a) “The domain is not a big deal” school: those people argue that while a good domain can help on the success of a website, it is not an important factor, because people are increasingly using browser bookmarks and subscription tools like RSS feeds, removing the need for them to remember the name of the website that they want to visit.
b) “The domain is vital” school: those people argue that despite bookmarks and RSS feeds, domains still play a very important role on the success of the websites built upon them. A good domain, therefore, can be the difference between a successful site and a flop.
Before proceeding with my analysis, however, I think it is important to define what a “good domain name” is. Summing it up, a good domain:
- is short
- is easy to remember
- is easy to spell
- is descriptive or brandable
- does not contain hyphens and numbers
- has a .com extension
You can read more about that on the article The 7 Characteristics of Good Domain Names.
I belong to the “domains are vital” school of thought, and I will tell you why, both with words and with numbers that I gathered on a small research.
Bear in mind that whenever I mention “domain name” throughout this article, I am also referring to the name of the website itself. In the majority of the cases those are the same after all, and for marketing purposes they should always be.
Everything Starts with the Domain
The biggest flaw on the argument of people that don’t think that domains play an important role on the success of websites lies on the assumption that web surfers will bookmark or subscribe to a given website right after visiting it.
That is not the case. Most people need to come across a website several times before making the decision to bookmark it or to subscribe to its service.
On the first visit they will come to that site via a link on another website or on a search engine. The domain name, however, will play an important role on the subsequent visits. If it is short, easy to remember and easy to spell, a visitor will not have a problem going back to that site in the future. If the domain is very long, hard to remember and hard to spell, however, there are great chances that the visitor will end up somewhere else, and will probably never return.
Now I am not talking exclusively about users that will remember your domain and type it directly in their browser URL bar after a couple of days. If your domain is long, difficult to spell or contains dashers and numbers, there is a possibility that the user will completely forget about it. After two or three days he won’t even remember that your site exists. A short and catchy domain, on the other hand, will stick on the mind of the visitor. Even if he will not be able to type that, Google is there to help him find your website again.
Another point to take into consideration is that connection between the domain name and the brand of a website. When you have dozens, if not hundreds of websites competing for the same niche, the brand factor will be determinant. If you then realize that the brand of any website is heavily anchored to its domain name, you can see how important domains become.
The Domains of the Top 250 Websites in the World
I know that numbers and facts speak louder than words, so instead of extending my prose I will back up my claims with a small research that I did. Basically I gathered the top 250 most popular websites in the world (according to Alexa) and counted how many characters and words their domains had. I also checked if they had a .com or another extension (e.g., .net, .org, .info and so on). Notice that sites with a foreign extension were excluded from the list for the sake of simplicity.
The results were pretty interesting. First of all, the average number of characters on the domain names was 7,15. The graph below presents the number of characters on the y-axis, and all the 250 domains on the x-axis. The red line is the average (the statistical mean).
Other interesting findings include:
- Over 177 out of 250 domains had 8 characters or fewer. That is more than 70% of them
- The average number of words was 1,58
- The most common domain name (statistical mode) had 7 characters and 2 words
- 86,2% of the domains had a .com extension
- only 11 out of the 250 domains (4,4%) contained a number
- only 3 out of the 250 domains (1,2%) contained a dash
The Domains of the Last 250 Front Page Stories on Digg
One could say that the list with the 250 most popular sites in the world could be biased due to the presence service portals like search engines, email services, social networks and upload sites. I don’t think that the bias would be significant, but in order to remove the doubts I also profiled the domains of the last 250 websites that reached the front page of Digg. Those are mostly content websites, so they should complement the initial findings.
The numbers here point into the same direction. The average number of characters on those domain names was 8,47. Slightly higher than on the previous case, but still a small number. The graph below illustrates that.
The average number of words on the domains is 1,67, which is very similar to the number found on the previous case. Other interesting findings include:
- 89,6% of the domain names had a .com extension
- 146 out of the 250 domains (58,4%) had 8 or fewer characters
- only 4 out of the 250 domains (1,6%) contained a dash
- the most common domain (statistical mode) had again 7 characters and 2 words (e.g. youtube.com)
Oh But I know A Website That Is Popular And…
At this point I am pretty sure that some of you are thinking “Oh but I know a website that pretty popular and has a really long and confusing domain name.”
Well, you just found an exception to the rule.
It is like when you discuss smoking and health problems. Even if the statistics say that smoking will reduce your life expectancy by 20 years, there is always someone that has an uncle or a grand father that smoked his whole life and yet lived to the age of 100 years.
Your uncle or grand father represents the exception, and in no way it diminishes the validity of the statistical findings. The same applies to the statistics we showed above, even if you know a popular website with a really long and weird domain.
