Gone are the days when .com and .net were your only options when registering a URL for your business. Here are some tips for developing a domain extension strategy.
Choosing a name for your business used to be easy, at least compared to the kinds of things you need to think about today, especially as it relates to your company's web page. Sure, you can try and register your company's name as the URL, but what should you do regarding all those domain name extensions that are now available? Obviously a .com extension remains a default option, but what happens if someone is already parked there? Should you change the name of your URL or is it a viable alternative to own one or more of the other 20 extensions currently available, such as .biz, .net, or .info (or others such as .jobs, .mobi, or .pro, if applicable)? Or, should a good domain extension strategy include all of the above?
What follows are some suggested answers to these questions culled from a roundtable of small business owners and branding experts.
Start with Dot-Com and Go From There
While ICANN, the organization charged with regulating the global domain name system, has tried to open up the ability for individuals, companies, and organizations to register new domains by creating new extensions, the unfortunate truth is that unless you run a nonprofit, where .org should be more than suitable, the .com extension still rules them all both in people's minds when they type in a web address and, just as importantly, in the kinds of search results returned by Google.
While you might be disappointed to find out that someone has already registered your company's name with a .com extension, that doesn't mean that you should settle for just registering your name with .net or .biz, says Edward Yang of Firecracker, a public relations firm in West Covina, California. "Of all the extensions, .com is a must-have," he says. "That's because most people don't remember .net, .info, or .biz. So to come up with a company name, it's imperative that you make sure you work backwards: ensure the domain name is available before falling in love with a company name." The last thing you would want to do is spend money building up a your .net or .biz brand only to drive traffic to your competitors .com site simply because that's where most customers default to. In other words, you may need to think about rebranding your company around your ability to secure a .com URL.
Case in point: When Jacqueline Gikow started her business, JacquelineJewelry, she found that both .com and .net were already taken, so she settled for JacquelineJewelry.biz. But, when Gikow performed Google searches for her domain name, she found was always fighting with the other two names. As a result, she changed the name of her business to ChelseaRainbow and got a domain name of ChelseaRainbow.com, which has yielded better results for her business. "I don't think there's anything that can be done to make either .net or .biz more popular," says Gikow. "People are just more familiar with .com."
Of course, if someone is parked on your preferred .com, you could consider trying to acquire it, says Nathaniel Broughton, owner of Growth Partner Capital in St. Louis, who has used search-engine optimization to launch a series of businesses like Suretybonds.com and vacationrentals.com. "Finding the owner of a domain can be hard sometimes, but you can use the WHOIS search or try to hire a broker, he says. The stories people tell about tracking a site owner down are legendary. I've mailed people a letter with a $5 bill in it and said, "Here's $5 for five minutes of your time, call me." I know guys that have hired private investigators to track down owners. It's all about one-to-one contact, and a domain name is always, always, always only worth what someone will pay for it."
Next Steps Beyond Dot-Com: Cover Your Bases
Once you've acquired your .com URL, it then behooves you to spend the money to acquire not only other extensions surrounding it, but other variations as well, says Alex Marinov of TennisRound.com, a San Francisco-based company which helps tennis players connect with each other. "We own about 40 different domain extensions and misspellings of our URL," he says. "We don't mind throwing $300-$400 per year at this to save us cybersquatting headaches and provide better customer experience."
For example, Marinov made the decision to purchase the .org, .net, .biz, .info, and .tv extensions to TennisRound (which can redirect visitors back to the .com site) to both head off domain squatters and competitors who could have drawn traffic away from his main site and to plan for future expansion, such as showing matches over streaming video on the .tv site.
Marc Mattox, principal at Southwest Strata, a consulting business in Dallas, says you could even take it a step further by snapping up extensions based on your competitor's names and forwarding the URLs back to your own site. "Clients have told us on numerous occasions they were originally looking for their competition only to type in the wrong extension," he says.
Dig Deeper: How to Protect Your Domain From Cybersquatting
Go Global (If It Makes Sense for Your Business)
If your business operates in or sells internationally, it might also make sense to snap up extensions of your URL for countries like Canada (.ca), the United Kingdom (.co.uk), and Australia (.au) as Google will rank country specific domains higher than a .com and people based in those countries are more likely to click on a country specific URL than on a .com, says Marinov.
You can also consider using global domain extensions in strategic and creative ways. For example, there are businesses that leverage the extension as part of their brand name like Page.ly, says Chris Perry, a marketer and brand manager who also runs the site, CareerRocketeer.com. "Despite the .ly extension being the country extension for Libya, Page.ly, a WordPress web hosting service, uses it as part of its brand," he says.
A similar example is the relatively new .co extension for the nation of Columbia which some companies have begun to capitalize on, says Mattox. While it's not often that a potential customer forgets to type the "M" in .com, it does happen. "And when it does, you can capitalize on that opportunity," he says. "And acquiring those customers will only cost you $20 a year to register the URL."
Dig Deeper: The Truly Global Business Plan
Keep Your Eye on What's Coming Next
If all that wasn't enough, ICANN is set to really shake up the realm of domain name extensions this June when it is expected to approve new rules for individuals and companies that would take effect later this year and would enable customization of so-called generic top-level domain names (gTLDs). For example, Canon and IBM have already made it plain that they plan to acquire the extensions, .Canon and .IBM, respectively, says Steve Stolfi of Corsearch, a global brand management provider based in New York City. The new rules might also make it possible for companies to become registries themselves, where they can administer extensions such as .movies, .law, and .music. While such rules have the potential to create upwards of 500 to 1,000 new domain extensions, says Stolfi, there is a stiff barrier to entry: Any entity wishing to create a new gTLD needs to pay the $185,000 application fee. Worse, if two or more entities apply for the same extension, an auction will be held where the highest bidder would acquire the rights: a process that could get expensive in a hurry.
Given the high costs, Stolfi says that means that many companies, especially smaller businesses, face a dilemma: Sit out the first round and see what happens over the next two years when the registration process is reopened, or potentially watch your competitors jump in and secure a stranglehold in your industry space. "Every company needs to be aware of these changes if they take place," he says. "Or you could see your competitor exploit this opportunity while you can't do anything about it."
DARREN DAHL is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.