How to Hack a Dominating Domain Name for Your Website

Posted by Cyrus Shepard

It's a familiar story. My first website name came from Go Daddy, found using a hunt-&-peck method, one name at a time. Using a .99 promo code, if a name wasn’t available I moved on to the next.

Let's step into the modern era.

Each letter of a domain name is big business. In today’s environment, your domain name may appear thousands (or millions) of times daily in Google’s search results. A change in rankings or clickthrough rate of just 1% can make the difference between fortune and bust. Choosing the right name is both an art and a science.

Domain Name Generator

How One Seattle Startup Chose a Name

Recently, a startup that I work with (full disclosure: I’m the part-time Director of Marketing for this company) undertook this naming process. Here’s how it played out:

1. Origins
Before I joined the company, the co-founders paid an upscale branding/advertising agency to help develop a logo and name.

2. Survey 1
A handful of people, including myself, disliked the name. After some feedback from investors, we decided to open the issue back up before launching. We brainstormed for days, went back to original ideas, and then surveyed a group of 40 friends, families and investors using a free service from Survey Monkey.

3. Survey 2
Using the results from Survey 1, we took the top contenders and crafted a 2nd survey, soliciting feedback from 30 top-notch online marketers who were unfamiliar with our concept.

4. Contest
We held a name contest on NameStation. (Good, clever results from the community there. The only drawback is the community is so very small at this point)

5. Clickthrough Rate Test
I took the top 10 contenders from 1-4 and created an Adwords campaign with 10 individual ads. The keywords related to our market. Each ad was identical except for the company name in the title and display URL. The ad led to a generic “coming soon/sign up” page. For 0 we generated over 100,000 impressions and measured the CTR for each ad, trying to keep all other variables equal.

Surprisingly, the CTR test resulted in a clear winner: the original name we paid the agency to develop. This cinched it.

The Results:
I present to you

PlaceFull Inc

Today, I like the name a lot better. Data has a funny way of doing that. Lessons learned:

  1. You can’t please everyone.
  2. Good names often have negatives. If you had asked me to evaluate “Pinterest” a couple years ago, I would have given you 18 reasons why the name was a miserable choice.
  3. Gather feedback. Data rules. There is no substitution for testing.

Dominating Domains & Science

It stands to reason that certain names perform better in search results than others, and correlation data shows that certain domains tend to perform better than others.

Does Length Really Matter?

Two recent correlation studies, one performed by the Open Algorithm and another in 2011 by SEOmoz support the notion that shorter names are associated with higher search rankings.

Domain Length Correlation

What this data shows is that longer domain names tend to rank lower than their shorter counterparts. (Remember the difference between correlation and causation). Most likely, this is not due to an algorithmic bias, but rather:

  • Older, more established domains tend to be shorter.
  • Long, exact match domains tend be disproportionately owned by spammers.
  • Companies with larger marketing budgets can afford shorter, more desirable names, and also can spend more on content and SEO.
  • Shorter domains are more memorable.

If given the choice, "" would make a better choice than "". As of this writing, both are available.


When the perfect domain is already taken, some webmasters resort to hyphenated versions. Is this a good idea? Bill Slawski, the Google patent guru, recently identified a patent that describes how Google might handle hyphenated domains.

… when two, three, or more hyphens are present, this is often an indication that these domain names are associated with companies that are attempting to trick search engines into ranking their web pages more highly.
United States Patent 8,046,350

Takeaway: "" might pass the mustard, but "" is going nowhere fast.

Dating Exact

If you sell “pink widgets”, does it still make sense to use an exact match domain like ""? There’s been a lot of debate over exact match domains over the past year, but the correlation data suggests it’s still a good idea. The most recent SEOmoz study showed a fairly good 0.22 correlation between exact match .com names and higher rankings.


Recent Google algorithm changes and concerns about Penguin and over-optimized anchor text have cooled exact match enthusiasm, but a more recent study by the Open Algorithm showed a still respected 0.181 correlation.

Although it’s clear to SEOs that their effectiveness has declined since their heyday, the data shows exact match domains still perform well in search results.

The SEO benefit of partial match domains is less clear. A partial match domain includes part of your keyword without the exact match. (For example, "" is a partial match domain for the keyword phrase "widget seller".)

Although there may be a branding benefit of including a relevant keyword in your name, Mark Collier of the Open Algorithm argues that "having the keyword in some of your domain isn’t very beneficial. It’s either exact match or forget it." Controversial words, for sure.

Regardless, if you become successful, your domain can become an exact match brand, much like Amazon, Facebook and Target.

TLD with Tomato and Lettuce

In early 2013, ICANN plans to introduce 1000s of new domain extensions in addition to the 22 generic TLDs (like .com and .net) already in existence.

For now, .com still rules.

