Startup 1.5. Naming Your Website—Finding a Domain Name

Shoestring Venture: The Startup Bible (1st Edition)Coming up with name for your company and matching it to an available Web site URL is getting harder every day. The process of naming your company and Web site can devolve into a long, frustrating, and potentially expensive process. Even after a ton of work and frustration, you may end up with a Web site domain name that is sub-optimal or, worse, paying through the nose for the domain name you do want. Before you become attached to a business name, you need to go through the following process to secure a good domain name for your Web site:

  1. Check the WHOIS database (see 1.5.1 below) through a domain name registrar or reseller to find out if a domain name is available. You may need to try several different versions of your name.
  2. If your domain name, or one that is reasonably close, is available, register your domain name at a domain name registrar.
  3. If the name is not available, check to see if it is owned by a legitimate business or is being held by a “ domain name investor” (called a “ squatter”) who will sell you the domain at feloniously inflated prices.
  4. If it is owned by a legitimate business, you can make an offer directly to the owner. Non-squatters typically buy domain names that they intend to use but never get around to it. These owners are typically very reasonable when they sell domain names. However, if the domain name is attached to an ongoing Web presence, it may be impossible to acquire.
  5. If it is owned by a squatter or squatter company, your best bet is to go to a domain name marketplace or hire an online brokerage service. While these brokerage services often take a percentage commission on the sale, they are usually set up to negotiate the owner to lower prices. Most squatters are willing to take a lower fee for a domain name transfer; their first quote is typically 100% to 400% higher than the price they’re willing to take.

All URLs have three parts: a top-level domain name, a domain name, and a subdomain name. For instance, in the URL, “www.shoestringventure. com,” “.com” is the top-level domain, “shoestringventure” is the domain, and “www” is the subdomain. All three can be part of your online name. For instance, if you are a for-profit business, you will want “.com” as your toplevel domain, since that top-level domain name signals a for-profit business Web site. You will want your domain name to be something identical to or reasonably close to your company name. You register your domain and top-level domain name with a domain name registrar. You create a subdomain, however, with your hosting service. Subdomains are created by adding a directory to your Web site and directing the server to treat it like a subdomain. For instance, my top level Web site has the subdomain “www,” but my online portfolio is “”

When searching for a domain name, you must include a top-level domain, like “.com.” There are five common top-level domains: .com, .org, .net, .edu, and .gov. The last two are directly assigned by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the international nonprofit organization that actually assigns domain names, and they only go to legitimate educational (.edu) and government (.gov) organizations. Some top-level domain names are actually country names, such as .de for Germany and .ca for Canada. There are also a number of commercial top-level domains that are administered by private companies, such as .us, .biz, .info, and .tv (which is really a country name for the tiny, computer-challenged country of Tuvalu). These often can be purchased at half or less the price of a common top-level domain, except for .tv which sells at a significant premium over all other top-level domains. You should follow three general rules-of-thumb when choosing a top-level domain name:

  1. If available, you should choose a .com name before any other. All common browsers are set up to automatically add the .com to any address if a user types in the name alone. If a user types “business” in the address bar, the browser will load “”
  2. If available, you should choose a common top-level domain name (.com, .org, or .net) over any of the commercial names.
  3. Commercial top-level domain names should be your last resort and you should choose one of the more common commercial names (.biz, .info, or .tv) before any others.

You may also consider buying up other top-level domains to help drive traffic to your site or prevent others from using your domain name. For instance, if you manage to land the domain, “,” you should also snap up “” and “” to prevent anyone else from horning in on your territory. You should also consider buying misspellings if and only if there’s a reasonable chance that this will drive traffic to your site. For instance, “” can easily be misspelled as “,” so it would be relatively cheap and easy to snag the folks who haven’t nailed the “i” before “e” rules. But don’t get carried away; you don’t need to register “”; not only is it nearly impossible that someone will go so far astray, but in the off-chance someone does, you may not want their business.

