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How to Choose a Company Name

image for Sitthiphong / Getty Images
Sitthiphong / Getty Images

How often do you find yourself having to explain to friends or family what Target is when you say you want to go there? Or when you go to get coffee at Starbucks? Probably never. Why? Because these strong company names have become household names, in part because of the names themselves. 

"Choosing the name of your business is one of the most important decisions you can make. Not only is it the name that will appear on all legal documents, it's also the name the public will know you by and part of your overall brand," said Rex Freiberger, CEO of Gadget Review.

A good company name is short, sweet and memorable. Ideally, it loosely connects to your product or service, or reinforces your brand message.

"Good company names instill a sense of trust while allowing the target customer to identify your services quickly and easily," said Anthony Babbitt, a business consultant. "In the age of phone books, people used AAA Plumbing in order to be the first listing in the yellow pages under plumbing. These tricks don't work as well today when people rely on Google."

Anyone who has done a Google search knows, the more specific your search is, the more results you're going to get. But what if you're searching for a type of product or service? Business names matter very much for this type of search.

"When we talk [about] search engines, even though some generic terms already have some search potential, there is a possibility that a name might confuse Google (in terms of visitors' intent, are they looking for a brand or something else?), so that's also something to think about," said Milos Mudric, founder of SEO Brainiac. "In my opinion, Coca-Cola sounds better than 'black soda,' so I wouldn't choose a generic name."

Here are some other things to consider when choosing a company name as it relates to SEO:

  • "It can be very important for categorizing your business appropriately. You won't find a lot of plumbing or heating/AC companies in the restaurant section of search engines," Babbitt explained. "Search engines are delivering results based on proximity to customers, so location is becoming more important."
  • "The domain name is more important for SEO. For example, you can put an add-on to help with SEO purposes," said Jenna Jackson, a marketing and branding consultant at Squadhelp. "Tesla was at TeslaMotors.com before purchasing Tesla.com."
  • "Choose a name that incorporates vital keywords. When people search for your service or product, keywords in your business name are an excellent and effortless way to increase your ranking on search engine results pages," said Brian Patrick, CEO of Pest Strategies. "Small businesses do not have the luxury of creating stylized names that help them stand out from the competition. Small companies should settle with names that give them leverage against the competition in search engine rankings instead."

Xavier Morales, CEO of Secure Your Trademark, said that SEO is about showing up for the right search queries.

"If you name yourself after something very popular, like a landmark for example, that will always outrank you," Morales said. "Amazon did finally beat the Amazon rainforest for the No. 1 spot, but it took an Amazon-sized budget."

Other factors besides search engine potential that shape a good company name include:

  • A reflection of customer priorities: "Honest Auto Repair reflects people wanting to avoid being ripped off by a mechanic. Deal on Wheels Auto Sales reflects customers' desires to get a good deal. Jealous Neighbors Home Remodeling reflects people's vanity about home repairs and improvement," Babbitt explained. "All of these names also let you know what the business focuses on too."
  • Permanence: "Find [a name] you can be happy with today, tomorrow and in 20 years. Practice picking up the phone 20 times and answering 'Thank you for calling XYZ company. How may I help you?'" Freiberger suggested. "It should roll off the tongue and be easy to understand."
  • Simplicity: Jackson believes that a good company name "should communicate your brand story and be easy to say, spell, and remember."
  • Relevance: "Make it relevant to what you're doing so people will know what it is without having to dig too far," said Julie Nygard, founder of The Chocolate Therapist.
  • A connection to your mission: "Choose something that represents both what you do and why," said Ray Zinn, Silicon Valley CEO and founder of Micrel (now Microchip Technology Inc.). "At Micrel, reliability of both our products and service to our customers was woven into our culture and company mission, so creating a name with reliability woven in made sense."
  • Scalability: "This means your business name should be expansively accommodating for your latter growth, not a business name that amputates your ascension in your market space," said Michael D. Brown, director of Fresh Results Institute. "For example, tying a 'shoe' to your business name for a fashion brand could be impeding if you want to expand to clothing apparel later. Essentially, you don't want a business name that sentences you to one niche for the entirety of your business lifespan."
  • Digital availability: "Because almost everything is digital nowadays, you should pick a name with an available URL, preferably one ending in .com " said David Lewis, founder of Kitchen Ambition.
  • Universality: Many experts emphasized making sure a business name doesn't translate to something offensive, embarrassing or that is the antithesis of your intentions for the brand. A simple translation search should yield the desired results.
  • Do a lot of research. Come up with names that complement the products or services you're offering – something unique that conveys whatever feeling you're looking to get across. Then research that name and make sure no one in your industry or a similar one is using it, said Freiberger. David Reischer, a business attorney and expert at LegalAdvice.com, added that a federal trademark search should be performed to determine whether there are existing trademarks that are already registered for a similar name or mark for a business.
  • Check the SEO potential in your business niche and see if something can come of that, said Dan Bailey, president of WikiLawn Lawn Care. "Then I try to make it catchy (something people can easily remember if they hear or see it in an ad) and unique." In a similar vein, Jackson advised that knowing the "danger zones" is crucial. "It is important to know which areas to avoid. With so many trademarks, the chance of being able to use a single English word is becoming very slim," said Jackson. "The common danger zones are single English words, power words and symbolic words."
  • Solicit feedback. "Speak to colleagues, friends, family and the general public," Freiberger suggested. "Ask them what the name you've picked conjures in their mind and what kind of business they think it's describing. This can help you see problems you've missed."
  • Take your time. "Since you can rarely change your company name, it needs to be something you really thought about. So make sure you spend enough time thinking and considering things before you make your final decisions," said Timo Wilson, CEO of ASAP Credit Solutions.
  • Think about advertising. "Remember that the name is an advertisement in and of itself. So how you will advertise plays a role in choosing your name. When you go to the mall and see Forever 21, you know they sell clothing because you can see in the window. They don't really advertise anywhere else. But the name tells you that you will look like a young adult if you shop there," Freiberger said.
  • Make word lists. "Decide on your tone (classic, pragmatic, modern, fun, emotional, etc.), write down your secondary branding elements (big ideas, values, emotions, value proposition, etc.) and then brainstorm," said Jackson. Nygard agreed with this recommendation, saying, "Put all of your favorite words, concepts and ideas together that relate to your company, then keep rearranging them until you find something that clicks. You can also combine parts of two words, like Verizon did."
  • Make sure you trademark. "Once you have the name of the business, you will need to file a trademark application to protect the mark. After you have conducted a name search and discovered that your trademark is unique, you may file a trademark application and pay a small filing fee," said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation. "Filing for a trademark and receiving said mark, ensures that you and only you have exclusive rights to the mark."

