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So you want to start a company? (part 2)

You’re setting up a company (or a new division or maybe even a new brand) and you’d like to use email to communicate with your customers. In this series of posts I’m going to touch on some of the things you can do today to make email life easier for you in the future. Today, choosing a domain name.

2. What… is your name?

Your domain name is the keystone of your online branding, and increasingly your offline branding too. That means that you should think carefully about the domain name you choose and that you need to take good care of it once you’ve registered it.
There are two bits of the domain name you need to think about – the prefix you register (“facebook” or “hotmail”) and the suffix you register it in (e.g. “.com” or “.co.uk”). (You’ll sometimes hear the suffix described as a top level domain or TLD, but that’s not technically accurate so I’m going to stick with calling it a suffix).
I’ll leave all the fancy branding advice on choosing the prefix to experts but there are some technical things to know about it. There is beginning to be some support for internationalized domain names, but it’s still not consistently or reliably supported for anything other than websites (and not perfectly even there). So if you decide to register an internationalized domain name for your website, you’re going to want a plain ascii alternative as well.
You can have up to 63 letters, digits or hyphens with the only limitation that you can’t start or end with a hyphen, nor have two hyphens next to each other. You’re going to want something memorable that people can type in to their web browser or dictate over the ‘phone, so avoid playing typographical games to get a domain that looks like the one you want, such as replacing an O with a zero. And 63 characters is a lot, don’t feel you need to use them all. Domain names are case-insensitive, so if it matches your branding to capitalize all or part of it you can do that and everything will work fine (though it can look odd to people used to all lower-case domain names if you do).
There are 4037 suffixes you can register your domain in, from “.ac” to “.zw”. They’re divided into three main groups – gTLDs, ccTLDs and everything else.
gTLDs: “generic” top level suffixes
These include the immediately recognizable .com and .org, some specialized suffixes for particular organizations (.aero, .museum, .mil …) and some newer ones that were created mostly to sell to companies who couldn’t get the names they wanted in .com (.biz, .info). The requirements on setting up a gTLD have recently been relaxed, so there are likely to be many more in the near future – both brand specific ones (“.facebook” or “.ford”?) and more general purpose suffixes competing with .com, .info and .biz for customers.
For a brand that’s intended for use globally or in the US, .com and .org are still the top tier suffixes to use. Others are considered (fairly or not) as lower quality and (fairly or not) as less trustworthy and more likely to be used by spammers and other online scammers. Looking out of my hotel window I can see two businesses that are using URLs on their storefronts – there’s a major financial company with a .com domain and a hotdog shack with a .biz domain – and that image sums up how you’re likely to be perceived based on your domain name. If you’re a not-for-profit organization look hard at .org, otherwise .com is the first suffix to consider for US or globally-focused organizations. There are lots of reputable companies using .com and .org, and you want to look like them.
ccTLDs: “country code” top level suffixes
Each country in the world, from the Ascension Islands to Zimbabwe is assigned a two letter top level domain based on it’s official country code. The United Kingdom got .uk, the United States got .us and so on. Some countries have more structure below that such as .co.uk for UK companies, others don’t. If you’re based in a country (or marketing to a country) where the ccTLD is commonly used then it’s a great choice – I’d definitely use a .co.uk domain name in the UK, or a .de name in Germany, for example. Again, there are lots of reputable companies using them so both people and spam filters are used to them.
There are countries, though, which market their ccTLDs as pseudo-gTLDs and have distanced their domains from their countries identity – Samoa with .ws, Tuvalu with .tv, Tokelau with .tk and Colombia with .co are some more notable examples. Like .biz and .info they tend to be cheaper and easier to find a “good” name in than .com, which can be tempting, but they’re again perceived as lower quality. .co in particular is being pushed heavily as an alternative when the equivalent .com domain isn’t available – but I’m betting that a lot of people who see an advert for aardvarks.co will end up on the website of their competitor, aardvarks.com.
Everything else
The domain name system is hierarchical – anyone can register a single .com domain, then sell off (or give away) subdomains below that. Hundreds of people or companies have, and you can register domains under “.us.com” or “.mypets.us”. Don’t. They look cheap and many of them are riddled with throwaway scam domains. If you want to look reputable enough to have your mail delivered, they’re not a neighbourhood you want to be in.
Tomorrow: actually registering a domain and setting up DNS.

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