1.5.1 WHOIS

WHOIS is the database of registered domain names kept by ICANN. No matter where you register your domain name, it will eventually end up in the WHOIS database. Each record within the WHOIS database has a “handle” (a unique identifier assigned to it), a name, a record type, and various other fields. WHOIS provides a means to search for domain names using these specific fields. WHOIS search results give you registration and expiration dates, contact information (if public) for the registrant and, if available, a thumbnail of the Web site home page with traffic ranking, meta descriptions, keywords, and more. WHOIS contains domain name registrations across all possible top-level domains.

There is no WHOIS Web site, but you can search the WHOIS database from any of the domain name registrars listed below. All of them give full registration information and allow you to do searches simply to determine if a domain name is open or not.


Not everything that calls itself WHOIS (like,, or whois. net) is WHOIS. Nor does every WHOIS search you see online actually search the WHOIS database. Your best way to access WHOIS is to go to one of the three domain name registrars below.

1.5.2 Domain Name Registrars— Network Solutions, Dotster, GoDaddy

  1. Network Solutions Network Solutions is the oldest and most reputable seller of domain names. The Network Solutions site allows you to quickly search the availability of a name, search WHOIS, and register your domain name if it is available. It is, however, the priciest domain registry service and charges $34.99 per year to register a domain with a common top-level domain name (.com, .org, or .net). Network Solutions also offers a number of other services, such as certificates and Web site design, but you will almost certainly use the site only for domain name registration.
  2. Dotster : For many years, Network Solutions had a monopoly on domain name registrations because of a special arrangement with ICANN. When ICANN opened up domain name registration to other companies, Dotster was one of the first to offer lowerpriced registration. It has grown into a highly reputable company whose Web site allows you to search domain names, search the full WHOIS database, and register and manage your domain names. Unlike Network Solutions, Dotster charges a maximum of $15 per year to register a name with a common top-level domain (.com, .org, .net). Like Network Solutions, Dotster offers a variety of Web services including secure certificates.
  3. GoDaddy There are dozens of domain name sellers and thousands of resellers, but the only low-price domain name seller that enjoys a high reputation is GoDaddy. This company offers all the same services on its site as Network Solutions and Dotster, but domain name registration with common top-level names sell for a maximum of $10 per year.
  4. Bulk Register In addition to the registration sites above, there are sites that allow you to “ bulk register” a pile of domain names all at once; Network Solutions, GoDaddy, and Dotster only allow you to register names one at a time. You, as a small business, may find little use for bulk registration—the services are designed for squatters, brand managers, corporations, and marketing professionals—but your small business may require securing a large number of names. Bulk Register is one of the premier services for bulk registration and offers tools for managing the large domain name portfolios that bulk registrations require. In contrast, the Web tools offered by Network Solutions, GoDaddy, and Dotster are designed for small domain name portfolios. Bulk Register charges a yearly fee ($99) to use its services and charges a minimum of $12 per year for top-level domains.
  5. Hit Farm Hit Farm offers services for both bulk registration and small domain name portfolios. Hit Farm is specifically oriented to domain name owners that wish to monetize unused domains, for instance, by using them as ad pages. The service includes tools and reports specifically geared to maximizing revenues from parked domains.

1.5.3 Domain Name Brokers and Marketplaces

If you find that the domain name you need is owned by someone else, then you may want to consider a domain name transfer. This is a simple transaction in which the owner of a domain name gives you the authorization to transfer the domain name into your name. Authorization typically involves an authorization code that you use to contact the domain name registrar.

This being an imperfect world, there’s a catch. More often than not, the owner of the domain name will want a pile of cash. Since the imperfection of the world runs even deeper, a lot of folks register domain names only to generate piles of cash from the people who could actually use those domain names.

