Creating an online identity: Domain name do’s and don’ts

do's and don'ts of domains

What is a domain name?

Domain names are sometimes called your “website address” and they function in much the same way that your mailing address does.

When sending old-fashioned snail mail, you put an address on an envelope and the post office then figures out how to get that letter to its destination. In essence when you type in a domain name, you are ask your web browser to take you to a particular website destination. So, for example, you type in tiltedwindmills.com into your web browser and it takes you to the home page of this website.

Do I really need a domain name?

If you are planning an online presence of any kind for yourself—a portfolio, a blog, etc. etc.—the short answer is… YES.

The great thing about domains names is that they are portable. Unlike when you move to a new home and have to alert your friends and family of your new mailing address, even if you jump from a Tumblr blog to a WordPress site to your own mega-super-awesome custom-built website in the future you can ensure that your domain name is always pointing your users to wherever you are currently. You buy it knowing that it never needs to change if you don’t want it to and so you can comfortably slap it on business cards, promotional materials or whatever.

This means however that you should put some thought into choosing the right domain name from the beginning.

How do I get a domain name?

You purchase a domain name from what’s called a domain registrar—or a company whose business includes selling and hosting domain names. While there are a quad-zillion registrars in business these days, I recommend sticking with something well-known that isn’t likely to up and disappear on you overnight. For the purpose of this blog post, I’m going to be using Dotster as my example as I’ve been with them since I first registered the domain for Keyframe back in 2001.

What kinds of domain names are there? How much do they cost?

A domain name consists of two parts—the name (such as tiltedwindmills) and the extension (such as .com, .net, .org and so on)— and how much a domain name is going to cost will depend on what extension you choose.

The cost for a basic domain, (the kind that have been around since the dawn on the web), will run you about $15/yr for a .com and $10/yr for a .net or a .org.

Speciality domains and country-based domains will likely cost more and there are a staggering number of options available these days such as .name, .tv, .mobi and .info. In general, I recommend sticking to the classics unless you have a specific reason to do otherwise. There are often restrictions around registering for these fancier domain extensions which can make registering them trickier.

For instance, as a Canadian citizen I was able to register a Canadian domain extension and create athenacooper.ca. I chose to do this for my freelance business because I felt it was important from a business point of view that my clients knew I was based in Canada.

How do I choose my domain name?

First off, as you try to come up with a domain name you are going to want a domain search engine such as the one on Dotster at your fingertips. The web in its popular form has been around for almost twenty years now and, because of this, you’re going to find that many of the clever names you come up with are unfortunately already going to be taken.

It could be that the domain is taken across the board—the .com, the .net, the .org, etc.—or it may be that the .com is taken but some of the other extensions are still available. Wherever possible avoid the latter scenario because, if that other site is active, it is going to be your direct competition in Google searches right from the get-go.

In any case, as you brainstorm, use the domain search to immediately rule out anything that’s already taken. Take your time with it and use some of the tips below as a guide.

Norman Rockwell, "The Tattoooist"

Make it something that isn’t likely to change – When you think about choosing a domain name, think about it a bit like deciding on a tattoo—whatever you pick it should be something that you can live with for a long, long time.

If this domain is pointing to a personal web portfolio or something that’s promoting you as an individual, then I encourage you to consider registering simply your full name. It’s something that’s going to immediately tie you as an individual to this online entity that you’re creating and make it extremely easy for people, such as potential clients and employers, to find you if you’ve been previously introduced. Also, for reasons that I will discuss in a future blog post, having your name as your domain name increases the likelihood that when you Google your own name you appear at the top of the search results.

If you would rather not use your name then, as I said, make sure you’re picking something that you love and can live with. You don’t want some clever catch-phrase that’s amusing to you today, but that’s going to feel dated or irritating five years from now.