Conclusion: The Law of Domain Names
Based on that evidence, here is the conclusion (or the law of domain names):
All other things being equal (e.g., marketing budget, content quality, design, affiliation with larger websites and so on), a website with a good domain name will always outperform a competitor with a bad or average domain name.
Does this means that if you have a long or hard to remember domain you are doomed to fail? Not at all. But if you have a competitor on your niche that has a better domain, you will need to produce better content, offer a better service, or spend more money in promotion to compensate for that.
Luanne Tarbor says
I’d have to consent with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I really like reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to speak my mind!
Very useful tips. Can you confirm the Domometer tool is checking all of these?
Alex Maina says
Though this article is a bit old, it still has some valid points.
i understand the need to start an online business on a solid footing. that is probably why a good domain name is a good idea. For those searching for exact keywords for their domains, this works in the beginning.
However, I don’t think that the domain name is that important as the domain ages. If one has put an effort into branding their domain name however good or bad it is, the results will show in the long run.
it is my view that the domain name has diminishing returns as the site ages.
Your study does not make “all other variables equal”, so how can you make that conclusion? Your study does not control for marketing budget, content quality, etc. It just looks at the top sites, which happen to have short domain names. Perhaps it is because powerful companies have “muscle” and “traffic”, and do not need the domain name, while the smaller businesses don’t have muscle and may benefit from keyword domain names?
‘Thank you for your article. I’m curious about using numbers as I want to add the 8 in my word. Any thoughts it is relative to the name.
When you describe it like that, the name fits perfectly. And the idea is certainly an interesting one.
I know all about the problems of money too. I had to shelve a J/E dictionary site I was planning due to nothing but bad experiences with investors. So I’ve put that idea sort of on the back burner for now (saves having to find a domain name for it too =)). I say sort of, as I’m developing a kind of sister site/service intended for in-house use where I currently work. Instead I’m concentrating on my game related site and as I said, I don’t think an informative name actually helps in that field.
Oh, and I’ll be keeping an eye for that tornado of yours. I certainly would like to see it in action. So good luck with that.
What I should have added was this. The tornado-like directory structure will be tornado-like because I am going to show the links on the page in a large V shape (sort of like a tornado) with related yet not searched for terms and/or long-tail type stuff at the bottom …
anyway, the most relevant links are at the top.
so it’s all really about marketing really and MONEY (which I don’t have)
I apologize if all of this has been too far off-topic but I think it’s relevant to what we are talking about… what kind of domain name one should buy. what the rules are, etc.
I see what you are saying. You prefer short brandable names over descriptive names. But I guess you are adding another layer … that the brandable name (in this case tornado in a box) needs to have some scintilla of meaning to it ?
Google for example is a brandable word that does have some deeper underlying meaning (a googleplex of data) which fits with a search engine.
My idea with tornado in a box is this. Hopefully it will have that feeling of a search engine place:
1. tornado’s are fast ………. search engine’s are fast
2. box ……… a server
so it is going to be a fast search engine
but it’s going to be a search engine that helps you discover things, more like stumble upon than google.
however, I am adding a semantic layer to this thing.
when you search for ‘Athena’ you will see links in a tornado-like directory structure:
Greek Mythology (44)
Greek Gods (23)
and you will see related terms separated out on the side:
Candy Bars (21)
Brands ( 16)
Athena Candy Bar (4)
The numbers don’t add up – just made them up for this.
And the other part of Tornado that I like … which ties in with the whole notion of ‘discovery’ is this:
You will start out on a page called Kansas.aspx
and you can then let the Tornado take you somewhere else
and learn / find interesting things.
So that’s why I like Tornado In a Box.com better than discoveryengine.com.
Of course, ideally it would be nice to own all these:
search.com, searchengine.com, discovery.com, discover.com,
discoveryengine.com, tornado.com, tornadoinabox.com, etc.
but like you said, some “darn” people in the world own ALL of the good domain names and it makes me mad.
But I … hee hee… I repeat I with a capital ME … own the great fantastic name Tornado In a Box !!!!!
hee hee. I’m just having fun with it.
Anyway, I’m a programmer for a living. I will hopefully get this thing on-line soon. I made a firefox extension already and designed my database… just need about 3 months of free time darn it… and eventually I’ll get it done.
thanks for your comments.
I have to agree with David on this one. I prefer to try and find something catchy, or short. But I don’t go for descriptive; that’s just a little too boring for me.
Besides which, most .coms which would be descriptive within the subject of my site, are being domain sat. And I simply refuse to deal with such people. Mind you, most of the other well-known sites that are similar to mine also have names that bear little relation to their content. I think that could just be the nature of that area mind =)
Now, out of the two examples David listed, I find discoveryengine.com to be rather interesting. Tornadoinabox is catchy, but I’d probably expect some sort of webcomic to be housed there.
Finally, I think it’s pretty important to consider who/what you are creating your domain name for. Is it for your visitors? The subject of your site? Or are just selecting it for a search engine? I would really hope it wasn’t the latter of those.
