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What’s in a name?

June 2, 2010

Twenty years ago, would any of us have ever guessed that the name, Google, would be so commonplace that it actually would become a verb? And who would have guessed that Amazon would come to mean anything else than a river, South American region or towering women of fearsome fighting prowess?

Certainly, most of today’s companies and organizations have straightforward if not intuitive names. After all, YMCA or United Way or Northern Illinois University exactly describe the purpose of these organizations. But imagine if you were starting a new venture that had a world a competition and needed a name that was recognizable as well as memorable?

And because having an online presence is pretty much a standard business practice these days, it can be very difficult to find an available domain name, especially one that is a single word. Consider these statistics:

  • In 1995, about 100,ooo web site domain names were registered. 15 years later, the number is a staggering 30 million.
  • 97% of the words in Webster’s English dictionary have been registered as domain names.
  • Of the 50,000+ possible domain names that contain one to three letters or numeric characters, ALL have been purchased, even those that don’t make any apparent sense (e.g. f-4.com).
  • All common English names have been registered.

So how does one go about determining a business name? Well, if it’s something specific, like “Bob’s Bingo Parlor” (which is available!), you’re in luck — not only is it memorable it also exactly describes what your business is. But some new organizations and businesses may find that their name is already taken — especially when it comes to the Internet as a web site domain name.

Well, the first step is to check with the local county clerk (if you’re a sole proprietorship) or the State where you’re business is registered (for Illinois, try http://www.ilsos.gov/corporatellc/). You’ll be able to tell quickly (at least in the case of the State’s online, searchable database) if your company or organization name is available.

Once you’re past that hurdle — and if being found online or doing business on the Internet will be a major concern — there are a few things to consider, as outlined in a wonderful article we found on CNN.com the other day. To summarize those points with a bit of commentary and perspective:

How to start. Compile a list of keywords that relate to your business or organization’s purpose, products or service. Think of synonyms and etymologies of the terms for more options. The article notes to enlist a friend who might be an expert at Scrabble — we’re always amazed that someone can figure out the most obscure words in just a few moments time!

Does it mean anything? Once you’ve narrowed down that list, take a look and think about two things: while a name can be exactly descriptive, it can also tend to become dated. Something we didn’t know about the company name, AT&T? The last “T” stands for “telegraph.”

Does it mean nothing? Sometimes the most obscure terms gain notoriety. Take for instance Google, Yahoo and Hulu. A decade or two ago, what anyone have had any idea what these commonplace names mean? As they say, it’s all in the marketing.

Is it memorable? While this one might not apply to smaller, local businesses, it is still a valid concern none the less. Names based on rhymes (T-Mobile HotSpot), repetition (Lala) and alliteration (BlackBerry) tend to be the most memorable. The article makes the argument that names that can be used as verbs (“I’m going to Google him”) and adjectives (“I’m going to look at her LinkedIn profile”), in addition to nouns (“I saw him on Facebook”), are easier to remember.

Is it simple? Obviously, the name should be easy to pronounce and simple to spell when you hear it. Avoid punctuation if you can, especially with web site domain names — if you have to resort to dashes in your web site name because someone has the name without them, you’re always going to have people going to the other web site first.

Some other thoughts. Sometimes, especially online, we tend to be a little too straighforward and narrow in thinking about our company’s identity. We’ve seen good results when a web site’s name encompasses a concept, rather than simply the name of the business or organization. A couple of examples:

  • MyStarbucksIdea.com: A wonderful web site created by Starbucks where consumers can suggest ideas for the company to consider. Ideas they’ve put into action? Free Pastry Day, VIA Ready Brew and reloading your Starbucks payment card via your mobile phone.
  • TheFutureOfVista.com: A local hospital’s web site used as a PR vehicle to inform the public about plans for expansion, gain support and spur grass roots backing.
  • TheSubservientChicken.com: OK, not at all a company or product name, but this was a PR campaign from Burger King a number of years ago (based on their slogan, “chicken the way you want it”). If you’ve never visited the site, give it a try. Why? Why not! And if you’ve commanded the chicken before, try typing in “taco” into the command line. A waste of time? Sure, but in it’s first five days online, the web site experienced 15 million visits. At one time, it was the fastest growing web site on the Internet.

In the end, there are a lot of considerations when it comes to picking a name or web site domain for your company or organization. With a little research, some clever thinking and careful planning, you might be lucky enough to have a name synonymous with success.

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