These mistakes are important ones to avoid when naming your company and building your brand: 

  • "Do not try to get a name similar to someone else. If you have a restaurant selling hamburgers, don't try to be McDougal's or Mickey D's," Freiberger advised. "You are itching for a lawsuit and will have to re-do your branding and signage."
  • "Don't try to do everything with your name. Remember that a name is one part of your overall branding strategy," Jackson said. "Don't get too cleverly or cutesy. You want to communicate what you do and why you do it, so stick to the basics," said Zinn. Bailey seconded that recommendation, saying, "Don't go for something that's going to be 'quirky.' If people have to ask what your company name means, you're going to need to have a very strong brand to overcome that."
  • "Don't pick a name you hate because customers like it. Keep searching. After it's chosen, you need to be fully bought into making the name everything it can become," said Lewis.

"I have only ever used these to help feed my imagination. I have never recommended, or seen one used by anyone, for any other purpose. I suppose someone has used them for [choosing a company name], but I cannot imagine they achieved a great name," Babbitt confessed.

This sentiment is shared by many other experts. It's not that they're all bad or shouldn't be used at all, it's rare you get a name that accomplishes everything discussed above.

Reuben Yonatan, founder and CEO of GetVoIP, said you should use a business name generator if:

  • You don't want to use your name
  • When every idea you brainstorm is not available (another business is already using it)
  • When you are out of creative ideas and you need something to spark your creativity
  • You have access to an incredible business name generator

"Business name generators are a great starting point to help you get inspiration and brainstorm," Jackson added. But beyond that, a small business owner shouldn't rely on the results for their actual business name.

Lewis noted that business name generators just for the name itself might not be enough, emphasizing the need to think about URLs when choosing a company name.

"Because there are thousands of possible branding words, but only some with available domain names, it's helpful to take seed words to a URL generator like NameMesh or Panabee," Lewis said.

Despite our experts' opinion that business name generators are only either a starting point for inspiration or an absolute last resort if you've exhausted all other options, they do have their favorites. Here are 11 name generators you may want to try:

  • Headspace: Nygard noted that this is a good name because it ties in with the meditation concept they represent.
  • Standard Oil: "It was the 'standard' in the oil industry for a number of years," added Joe Karasin, owner of Karasin PPC.
  • Adidas: Even though the name actually derives from the brother's names who created the brand, a popular notion is that it stands for "All Day I Dream About Sports." That creates the association of Adidas with sportswear.
  • Firefox: "It is two memorable words, making a short name that is easy to remember due to both words beginning with the letter F," said Morales. "Firefox was also a good name for the purposes of branding, as it made coming up with a memorable logo easier."

"There's no such thing as a perfect name. Every name has some limitations. Creating an excellent name is only half about picking it," Lewis noted. "Part of a successful naming has to do with how you use the name after it's been selected."

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