Thanks for the feedback though.
I know what you are saying but I’d rather have a brandable name than a descriptive name. Descriptive names are boring.
For example, I’d rather have Tornadoinabox.com than DiscoveryEngine.com (which is what tornado is). You can’t forget tornadoinabox. I’ve already forgotten the blog one you told me about above. I’d have to scroll up to see what it was…
There are plenty of other ways to get good SEO from a domain name. You don’t have to have keywords in the domain name itself.
I’m pretty sure I’m in band camp B. The only thing I don’t agree with is number 1 … that a name must be “short”. I think Memorability is the only thing important. And the actual site must be good … which is where I am now … my site has nothing.
I’m working on it though 🙂
David (Comment above) unless you are selling a Tornado or a box what is the point? The theme of the site should be in the domain name if you want a better search listing. The name of this site “dailyblogtips.com” is a good name because if someone types in “blog” or “blog tips” in a search engine they might end up on this site and then read it. I typed in “Blog domain names” and ended up on this site. Plus the fact that the domain “dailyblogtips.com” is a dot com makes it good. I would highly recommend a person have a domain with a generic description as part of their domain name. It is worth spending a few hundred or thousand dollars for a good domain name that helps get traffic to your site. Anyone that thinks `The domain is not a big deal does not understand search engines or the internet.
What do you guys think of Tornadoinabox.com ?
I think its funny and easy to remember and I really want to use it.
But everyone says that a domain name “must” be short.
People bookmark sites they like anyway, so does the length really matter if a name is highly memorable?
I will appreciate any feedback, good or bad.
Stefan Wurz says
Good article Daniel, thanks.
Abbas Shareef says
check my article on how to get domain rank #1 on google
erm, surely there are few popular sites with long domain names because there are few sites with long domain names?!
ie there are no top 100 sites with a zillion characters in their domain because there are no sites with a zillion characters in their name.
I’d say that’s just common sense and does nothing to further the cause/effect debate! Not to say the output wasnt interesting in its own right :).
Reminds me of Freakanomics!
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.
I didn’t see mention of age in the comments, but I think something important to think about is the age of the domain as it relates to the smaller number of words and letters in the domain name. It’s become very difficult to get single word domains without paying lots of money for them, and that’s because of the time factor. The internet is aging, and domain names of fewer than two or more words have dwindled except from resellers out to make profit.
How I think that correlates to your study here is that older domains tend to do better. Older domains generally have fewer words because those domains were available way back when. 🙂
I don’t really know what the top 250 sites are, so I can’t say if the data supports my thoughts on this or not.
I guess it depends on the market you are targeting. The older folks will remember a domain name but use search somewhat infrequently (I don’t think my father who’s 70 uses Google very much – he just remembers domains) and then there are the young adults that tend to remember domains that are catchy (hip) and use Google to find the next hot nightclub. Then…you have the middle-age group which tend to be very computer/internet literate…maybe it’s because we get bored at work and surf the internet a lot and bookmark frequently. Who knows. Purchasing a domain specific to your needs is going to be the most important step in finding the right domain (plus comparing it to the keywords you need for search).
joe gelb says
someone once said that this happens because of the tight domain market created by ICANN or someone else creating a status symbol in the premium domains. And all good blogs use good blogging tools because it is the thing to do rather than anything else like how all good lawyers drive bmws and live in mansions with echo ceilings
web design company says
A great insight in to domain names, with some very good research backs up a good claim.
Good article… what *really* matters is whether or not the domain name is an “exact match” — *precisely* the term that your target audience will most likely enter into whatever box they are entering what they want to find (be it “shoes” or “movies” or “appliances” or “domains” or whatever) — when I was a kid, there was this saying: “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades”.
BTW: .COM is primarily for commerce / commercials, and a “round table” and a “roundtable” are two different things (so that — and the fact the English is not the only language on the planet — is the primary reason to prefer using hyphens for domain names with more than 1 word).
Incidentally, how did you identify the number of words? (for example: “ex” and “ample” could be considered to be two words — how would you decide to count them as 1 word or 2?)
All in all though, I am in agreement with you: too many people pay too little attention to content — and the *ONLY* content that *REALLY* matters is the domain name.
Daniel Scocco says
@Karl, I think that local people trying to find a local website will try the local extension first. A Brazilian looking for a company called “super,” therefore, would type super.com.br.
If you sell something to local market only, therefore, going with a local extension might be the preferred solution.
@Namer.ca, if you want to target a local audience, like UK residents or Australian residents, then yes a local extension is the preferred one. If you want to tap on the global audience, however, .com is the way to go.
Daniel I salute you, Im definitely with you in camp #2
although the one variable you mentioned that the domain has to be .com does not apply outside the U.S. for the most part since the local ccTLD in most countries is the .com.
