How to Choose a Domain Name: The Complete Guide (2021)

June 2, 2014

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This is the most comprehensive guide to buying a domain name that exists online. 

It includes a complete introduction to domain names and domain extensions, plus 17 domain name tips that will help you choose the perfect website name for your business or brand.

If you’re stuck on how to pick a domain name, this guide is for you.

I’m covering:

  • How to choose the right domain extension.
  • Brandable Vs Keyword-Rich domains and which you should choose.
  • How to acquire the domain you want – and what to do when you can’t.
  • Five mistakes to avoid when choosing a domain name.
  • The XX attributes to a KILLER domain

Plus lots more.

If you want to choose a domain that can dominate search engines and win the hearts and minds of your potential customers, then you’ll love the tips in today’s domain buying guide.

Let’s dive right in.

What are Domains?

A domain is the unique, human-readable internet address for a website. 

Domains are made up of three distinct parts: 

  • The domain name, or IP address.
  • A top-level domain sometimes called an extension or domain suffix.
  • And, a subdomain that is optional.

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The combination of the domain name plus the top-level domain is known as the “root domain.” 

The part that precedes the root domain (either http:// or https://) is known as the “protocol.” 

The protocol is not part of the domain though, but it is part of the URL.

Following along so far?

Great, let’s drill into the domains three parts:

Top-Level Domain (TLD) – What It Is (And Why You Should Care)

A Top-Level Domain is the last segment of a domain name after the final dot.

It’s commonly referred to as TLD for short.

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Popular top-level domains include:

  • .com
  • .net
  • .org
  • .edu
  • .co.uk 

You’re no doubt familiar with all the TLDs above.

But, did you know there are more than one thousand TLDs you can choose from?

Crazy, right!

Generic top-level domains include .blog, .fashion, .dog, and .agency (to name a few), and TLDs associated with specific countries include .uk (United Kingdom) or .dk (Denmark).

As these examples illustrate, the TLD associated with your root domain, tells users and search engines a lot about your website.

Along with your domain name, the top-level domain sets the expectations for your site

There are officially three types of TLDs you can opt for:

(1). gTLD – Generic Top-Level Domains

The generic top-level domain (gTLD) category contains the classic TLDs such as .com, .org and .net

As well as popular extensions like .xyz, .biz and .info.

But that’s not all.

In 2011, ICANN opened the door to an expanded list of gTLDs, that includes a tonne of “generic” niche TLDs like:

  • .money
  • .motorcycles
  • .realestate
  • .republican
  • .democrat

Adoption of these new gTLDs is still in its infancy, but they are growing in popularity.

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Prior to the 2011 change in ICANN policy, there were just twenty-two gTLDs. 

Now, there are over 1,200 different gTLDs available.

(2). sTLD – Sponsored Top-Level Domains

The sponsored top-level domain (sTLD) group contains TLDs that are sponsored by a specific entity, such as a business or government:

Some of the most common examples here are:

  • .gov – for use by the US government.
  • .edu – for universities and other post-secondary institutions that are accredited by the US Department of Education.
  • .mil – for use by the US military.

(3).  ccTLD – Country Code Top-Level Domains

The acronym ccTLDs stands for country code top-level domain.

As the name implies, ccTLDs are domains that represent specific countries. 

Common examples of ccTLDs are: 

  • .ae – United Arab Emirates
  • .us – USA
  • .uk – United Kingdom
  • .de – Germany
  • .fr – France
  • .cn – China
  • .es – Spain
  • .ru – Russia
  • .ca – Canada
  • .in – India
  • .jp – Japan
  • .cn – China
  • .br – Brazil
  • .id – Indonesia
  • .vn – Vietnam

In total, there are around 312 different ccTLDs. 

Seven of which are included in the top-ten of most used TLDs.

Most Popular TLDs

Some enforce residency restrictions in order to purchase a domain in that geography, while others are public and can be purchased from anywhere in the world.

Because of that, there has been widespread “off-label” use of ccTLDs. 

For example, the .io TLD has gotten very popular with tech companies. 

However, despite the tech-sounding name, .io is actually a ccTLD assigned to British Indian Ocean Territory. The same goes for the .co TLD which has been widely adopted by international startups despite being the ccTLD for Colombia.

TLD Geography

This can have negative connotations for search engine performance. 

But, more on that later.

With all the choices available, it’s crucial you consider the TLD before you purchase your domain name. 

