com domains beginning with "bq--" are reserved to support foreign language Internationalized Domain Names.
I recommend against trying to register a trademark that belongs to another business, or a celebrity name (even one that hasn't been registered). The trademark owner or celebrity could make a good case to get ownership of the domain at an arbitration hearing.
An English-language domain name isn't case-sensitive--meaning that a browser will not distinguish between upper- and lower-case characters in a URL--and can include letters, numbers, and hyphens. No spaces or punctuation marks are permitted. Some TLDs have additional restrictions, such as residency requirements for many country code TLDs.
You can check to see if a domain name is available by looking it up in a whois database. Domain Tools offers a free and easy-to-use whois lookup service for several popular TLDs. If you need help coming up with a name, use this site's domain suggestion tool. It's particularly useful if you're struggling to find a good .com domain that is still available.
Acquiring a Domain
You can register a domain name with a domain registrar. ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) maintains a directory that lists hundreds of accredited registrars. Annual costs to register a domain are set by each registrar, but are typically US$35 or less for a .com domain.
If you like a domain name but a whois lookup says it's already taken, you can offer to purchase control of it from the current registrant. You'll need to negotiate a mutually acceptable price, and for a good domain name this will likely be far more than the registration cost.
If you want to find out more about domain names, you can visit the very active domain discussion forum at NamePros.com. Free registration is required.