Choosing The Perfect Domain Name

There is only one perfect domain name left.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 3/1/1997; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

OK, so you’ve decided to get a Web site. Now you’re trying to figure out what to choose for a domain name. If you’re lucky, your first choice for a domain name will be available. If you’re unlucky, you may have to let a committee in your firm make the decision. Is there a perfect domain name for your firm? Maybe, maybe not.

About Domain Names

A domain name is the part of your Internet address that uniquely identifies your organization. The ABA’s domain name is “abanet.org.” The domain name system was created so that humans (that’s us) could easily remember various Internet addresses. Kind of like using speed-dialing on your phone rather than memorizing various phone numbers. In fact, the analogy to phone numbers is a good one, because each domain name has a numerical counterpart (a series of numbers like 123.23.123.123) that represents a unique address (called an Internet Protocol address) for the computer providing your Internet services. There are exceptions, but this is the general rule.

Software is used to translate domain names into Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. This software is called the Domain Name System (DNS) software. (The folks who named this stuff were big fans of descriptive – but not necessarily creative – names.) So if you are browsing the Web and you see an error message like “Netscape is unable to locate the server. The server does not have a DNS entry,” it means that the translation from domain name to IP address failed for one reason or another. Most likely it failed because the address you used was invalid, or because some Web server was overloaded or temporarily off-line.

About the InterNIC

In order to have your own domain name you have to register it (or have somebody register it for you) with the InterNIC (http://www.internic.net/). The InterNIC used to stand for Internet Network Information Center, and it used to be a nonprofit organization run by a group of volunteer organizations. Now it is a thriving commercial monopoly.

Basically, the InterNIC maintains a database of top-level DNS servers (computers). Each of these servers tells lower lever servers about officially registered domain names. And they tell two server, and they tell two servers, and so on, and so on. The DNS database is distributed to hundreds and thousands of computers around the Internet, but the historical home for the top-level servers has been the InterNIC. So after you register a domain name, it takes a few days for the change to propagate to all of the other DNS servers on the Net.

The InterNIC has a simple method for determining who gets to register certain domain names: first-come first-served. Recently, the InterNIC has modified this rule to the following: registration of domain names is on a first-come first-served basis except when it isn’t. But seriously, their current policy is very confusing and much worse that what preceded it. But I guess that’s what happens when you start charging for a service over which you have historically held a monopoly. The bottom line remains that the sooner you register your domain name the better.

Good Domain Names

Is there a perfect domain name for a law-related Web site? What about “law.com”? That’s taken. So is “legal.com,” “legal.net,” and “law.net.” In fact, there are so many variations of “law,” “legal,” “net,” and “com” that it is difficult to keep track of them all.

A good domain name should be guessable, memorable, not too long, and not too short. Remember when Federal Express changed its name from Federal Express to FedEx? “After all, that’s what you call us!” touted their very slick add campaign. Yes, that’s what we call them. What do people call you? Don’t answer that. How is the phone answered in your firm? If your firm is Smith, Jones & Goldstein and you answer the phone “Smith Jones,” then you should try to register “smithjones.com” as your domain name.

If you answer the phone “Smith, Jones & Goldstein,” then you have a bigger problem. You could register “smithjonesgoldstein.com,” but that gets a bit unwieldy to type – and to read. There is an upper limit on the length of domain names (22 characters; 26 including the “.com”). You could even try “smith-jones-goldstein.com” to make it more readable, but now you’ve introduced a new problem. A dash is another thing to remember. Avoid dashes if possible. Make it easy for your users to remember and type your domain name. Remember, the domain name system was invented to make the lives of humans easier.

Book vendors face the same problem. There is a “books.com,” “book.com,” “book.net,” “books.net,” and many more. A creative way to solve the problem of getting lost among all the book-style domain names is to choose something entirely different. I buy all of my books online from Amazon Books, whose domain name is “amazon.com.” Admittedly “Amazon” has little to do with books, but it has everything to do with being memorable. What does “Yahoo” have to do with directories? “Apple” with computers? “Microsoft” with software? OK, I got a little carried away there.

One final note. If at all possible, you should register a “.com” domain name (rather than “.net,” “.org” or something else). Why? Because when you enter a word (such as “Yahoo”) in Netscape Navigator’s “location” window (or “open location” dialog box), Navigator adds the “http://www.” and “.com” to the word. Just for fun, try entering “InterNIC” or “abanet” in this manner.

The Domain Name Business

The best way to secure the domain name of your choosing is to sign up with a reputable Internet Access Provider (IAP) or Web Presence Provider (WPP). IAPs and WPPs are both ISPs (Internet Service Providers). (OK, I’m not sure if the term “WPP” is in common use, but I wanted to see if I could write an entire sentence with abbreviations!) In other words, the Internet service business has split into two types of ISPs: those who primarily provide dial-in access (for surfing) and those who primarily provide Web services (for serving). The best searchable directory of IAPs is The List (http://thelist.iworld.com/) There is, unfortunately, no counterpart to The List for WPPs.

In your Internet travels, you may have come across the home page for Mailbank, to which thousands of domain names point. Among other things, Mailbank provides e-mail forwarding via the domain name of your choosing. For example, e-mail to username@your-domain-name-goes-here.com could be auto-forwarded to your America Online account. But there is a risk associated with signing up for these types of services. (By the way, I wanted to use “domainname.com,” “domain-name.com,” “yourdomain.com,” or “your-domain.com” in that example, but all of those are taken!) Unless the InterNIC domain name registration form lists you as at least an administrative point of contact, you will not be able to directly change your domain name registration at a later date. If the company that registers your domain name lists itself as the sole point of contact, you have just checked into the Hotel California. Buyer beware. As you can see from my e-mail address above, I use pobox.com for my e-mail forwarding. Their service is similar to Mailbank’s except with out the domain name service.

For more information, see Yahoo, which has an entire category for domain names. Simply search Yahoo for “domain registration” to find out more than you ever wanted to know about domain names.

Now What?

If you want to register the perfect in name, your best bet is to go back in time and register the most simple guessable domain name possible (like “cars.com” for selling cars). Your next best bet is to register what people call you for your domain name (like “fedex.com”). Another strategy is to build name-brand recognition based on an off-beat domain name, such as “yahoo.com,” “amazon.com,” or “lawlawlaw.com.” Then you could offer Law Law Law on the World Wide Web! OK, maybe “lawlawlaw.com” goes a bit too far. In fact, even that is taken! As you can see, they are going like hot cakes!

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