In this day and age, it's essential for your small business to have a solid web presence. If you don't have a website that's easy to find and remember, people are probably not going to find you or know where to reach you. According to market research firm Blue Corona, 70% to 80% of people reach a company online before visiting it in person or making a purchase, and 97% of people go online when searching for a local business or service.
An important aspect of your business's internet home is its web address, also known as its domain name. With some forethought and a little research, you can come up with a strong web address that will lead new and recurring customers back to your company. However, coming up with a domain name is only half the issue; you also need to know how and where to buy it.
What is a domain name?
A domain name is the combination of letters and other characters that you type into the address bar to reach a website. If you were to think of the internet as a massive city spanning the entire globe, your domain name – otherwise known as a web address or URL – would be your business's virtual mailing address.
Just as your mailing address could be considered shorthand for the exact coordinates of your home, your company's domain name is shorthand for the website's exact IP address. Anything you type into your web browser's address bar that ends with a top-level domain (TLD), or domain extension – such as .com, .org, .net or any of the myriad other options – is considered a domain name.
How to choose a domain name
It may be helpful to think of your URL as your company's digital signpost, but it's more than that. For many new and recurring customers, your domain name is the jumping-off point for how they interact with your brand. Plenty of big-name companies leverage their domain name to help sell their brand. Just as your social media presence is an extension of your company, so too is your domain name.
Make sure it's available and not trademarked.
It's never a good feeling when you decide on the perfect domain name, only to find out it's already in use. There are plenty of tools online – such as Instant Domain Search, WHOis.net and ICANN – that can help you determine if a URL is unregistered. In fact, many domain sellers have tools that allow you to check if the URL you want is available and, if it is, quickly make a purchase.
You also need to consider whether your business's name is already trademarked. While this is an issue you should have addressed when choosing an overall name for your brand, you should do it at this stage as well.
Consider your domain extension.
How your web address ends is just as important as the portion that comes after "www." Though there are scores of TLDs currently in use, just over 22% of all registered domains use ".com," making it the most widespread and understood extension on the web.
"The .com is always the way to go," said Samantha Phillips-Varneke, search and social specialist at Kiwi Marketing Group. "It's the 'default' that people tend to type into their browsers."
Your domain extension also may depend on your type of organization. For example, certain TLDs, like .edu (for educational entities, such as universities) and .gov (for government agencies), have certain requirements. If your small business is a nonprofit organization, for example, you may be able to register an .org URL.
Make it memorable.
Make your domain easy to remember. If your web address is an odd combination of characters and ends with an uncommon TLD, people will never end up on your website.
"A website domain is important to the overall success of a business website," said Phillips-Varneke. "You want something that's easy for clients to remember and not incredibly long."
On the other hand, you don't want your domain to be too generic, because you want to make sure people associate it with your company in particular; your web address should be easy to market to people who may not know you exist.
Make it short.
According to Data Genetics, the most common length of .com URLs on the web is about 12 characters. As such, keep your domain between six and 14 characters.
Don't use nonletter characters.
Make sure your web domain is easy to share in everyday speech. If you force your users to spend time saying things like "There's a hyphen between ..." then you probably don't have the best URL for your company. Simplicity is important, so refrain from special characters and using numbers as letters.
Don't overdo it with keywords.
We've all come across those websites that scream "This link is shady" just by looking at its address. Oftentimes, some less-than-reputable companies will manipulate their search engine optimization by packing keywords into their web address in an attempt to rank more highly in Google search results.
Though you should include relevant keywords in your domain if it makes sense, Phillips Varneke said, you shouldn't do so at the expense of its readability or sense of legitimacy.
"It's good to include keywords in your domain, but only if it makes sense, doesn't make your website look like a scam, or makes it too difficult to spell," she said.
For example, Phillips Varneke said, a theoretical small business called Bob's Books in New Jersey would want a URL that makes sense and doesn't look like a potential scam. In that instance, bobsbooks.com would be optimal, and bobsbooksnj.com or buybobsbooks.com would be OK, but she "wouldn't recommend bobsbooksforsaleinnewjersey.com."
How to buy a website domain
After you've picked a domain, it's time to buy it. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to secure a domain name for your small business:
1. Check if your desired domain name is available.
There are 1.74 billion websites, according to Website Hosting Rating, so there is a good chance your preferred URL is already taken. After you've identified the URL you would like to use, you should run it through a domain vacancy checkers, such as Instant Domain Search and WHOis.net. Be sure to check that the extension you want is available. Always check if .com is available first before moving on to other extensions.
If your .com URL is available, you may want to consider buying the URL in adjacent extensions, like .net, .info and .org. Failing to do so can lead to problems down the road, according to Bede Fahey, co-founder of Kiwi Marketing Group.
"Purchasing the .net and .org versions of a domain is also important, as it protects you from squatters and, more importantly, confusion among clients," Fahey told business.com.
2. Choose a domain registrar.
A domain registrar is a company that deals with the reservation and registration of domain names. These companies sell the URLs that all business and personal websites on the planet use. There are countless vendors, so be sure to do your research and make sure the registrar you pick fits with your needs, values and budget. We've listed some popular options in the next section of the article.
3. Go through the buying process.
In most instances, you will choose your URL and select any add-ons you want associated with your domain registration, like encryption; some sort of domain privacy, like WhoIs privacy; and additional email addresses. After that, just go through the checkout process. Congratulations, you now own that URL.
Bonus tip: Don't buy from squatters.
If your dream URL is already registered to someone who doesn't seem to be using it for anything, you may have come across a so-called squatter sitting on a URL that's been deemed valuable. While this can be frustrating, Fahey said trying to buy it from them can be expensive, since squatters will usually mark up their URLs far past what any registrar would charge.
"It is normally better to just come up with another domain name," Fahey said.
Where to buy a domain name
Before you buy your domain, you have to find a domain registrar that's right for your business. Many of those registrars also offer web hosting. Although many of these companies have similar offerings, registrars often sell different security services or come with additional guarantees not found elsewhere.
It's also important to note that most registrars charge based on the extension and the viability of the URL. Novelty extensions, like .beer, and premium domains, such as .com, are usually more expensive. Costs can range anywhere from less than a dollar to thousands of dollars.
Though we've collected some reputable vendors and shared them below, you must pay special attention to what any vendor can offer your business before committing to an agreement of a year or more.
You've probably heard of GoDaddy, as it's one of the world's biggest domain registrars, with more than 75 million domains. In addition, GoDaddy offers hosting services and professional email and phone lines. The company offers relatively affordable domains, but that's also because you must pay for a couple of years upfront, after which the price is likely to increase.
Namecheap allows users to register and renew web domains, as well as complete a domain transfer of an existing domain. When you purchase a new domain from this registrar, you get free WhoisGuard Privacy Protection "for life," as well as a free email address and free DNSSEC security.
When purchasing a domain from Bluehost, you get 24/7 support, access to a simple domain management dashboard, the ability to set auto-renewal to ensure your rights to the URL don't lapse and "domain lock," which, according to the company, protects your URL from "unauthorized transfers." If you choose Bluehost to host your website, you get a free domain for the first year.
As a vendor of "all of the most popular top-level domains and over 25 country code top-level domains," Domain.com offers URLs that start at $2.99 per year. The domain's price also includes access to additional benefits, like free SSL encryption, free email forwarding and free DNS management.