Make it easy to say – You will be surprised by the number of times that you end up having to tell people your website address. Maybe you’re on the phone and you’re dictating it to the person on the other end. Maybe you’re at a party without your business cards (tsk, tsk) and you’re telling someone so they can write it down on a napkin. Either way, the ease at which you can verbally describe how to get to your website is crucial—and probably one of the strongest arguments in spending the money to buy a domain name.

Think about which of these is easier to say aloud:

  • www.fanfiction.net/~tiltedwindmills
  • tiltedwindmills.deviantart.com
  • not-crazy-just-creative.com
  • tiltedwindmills.com

And remember, if they write down even one dot, dash or slash wrong they may never find your website.

Make it easy to spell – I know it’s going to be tempting after you realize your nineteenth or twentieth brilliant domain option has already been taken, but supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.com is not a good choice for a domain name. Even if it weren’t already taken (*face palm*) and much too long, no one is ever going to be able to spell it!

Other things to keep in mind:

  • Avoid words that have potentially ambiguous spellings — this includes words like neighbour vs. neighbor or colour vs. color.
  • Avoid being cutesy about spelling — if nightlife.com is taken then I would not recommending taking nytelife.com instead unless you’re willing to spell it out every single time you say it to someone over the phone
  • Avoid words, large and small, that people will have trouble spelling — as much as my sister the linguist enjoys fancy words, she had the very good sense to purchase gastrofare.com for her travel/food blog, Gastronomical Wayfaring. I would note that “fare” wouldn’t be my first choice if she wanted to push this a full online presence as it could be easily mistaken for “fair” when said aloud, but for a just-for-fun blog it’s perfectly fine.

Also, I wrote above that a person’s name is a good place to start when trying to decide on a domain name. I would add that if you have a name that you know is difficult to spell, you may want to consider an alternate for your domain name. For instance, let’s say your name is Linda Ventimiglia and you’re a painter, then you may want to just have lindapaints.com as your domain name.

What is “domain privacy”?

When you go to register your domain name, the registrar will ask if you would like domain privacy included as part of your registration. This will cost you an extra $9/yr or so, but you absolutely want domain privacy and here’s why.

As part of the registration process you’re going to be asked to provide your name, address, phone number and email to be used for your Administrative and Technical contact. If you’re just starting out, then it’s quite likely that you’ll be putting in your personal home contact information. Unfortunately, all of that Administrative and Technical contact information becomes part of your WHOIS record which is publicly accessible—meaning that with a quick whois search on your domain, someone could conceivably grab all your personal contact info.

Not a good idea… but don’t panic, this is where that extra cost for domain privacy comes in.

If you pay for domain privacy, then your domain registrar will act as the intermediary for your WHOIS record. Instead of your contact info appearing in the WHOIS record, theirs appears and if someone wants to contact you about your domain, they’ll forward all requests to you without revealing your personal information to the requestor. Here’s the whois record for tiltedwindmills.com as an example.

Great, I’ve decided on my domain name… now what?

If you’re planning to use your domain name with a custom-built website, that’s a bit beyond the scope of what I can cover in this blog post, but in the simplest terms you’ll want to buy the domain name at the same time you purchase the hosting space for the website. Talk to whoever is building your website about how this is done.

If you aren’t ready for a custom-built site yet, you may be using free hosting space for your portfolio like WordPress.com, Behance or DeviantArt. What you want in this case is to get the domain registrar to set the “redirect” or “domain pointer” to the location of your portforlio.

For instance, I have a portfolio on Behance that can be found at http://www.behance.net/athenacooper. If I wanted to, I could use the redirect to send anyone going to http://athenacooper.ca straight to that Behance site.

Every registrar handles setting up this redirect a little differently, so if you have any doubts in how it’s done, just ask them.

And that’s it!

I know it might seem like a lot, but it’s really quite simple. The only reason to spend a bit of extra time thinking about your domain name is simply because your online identity will be stronger if you can pick a great domain and stick with it as you grow your presence online.

In any case, if you’ve got any questions, just drop them into the comments area below.