BtoB

Domain names have brand impact

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Finding and protecting a Web site address that perfectly defines your company may be easier said than done, a lesson many businesses are learning the hard way as they wind their way through the maze of searching and registering domain names.

When a company's name is matched up exactly with an online domain name, traffic can increase exponentially, said Karl Barnhart, a partner at Corporate Branding L.L.C., a New York-based brand consulting firm. For b-to-b companies that conduct their primary business through the Internet, having the same name is critical, he said.

"Anything that gets in the way ofremembering who the company is makes it harder to do business in general, and on the Net especially," Barnhart said.

The problem, of course, is that companies can't always get the domain name they want. There already are 19 million dot-com, dot-net and dot-org domain names registered worldwide, with the vast majority in the U.S., according to Herndon, Va.-based Network Solutions Inc., the largest domain name registry. In the first quarter of this year alone, 5 million new domain names were registered.

Choosing a name

Traditional brick-and-mortar companies that already have a strong brand where customers associate the name with the business can get around the problem of not having a matching URL, Barnhart said. If the dot-com version of the name is taken, companies should consider opting for the dot-net or some other suffix. The company also can try registering the full legal name, which may include the "Inc." or "Corp." ending, he said.

"If a company has a weak brand and it can't get the URL it wants, then you can make a good argument for changing the whole name of the company," Barnhart said.

For start-up b-to-b companies, picking a moniker that's also available as a domain name is often the first order of business. Girish Mhatre, CEO of ChipCenter L.L.C., a new b-to-b seller of electronic components, admits finding a name for the company was the single most time-consuming task at the outset. After Corporate Branding presented the company with 30 different naming options that were up for grabs, Mhatre and his board settled on a descriptive name.

"If we had a more exotic name it might be more memorable [for customers], but we went for a more descriptive name because then you can conjecture what the company might be about," Mhatre said.

A growing number of b-to-b companies are tapping Internet keywords as an alternative route to steer customers to their sites, naming experts say. So far, there are about 1.7 million registered Internet keywords, with each business snapping up, on average, five keywords associated with the products or services it sells, said Keith Teare, CEO-chairman of RealNames Corp., the Redwood City, Calif.-based company that develops and registers keywords for companies.

In a dramatic move, RealNames client Hewlett-Packard Co. intends to register as many as 1,000 keywords as part of a major branding campaign beginning next month, said Peter Van Naarden, director of brand marketing for the Palo Alto, Calif., company. By typing in one of many keywords, customers will quickly find what they're searching for instead of experiencing the past frustrations of digging through HP's deep Web site, Van Naarden said.

"We'll include keywords in our packaging and our advertising so people have more efficient ways to find us," he said.

Protect your name

Added protection for a good domain name--even one that has a registered trademark--is essential to keep copycats and cybersquatters from making trouble with a b-to-b's hard-earned name, advised Rob Smith, director of marketing and sales for idNames, a division of Network Solutions Inc.

Once a domain name has been secured, businesses should register as many permutations of the name as they can, Smith said. He encourages b-to-b operators to register their names using a variety of misspellings and homonyms, inserting hyphens and adding foreign country names at the end. While there are about 110 countries that have restrictions on who can register domain names, there are dozens where no rules apply, he said.

"In the b-to-b space, companies need to be aware that their domain name is up for grabs in over 70 countries, including the U.K., South Africa, Israel, Mexico, Russia and Switzerland," Smith warned. "Anybody with a computer and a credit card can register your company's name in those unrestricted countries."

Businesses have more name protection in the U.S. To learn about domain name dispute policies in the U.S., companies can log on to Network Solutions' www.domainmagistrate.com. The site explains companies' rights under new legislation passed by Congress last year.

B-to-b operators also should register derogatory versions of their own names to prevent others from doing so, Smith said. Network Solutions has data on the most popular insulting names used and reports that a company's name followed by "sucks" is the hands-down leader in the category.

However, employing that strategy is no guarantee. In a widely reported case, Verizon Communications Inc., the newly named company launched by Bell Atlantic Corp. and GTE Corp., registered "verizonsucks.com" to pre-empt others from ridiculing it on a similar site.

Online hacker magazine 2600 registered the domain name "verizonreallysucks.com" to poke fun at the company. Angered by the move, Verizon filed a lawsuit against the magazine, alleging 2600's actions posed an infringement on Bell Atlantic's trademark rights under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act passed by Congress last November. The case is currently in litigation.

Despite the Verizon case, Smith said companies should still do all they can to protect their names. "The core question we ask our customers is whether they are willing to lose their Internet identity because they didn't do enough to protect their domain name," he said.

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