Although correlation data shows very little preference for .com extensions, the public has traditionally embraced the dot com. Companies often start with non-traditional names, such as and, only to seek mainstream success with a dot com. Regardless, many webmasters believe the dot com domination won't last forever. My friend Andrew Dumont successfully uses the .me extension, and numerous examples of successful alternatives are not hard to find:

A few years from now, we might remember .coms as an interesting relic of the early days of the Internet.

For the record, it cost 5,000 to apply for a new gTLD. Google applied for 50.

International Domains

If you do business outside the United States, should you use a country code top-level domain such as .de or .uk?

In this case, there’s no one rule that applies to all circumstances. In many cases there may be some ranking and branding advantages to targeting a specific country. The problem is if you want to expand later, it causes a lot of work. Most experts agree that it’s usually best to snag a .com, even if you don't use it right away.

International domains are good for other uses as well. In fact, SEOmoz uses, from the country of Cameroon, for its URL shortener.

Note: For history buffs who want to buy a domain from the collapsed Soviet Union, the .SU extension is still available.

The 0 Google Ad Test

In the example above, we used Google Adwords to test our 10 best candidates in the real world. Using ads that matched our brand message, this allowed us to gauge clickthrough rates and engagement on a massive scale at low cost.

Spending 0, we generated over 100,000 impressions on Google's search and display network. The ads led to a public DropBox URL that displayed a generic "Coming Soon" signup page. Each ad was identical except for the first word of the title and the display URL – which represented the name we were testing.

Clickthrough Rate Test

The winning name earned a CTR almost 250% better than the lowest performer, and about 10% higher than the second place winner.

Validating your assumptions early can lead to higher earnings in the future.

Pulling it Together

So, the "ideal" domain is a short, exact-match .com (for now) with no hyphens that's easy to remember, spell, and accurately represents your brand.

Other tips include:

  1. Say the name out loud. After reading your computer monitor all day, make sure your customers don't need to speak Klingon in order to pronounce your business name.
  2. Different cultures are attracted to certain letter combinations, like double letters (apple, zoom) and palindromes. Be sure to experiment.
  3. Domains that start with letters early in the alphabet are often listed higher in directories, lists of links, sponsor pages and so on. As links higher up on a page general carry more weight, domains like "" might earn marginally more link juice than ""
  4. Even if the domain is available, take precaution so you don't sued for using it. For folks in the United States, run the name through the Patent and Trademark Office's search system to root out any potential conflicts. Europeans can search OHIM.

17 Super Useful Domain Tools

No more hunt and peck! For savvy marketers, the days of typing single domains into a search box are long gone. Below is a list of my favorite domain hunting tools.

Name Generators

1. LeanDomainSearch

Dead simple, fast and intuitive. Helps you quickly find names you never would have considered.

Lean Domain Search


This premium set of tools offers both a free and paid level of membership. The paid level is well worth the cost, and the small community of human idea generators can offer professional naming ideas for a fee.



The standard. Great when you already have a few ideas, and want to quickly see what’s available.



The made-up word generator.



Combines unique TLDs to generate names like and


Is this one of the best domain name generators ever?


Combines Panda and Bee. Get it? A great name-combining tool.


So many tools here, you could get lost for days.


Solid, all-around domain tool.


Another well-rounded tool. Also checks Facebook and Twitter availability.


Fast and easy domain suggestions.

Auctions & Premium Domains

You know you’ve made it in the online marketing world when you can afford to spend more than on a domain. Seriously, it drives me crazy to hear about startup founders (with funding!) still limiting themselves to available domains. Great after-market names are available at any price range, often starting as low as .

Yes, there are still great domains out there unregistered, but if you’re a million dollar company launching a new venture, why not expand your horizons?


Super large collection of premium domains. In the screenshot below, the name "" is available for .


Hand selected premium domains.


Listing over 4,000,000 premium domains.

Expired Domains in 3… 2… 1…

Great opportunities can often be found buying recently expired domains. Some of these are well-aged domains with hard to find keywords.


Lists tons of data about domain about ready to expire including backlink information, PageRank, age and more.

A word of warning: Some webmasters buy expired domains because of a strong backlink profile, but often these domains come complete with a spammy links and a black-hat history. A PR6 expired domain isn’t always what it appears to be. Buyer beware.

Pre-Branded Domains

If you don’t want to spend weeks digging for the perfect domain, there are websites that will do it for you – complete with a new logo. In minutes, you can be up-and-running with your new brand starting with just a few hundred dollars.


Every domain on the site is 0 and comes with a color logo.


Often a little pricier than Stylate, but a big, well organized selection.

What's your favorite domain tool? Let us know in the comments below.

What's in a Name?

The best name is one you take pride in, want to print on a t-shirt, and enjoy.

That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
A good name delivers to its master high ROI.

- Bill Shakespeare, Silicon Valley

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June 24, 2012  Tags: , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing

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