Once you’ve attached a domain to your site, it’s difficult to change.

Don’t worry, in this post, I’ll be explaining precisely how you go about selecting the right TLD for your website.

But, for now, let’s discuss the next part of our root domain:

What Is a Domain Name (And How Does It Work)?

In really simple terms, a domain name is the address of your website.

It’s what users type into their browser’s URL bar to visit your site

If your website was a house, then your domain name is its address.

Let’s break that down into a bit more detail:

The Internet is a huge network of computers connected to each other through a giant web of cables. Each device connected to the Internet can communicate with other devices if they can locate one another.

To identify them, each computer is assigned an Internet Protocol address (AKA “IP Address”). 

A typical IP address looks like this:

In short, an IP Address is a series of numbers that identify a particular computer on the internet. 

But here’s the thing:

An IP address is really difficult to remember. 

Just imagine if you had to memorize a long string of digits to access all of your favorite websites.

It would be like having to memorize the telephone number of every one of your friends.

Domain names were devised to solve this problem.

Now when you visit a website, you need not enter a long string of numbers.

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Instead, you type an easy-to-remember domain into your browser’s address bar. For example, seosherpa.com.

And voila, you access the website you wanted to find.

A quick aside:

You’ve heard the term “root domain” mentioned already. 

The expression Root Domain simply refers to the combination of the domain name and top-level domain (extension) to form a complete website address.

Your website’s root domain is the highest page in your website’s hierarchy.

In other words, your homepage. 

Got it? Okay, cool.

Subdomain: What is a Subdomain? (Plus Examples)

Subdomains are the third level of a domain’s hierarchy.

They are added in front of the root domain and are separated from the domain name with a period.

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The use of subdomains is entirely optional – and generally best avoided for optimum SEO results. 

While dividing your website into subsections can be useful sometimes, like when you need to install a separate CMS (as we did here):

Subdomain

Numerous studies highlight how using subdomains is less effective than a single root domain with subfolders when it comes to SEO.

Monster Jobs Subdomain Move

The two most common subdomain choices are:

  • http://www.example.com (“www” is the subdomain)
  • http://example.com (has no subdomain)

They’re also the versions that mostly commonly result in canonicalization issues.

I recommend against using subdomains, unless you absolutely have to.

With that said:

We’ll focus the rest of this post on choosing the optimum root domain for SEO.

Choosing a Domain Name for SEO (17 Essential Tips)

Before I cover the critical considerations for an SEO-friendly domain name, let me be clear about something:

When you register a domain name, you do not own it.

You merely rent it for as long as it’s registered to you.

Yes, that’s right!

Nobody really owns a domain name in the same way they own the website that sits on it.

While you are unlikely to lose a domain name – unless your registration lapses, it’s good to remember the domain is never really yours. 

With that, let’s jump into my 17 attributes of a great domain.

(1). Choose a Brandable Domain Name

In the early years of the internet, exact match domains (“EMD’s”) ruled the day:

Jacking up their value was an unfair advantage afforded to domains with well-matched keywords in them.

Back then, Google, Yahoo, and Bing’s primitive algorithms weighed information contained within the domain heavily.

For instance:

If you’d typed “buy cheap viagra” into Google in the early-ish 2000’s it was very likely that a website like “buy-cheap-viagra.info” would appear up top.

And, often without links, or recognizably good content.

In 2012, all that changed:

Following an announcement by Matt Cutts, Google’s then head of webspam, the search engine giant “turned the dial down” on the ranking influence of keywords in domains.

Overnight, Exact Match Domain’s ranking advantage dropped like a stone:

From then on, the importance of keyword-rich domains has been negligible. 

And, brandable domains have led the way.

Why Opt for a Brandable Domain?

There are many reasons to choose a memorable domain, over a keyword-rich domain, and build a brand around it.

Let’s begin with some stats:

Firstly, 77% of customers make purchases based on the brand attached to the product. 

Secondly, 90% of those decisions are thought to be made subconsciously based on brand associations with positive feelings.

As you’d imagine, it’s a whole lot easier to build positive brand sentiment when your domain is lego.com as opposed to interlocking-plastic-blocks.com.

Other great examples of highly-branded domain names include Google.com, Zappos.com, and Ikea.com. 

Notice anything similar about these names?

They’re all made up.

Made up Brand Names

In fact, according to Crowdspring, 72% of the best brands are named with made-up words.

“But James, you’re an SEO guy, why do you suggest choosing a domain name that’s fabricated?” Good question! 

