Today's startups have a lot of technological advantages over businesses that launched a decade ago. But there's one challenge that's unique to the modern entrepreneur: finding an available domain name for their business.
For American businesses, .com remains the most popular and coveted top-level domain (TLD) in terms of branding power, said Mike Mann, a serial entrepreneur and domain registration expert. It's been the default domain extension for much of the history of the commercial Web, and most consumers automatically type it in when searching for a business's website.
But the pool of available .com names is rapidly shrinking, and getting the branded domain name you want is becoming more difficult — and incredibly expensive. Domain marketers know the value of a .com URL, and often charge an exorbitant price if a business owner wants to purchase a specific domain name from them. This is unwelcome news for aspiring small business owners, who may not have the resources to buy a .com domain name that fits with their brand. [4 Smart Tips for Choosing a Domain Name]
"The overly congested namespace of the Internet has left little opportunity for acquiring a desired domain name, forcing consumers to consider options which include slogans, symbols and abbreviations," said Kelly Meeneghan Peters, public relations manager of global domain registrar and Web-hosting company 1&1 Internet.
These alternative domain extensions, which often don't align with a brand's actual name, can be very difficult to memorize and confusing for consumers. However, new industry-specific TLDs such as .biz, .travel and .shop are becoming an increasingly attractive option for businesses that want a simpler, more transparent domain name. Meeneghan Peters noted that in February 2014, the first of what will be more than 700 new TLDs were released, which will give small businesses a better chance of acquiring their first-choice domain name.
"The addition of new TLDs increases options for business owners, allowing them to be more creative and descriptive in how they shape their online presence," added Raymond King, CEO of domain application and management company Top Level Design. "Finding a great domain name in an industry-relevant TLD can create increased visibility for your business and help potential customers find you more easily. After all, what better place is there to start looking for a plumber than on a .plumbing site?"
When using a nontraditional TLD, you'll have to pay extra attention to your branding efforts so consumers will remember where to find you on the Web. Here's what you need to know about choosing and marketing your nondot-com domain name.
Your TLD should be based on your branding strategy
How do you want to position yourself as a brand? Do you want to be your local area's top business in your industry? Or do you want to create a sense of industry expertise and authority that takes your business to a national level? Your domain extension can help you accomplish your branding goals, if you choose the right one.
"With the new TLDs, website owners can communicate the type of business and identify themselves instantly from the first impression of a visitor — the Web address," Meeneghan Peters told Business News Daily. "Options like .pizza, .shop, .photography and many more drive full transparency and convenience for the end user."
Another option is a geographical domain extension like .nyc, .miami and .vegas, which allow visitors to see where the business is located, Meeneghan Peters continued. This opportunity would be especially valuable for those industries that only offer services locally, like legal firms, restaurants, travel agencies, health services operations and real estate companies.
King noted that taking advantage of alternative TLDs isn't only reserved for new businesses. Existing businesses with a .com URL can create a new webpage to expand their reach and establish their expertise.
"A great opportunity with .wiki is using it to supplement your existing site to allow you to educate [people] about your vertical market more broadly," King said. "After establishing a wiki site and putting down enough content to attract other contributors, you'll begin to see a community emerge to discuss and educate others, and you can direct your customers there for a more neutral and authoritative look at your offerings."
You can use your TLD as a branding strategy
Certain TLDs such as .tattoo, .legal and .vacations lend themselves well to a clearly branded Web presence that can include your full business name. For example, a Michigan-based school called The Midland Academy recently purchased the domain name Midland.Academy to reinforce its branding efforts.
"We love our current domain because it's easy to remember and directly represents our brand," said Bryson Hotopp, a Web designer and system analyst for the school. "We get the same consistency, but with the new domain we can shave off some characters from marketing materials."
King agreed that a nontraditional domain extension can provide a very easy marketing opportunity: It's a chance to stand out and clearly brand yourself without requiring a lot of money or expertise. King cited examples of companies like Expedia, which reinforces the ".com" in its ad campaigns. Businesses that use a new TLD can similarly incorporate their domain extension into their marketing efforts.
"New TLDs can act as a hook to draw both loyal and potential customers into conversation," he said. It may mean that you have to provide some brief education on domain names, but that's simply another engagement opportunity with your customers."
A high-quality website is still Google's top priority
Because these highly specific TLDs are so new, there's been concern about how Google's search algorithms will rank them. While .com domain names will likely continue to take precedence for the foreseeable future, what matters more is the quality of your business's website.
"If you build a good site, Google will recognize you and you might be able to compete with [a nontraditional] domain name," Mann said. "That's the most important thing for a modern website — that Google recognizes it. If no one can find you, you won't make a profit."
Mann said that your website should imitate a good-quality store: one that is appealing to the eyes, well-laid-out, with easy-to-understand words and descriptions. Follow Google's best SEO practices, too, to ensure that your site will be as highly ranked as possible.