There are numerous organizations and individuals, called squatters, who park domain names in order to sell them; these parked domain names are usually called “online real estate.” They try to figure out which domain names people and businesses are going to want, buy these domain names, and hope that someone somewhere will pay a premium to own these domain names. In other words, squatters are more or less domain name speculators. This means that you will always pay a ridiculously high price for a domain name that’s already been registered, whether it’s owned by a legitimate business that intends to use the domain name or owned by a squatter looking for an easy payday. You will typically pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to assume a domain name from a registered owner.

Most squatters sell online real estate through brokerage services run by popular domain name registrars. Since purchasing a domain name from anyone, legitimate or squatter, involves negotiation, you should consider a brokerage service before you consider contacting the owner directly. All domain name squatters will initially offer to sell the domain name at a price two to five times higher than the price they’re willing to take, so you often save big by letting a negotiator do the dealing. (And, if you contact the squatter first before going to a domain name broker, you’re signaling to the squatter that the domain name may be popular, thus raising the price floor on the name!)

Keep in mind the distinction between a domain name broker and a domain name marketplace; these terms are often used—wrongly—as if they meant the same thing.

  1. Domain name broker : A domain name broker is just like a real estate broker. The broker represents the buyer or the seller and provides a market value appraisal of the domain name and negotiates with the other party to maximize the value for the party it represents. A buyer’s broker tries to negotiate the lowest possible price; a seller’s broker tries to negotiate the highest possible price.
  2. Domain name marketplace : Most “ brokers” are actually marketplaces. These sites allow sellers to list domain names they have for sale and buyers to look for domain names—a kind of domain name classifieds. These sites will often mediate the negotiations between buyers and sellers by allowing them to communicate and negotiate through the site, but that’s the extent of their “ brokerage” services. Some marketplace companies do sell brokerage services and will help you track down domain name owners even if they’re not registered on the site.


Be careful about the fee structure that brokers charge; most typically charge a percentage commission on the sale price of the domain name. That means that it’s in their best interest to close sales at the highest possible price, which conflicts with your goal of getting the lowest possible price. If they charge a flat fee, then they’re motivated to spend as little time working on the negotiation as possible and typically have upper limits on the amount of time they’ll dedicate to the project. There is no perfect world out there in the jungles of domain name transfers!

  1. : is a marketplace of domain names sold by a variety of companies and sellers. A huge number of squatters put their domain names up for sale on Sedo. You search the site, find a domain you want, contact the seller, and negotiate the price online. If a domain name is not registered in their marketplace, Sedo will initiate contact with the owner to mediate the transaction. Sedo takes a flat fee of $69 for mediating domain name transactions through their Web site.
  2. BuyDomains : BuyDomains is another marketplace where sellers put their domain names up for sale; unlike Sedo, they do not contact sellers if the domain name is not in their marketplace. BuyDomains charges sellers a yearly fee and a percentage commission on each sale; these costs, of course, are passed on to you by the seller even though the site is “free” for buyers. Expect to pay $200 or more in pass-through fees for a domain name.
  3. Impressive Domains : Impressive Domains is another marketplace where squatters and others list domain names they’re offering for sale. In addition, they offer market value domain name appraisals for sellers and negotiating services. Although “free” to buyers, the site charges sellers a 10% selling commission on the final domain name transfer price. Smart sellers, of course, figure in this commission when deciding on a final price, meaning they usually pass the cost on to the buyer.
  4. Website Broker : This domain name marketplace allows domain name sellers to list domain names and provides an online transaction service to mediate the sale and transfer of domain names. Website Broker also offers brokerage services, that is, you can hire the company to represent you in a negotiation with a seller. The site typically charges a percent commission on the sale whether it represents the buyer or seller.

1.5.4 Web 2.0 Name Generator

All of the above are valuable resources for getting the domain name you would like, but what about actually generating a new and interesting domain name? What if your Web site is your entire business? The Web 2.0 name generator by Jacqueline Hamilton will spit out clever name combinations for as long as you can stand it—and will helpfully link to Dotster to check availability.

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