The power of a good brandable domain is that it’s built for catchiness.

And for search engine performance having a name people remember is VERY important.

Studies have shown that the more people search for a brand name, the higher that brand will rank for non-brand keywords. In fact, branded search volume is so important for SEO that its influence on rankings is greater than even Domain Authority (e.g., links).

Branded Search Volume Ranking Correlation

Consider also that when you own a unique name, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll rank top of search engines for that term.

But here’s the thing, there’s no exact science to choosing a brandable domain name.

In fact, it requires a lot of trial and error.

Basically, you want to brainstorm as many ideas as you can and test them with colleagues and friends. The litmus test is that when the name’s said out loud it actually sounds like a brand. For example:

  • Does: lularoe.com
  • Does not: salmonroe.com
  • Does: doreimefashion.com
  • Does not: doreimefasolatido.com

In other words, be sure the name has a really good ring to it, instantly memorable, and is fun to say when spoken aloud.

More on that next:

(2). Ensure Your Domain Passes the Pronounceable Test

For the most part:

People are going to be typing your domain name into their browser or clicking on it in a link.

Why then does a domain name need to be pronounceable?

It matters because of “processing fluency” 

As Rand Fishkin points out, processing fluency is a cognitive bias that human beings have where we remember (and have more positive associations with) things we can easily say and think about.

That includes pronounceability “out-loud” and in our own minds.

In short, if people can’t easily say the domain name, you’re going to lose memorability and the benefits of the brand-ability you’ve created.

This is especially important if your business relies upon word-of-mouth marketing. 

To test “pronounceability” simply share your domain name ideas with a test group and have them repeat each name (out loud). 

You want everyone to say the name in the exact same way.

(3). Choose a Domain That Is Predictable to Type

Even if you nail brand-ability and pronounceability;

If your domain name is not predictable to type, it will fail.

That means, no weird spellings.

Take this domain for instance:

ZXALANADRA

  • Is it catchy? Yes. 
  • Is it pronounceable? Just about.
  • Is it easy to type? No.

Aside from avoiding hard-to-spell names, steer clear of domain names with double letters. 

For example, a domain like ChessSetter.com is going to be prone to typos, and as a result, will inevitably lose traffic.

Another essential consideration is being friendly to type on mobile.

Accounting only for current levels of device usage, at least half of the people navigating to your domain are very likely using a mobile device to get there.

Which means:

First, you’ve got to consider the dreaded auto-correct function. 

And second, choose a domain that is friendly for use on mobile-device keyboards.

What do I mean by that?

Take Sean Si’s website seo-hacker.com.

It’s a short, catchy domain, but on mobile devices, it requires you to switch between keywords:

And that can cause mistypes, and a whole load of frustration.

So, when you’re considering a domain name, first try it out on your mobile phone.

The result should be ridiculously easy to type domain, even for technophobes.

(4). Opt for a Short Domain Name

The fewer characters a domain name has, the better.

Obviously, fewer characters = quicker to type.

But also, the shorter the length the less a domain gets truncated when shared on social media or displayed within search results.

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According to Brand Bucket, the ideal length of a domain name (excluding TLD extension) is seven letters.

On the other hand, the top-ten websites as ranked by Alexa average 5.2 letters:

It’s clear that when it comes to domain length, shorter is a cut above.

However, the length should not be measured only by characters; syllables matter too.

Among the landmines that bedevil naming in the corporate world is the three-syllable rule:

The three-syllable rule determines that names longer than three syllables get shortened. 

For example, “New York” (2 syllables) is New York. 

But “New York City” (4 syllables), it’s commonly abbreviated to “NYC”  

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The three-syllable rule governs why “International Business Machines” is referred to as IBM, and “Hennes and Mauritz” gets shortened to H&M.

Name shortening happens, and it is out of your control.

Unless that is, you:

Choose a short (4-8 characters) and snappy (1-2 syllables) name.

Avoiding the pitfalls of the three-syllable rule is incredibly important:

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Because when you do fall foul, you can end up competing (head-to-head) for branded real estate in search engines – just like the X brands above.

We want a blue ocean for our brand, not more competition.

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James Reynolds

About the author: James Reynolds is passionate about helping you get more traffic and sales from search engines.

Karl

About the author: Karl Tablante is the Inbound Marketing Manager for SEO Sherpa, a top-rated organic SEO agency that lives and breathes all things search.

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