My domain is very easy to remember 🙂
Really informative post. Good work.
Andy Walpole says
I think a good domain name will definitely give a head start, along with other factors like good SEO techniques.
Internet Marketing Joy says
I think domain names should be catchy so that visitors will remember it easily. Also it should be easy to remember.
Utah SEO says
Great statistics to back up your points. I have to agree with you that looking for short domains with a .com extension is the way to go. The problem I run into is finding them. Even if you want to pay sometimes it is really difficult. So at this point if you want a memorable, short, .com domain, you are going to have to get extremely creative or pay some big bucks.
My domain name has 4 words and 20 letters in it. Try to forget it.
Karl Hardisty says
How does the .com theory apply to sites outside of the U.S.? Would visitors in the U.K. first try .com or .co.uk for a company they’re looking for? I know here in New Zealand, the majority of people try a .co.nz before trying a .com.
Generally, the idea that – if you’re a national brand then use your nation’s extension, or if you’re international use .com – holds well I think.
i pretty agree with this post..you are right, domain plays the most important added value to your site actually
the tld is the second biggest important role actually
btw, if your site is big like myspace or facebook then don’t even care to have whatever extension, your value is still there
This is a great post indeed. Personally, I think a domain name needs to be both informative and easy to remember. If someone can remember our domain name after just one glance, then we have an advantage over our competition.
Daniel Scocco says
@Rick, got it.
I am pretty sure there would be causation also, if you keep the other variables fixed as I mentioned.
To be clear on what I meant by cause vs correlation, here is an example I once read. Students that sit in the front of the class tend to get good grades. This does not mean sitting up front is the cause of good grades. These students would probably get good grades no matter where they sat. So the best we can say is that sitting up front and getting good grades are correlated.
So back to the point at hand, a domain name and its site’s success are correlated, but there is not necessarily any causation involved (though there could be – it would require experimentation).
Great post. I’ll be sure to link to it from my blog when I write a future post on naming your startup for early entrepreneurs.
Thanks for the analysis.
Daniel Scocco says
@Nick Wilson, I’ve combined two of them in one point. Good domains are “descriptive” or “brandable”
Those were two separate points on the other article.
Daniel Scocco says
@Rick, what you point out is an interesting point, but I still think we are talking about correlation here.
In fact, if one could sample a large enough number of websites, say 100,000 websites, I am sure it would be possible to find a correlation between the size and quality of the domain and the success of the website.
Of course there is a bias coming from the “cause” as you mentioned, meaning that web experienced people will inevitably be aware of this fact and they will tend to start projects on better domains than inexperienced people. But this bias should not render the correlation invalid.
Thanks for the comment.
Nick Wilsdon says
Good article Daniel, thanks.
I was left wondering though, what the 7th characteristic of a successful domain was, after you managed to summarize them into 6 points 😉
I like your analysis but be careful not to confuse cause and correlation. It’s possible that sites that do best are made by web savvy people: they’ be good at building traffic with SEO etc. and may just happen to have a good domain name because they have read about the supposed characteristics of a good domain name. So in other words is it that a) being web savvy results in good traffic or b) good domain names result in good traffic?
That said, I’m inclined to agree with your “Law of Domain Names.”
I think the domain name should be interesting and catchy. The length of the domain will not be a concern then. Don;t you think so?
Really interesting finding, domain name are important but this include idea, creativity, effort and so much more work have to be done to make the website successful.
It seems I had ended up with far better domain than I could if I thought over it too much. 🙂
Daniel Scocco says
@Sap abap, my prerogative is that if you have big plans for a website, you must spend money to buy a good domain for it.
If you don’t have money to spend, I would say go with the best .com you can find.
sap abap says
A nice post regarding domain names and the well known fact is all important key word domain names are all ready registered particularly with .com extension.
Thus a new one will have only small choice with domain name like experimenting with a different name or choosing a different extension other than .com .
Which is better ?
Daniel Scocco says
@L-Jay, I don’t think much will change with the freestyle extensions. .com will keep ruling, and perhaps it will become even more standard as people don’t want to get confused by .whatever
Hmm – I wonder what will happen when “freestyle” extensions are affordable. You’d just search the name of the website you want (coz you can’t remember which extension to use) and then 500 results come up. Sometimes choice isn’t a good thing.
Good post – I love statistics. But I think the site names that stick in my head are the play-on-words or the funny ones. (I won’t name drop here…lol.)
Daniel Scocco says
@Will, thanks fixed that.
@Paula, I never said that a competitor with a better domain will necessarily do better. All other variables being equal, though, he will.
I personally don’t think that a competitor with a better domain name will necessarily do better. I agree that domain names are important but on the other hand I don’t think it is vital to ultimate success.
SEO Genius says
Hey Daniel another great article one little mistake though the second line in “though around the web.” I think its supposed to be “thought”