A domain name is the URL of a website (for example, the Docstoc domain is www.docstoc.com). Think of your domain as your address on the internet that allows customers and search engines to find your business. It is important for your domain name to be unique, findable and easy to remember, because this is how you will promote your website.

This guide includes tips on choosing a domain name, checking the availability of a domain name and buying the URL. Considering how many businesses bring in customers from their web presence, securing the best domain may be almost as critical as choosing your business name.

How to pick a domain name

The domain name should include your business name and/or specific services or products you provide to be sure people know who you are and what you can offer the moment they click on your site.

Your domain name should also be:

  • Simple and short. This means that it will be easy for people to remember and easy for them to type. Long and complicated names can create typing errors or be forgotten quickly. Shorter domains are harder to find, but they are the most desirable.
  • Branded. Your domain choice should be your actual business name. If that is not available, instead use keywords that play off the products or services you provide. This makes it easy to market.
  • Creative, unique and catchy. The more unique the name you choose, the more likely it is to be available. Most common domain names and keywords have already been sold. You also want the name to be unique enough to have market appeal and be memorable.
  • One possible spelling. Names with alternative spellings can be confusing. A good way to test whether your domain name is too confusing is if you say it aloud and determine if you need to clarify the spelling. You should also avoid using hyphens or numbers in most cases, as these are easy to forget and don’t tend to look professional.
  • A “.com” address. This familiar extension will be easy to understand for most people, and since it is the most popular, it is easier to market and brand. There are some rare exceptions in which other domain variations are effective (i.e. Visual.ly, but you must be prepared to take extra steps to acquire this unique domain suffix).

How to check if a domain is taken

Once you settle on a suitable domain name, you need to make sure the name is available; otherwise, you will need to find alternatives. To find out if it is taken, you can simply put the URL in your address bar and see if a website exists. You should also use other existing tools to make sure your desired domain name is available and legal. You have a couple options, including:

  • Use domain generators or domain searches, like KnowEm, GoDaddy or Network Solutions, to see if a domain name is available. If your search reveals that your desired name is unavailable, sites like these will offer alternatives that are available, such as the same name with a different extension (like .org instead of .com) or with added keywords.

What to do if a domain is taken

If the domain name you want is not available, you need to get creative. Try to have backup names prepared during your initial brainstorming so that you will have alternatives to choose from.

For alternative domain names, consider these options:

  • Domain-name tools like Dot-o-mator, which can give you inspiration by generating names based on prefixes and suffixes you enter, or Bust a Name, which organizes your keyword searches and allows for quick brainstorming.
  • Using the same name with alternatives to .com (such as .org, .net, .biz, .mobi, .co, etc.).
  • Add your location, such as your city or your state, to further personalize your domain.
  • Brainstorm with a thesaurus to achieve combinations of words that you may not have initially thought of. Try to collect as many related words as possible.
  • Add keywords to your brand name, such as a product you regularly promote or a service you typically provide. For example, instead of just “ScentShop,” try “ScentedCandleShop.”
  • Add prefixes and suffixes to the domain name, such as “the” to the beginning of the name or “ster” to the end.
  • Translate your keywords into a different language for an interesting approach.
  • Remove some or all of the vowels in your domain name, such as “Flickr.”
  • Hold a contest. Marketing sites such as Warrior Forum allow you to hold a domain-name contest and offer prizes. You can also hold a similar challenge at your place of business and keep the competition local.
  • Visit StuckDomains to find expired domain names that people have previously purchased and not renewed to see if any existing domains would be fitting for your business.

Also, be aware that even if the name is already owned, you can potentially contact the owner of the site and see if it is for sale. This arrangement may cost you more money initially, but can guarantee that you get the name you desire. Visiting a site such as Domain Tools, with a “Whois” search feature, can inform you of who owns the domain. If their name is protected, you can try contacting their domain provider to make them an offer. If you decide to follow this path, consider using a Domain Name Purchase Agreement to have a smooth domain transition.

Best sites and services for buying your domain

When it is time to buy and register your domain name, you need to work with a reputable domain registrar. It is a good rule of thumb to stick with well-known hosting sites because they typically provide good services at a low cost. Consider such factors as storage space, advertising options, cost, reliability and support. A company with a good customer service reputation will likely save you time and money overall. Consider these options:

  • Bluehost: This site is one of the largest domain hosting sites and is known for reliability and instant setup. Bluehost also offers design templates and a money-back guarantee.
  • GoDaddy: GoDaddy is one of the most popular domain hosting sites because of its low pricing for purchasing domains. The site also has website-creation tools and other products for getting you started on the web.
  • 1and1.com: Offering many hosting packages for businesses, 1and1 allows for easy personalization at a low cost.
  • HostGator: Another leading provider of domain hosting sites, HostGator offers unlimited hosting and multiple plans for businesses. HostGator will also provide a free domain transfer if you are unhappy with your first domain-name hosting site.
  • FatCow: A fairly inexpensive and flexible option, FatCow is also well-known for its green mission (the company is 100% wind-powered). Site templates and blogging options make FatCow a good choice.
  • Namecheap: This is one of the cheapest domain hosting services and offers a lot of free add-ons.

It is also recommended to register your domain name for the longest term possible, which is good for being found by search engines as well as retaining customers. Also, consider purchasing some or all alternative extensions (such as .org or .biz) and other possible spellings and plurals of your chosen domain name. That way you can you redirect these sites to your main site and drive customers to your website even if there is a misspelling or typing error.

Overall, the most important part in choosing and claiming a domain name is the branding of that URL. If you make a name memorable and share it ubiquitously (in advertising, in emails, on business cards, etc.), then you can start driving more traffic and eventually more customers.