The new rules of naming

For a long time, I didn’t like my name. I spent more than 30 years spelling both my first and last name in school and on the phone. It didn’t help that I had a little trouble with my S’s when I was a kid.

Of course, now I think it’s fantastic that my grandfather overruled my mom when she wanted to name me Scott. (I think he had an issue with the branding of a type of toilet paper, but that’s a different story).

Scott’s a tough name in the Google world. Mark is even tougher. Michael is probably toughest of all.

We went through a lot of hoops in naming Squidoo.  I realized as I was explaining the process to a friend the other day that the same logic applies to any product or service or company in our bottom-up world, so here goes:

A long time ago, the goal of a name was to capture the essence of your positioning. To deliver a USP, so you could establish supremacy in your space just with your name. International Business Machines and Shredded Wheat were good efforts at this approach.

It quickly became clear, though, that descriptive names were too generic, so the goal was to coin a defensible word that could acquire secondary meaning and that you could own for the ages. That’s why “Jet Blue” is a much better name than “Southwest” and why “Starbucks” is so much better than “Dunkin Donuts”.

“Naming companies” flourished, charging clients hundreds of thousands of dollars to coin made up words like Altria.

Then domains came along. Suddenly, people were charging (I’m not making this up), $300,000 for The idea was that if you could grab a domain name (there’s only one in the entire world), then people could easily find you.

I think many of these rules have changed, largely because of the way people use Google.

If you want Jet Blue or ikea or some other brand, you’re just as likely to type the brand into google as you are to guess the domain name. In essence, we’ve actually added a step in the process of finding someone online. (How else would anyone find

This means that having the perfect domain name is nice, but it’s WAY more important to have a name that works in technorati and yahoo and google when someone is seeking you out.

Sort of a built-in SEO strategy.

Flickr is a good name. So is 37signals. The design firm Number 17, however, is not. Answers, About, Hotels and Business are all fine URLs, but they don’t work very well if someone forgets to put the <dot com> part in. Do a Yahoo search on radar and you won’t find the magazine or the website in the making, and do a search on simple and you won’t end up at the very expensive domain.

If you’re trying to make your way as a blogger, calling yourself Doc or Scoble or Seth is a much simpler way to establish a platform than calling your blog “Mike’s Blog”.

Sound obvious? Of course it does. But books still get titles like “Chip Kidd, Work: 1986-2006, Book One”.

So, that was the first task. Find a name that came up with close to zero Google matches. The only English language matches I found for Squidoo were for a style of fishing lure (we bought 6 gross, more on that later).

If I had a choice between a killer domain with a generic word in it or a great word that led to a less than perfect domain, I’d take the first, second every time.

The second thing that’s happening with the explosion of made-up unique names is that the very structure of the word now communicates meaning. Web 2.0 names often have missing (or extra) vowels. The “oo” double o is a great way to communicate a certain something about a net company.

“HRKom” doesn’t sound like the same kind of company as, say, “Jeteye”. This is all very irrational, artsy fartsy stuff, and it’s also important.

Altria and Achieva and Factiva and Kalera all sound like companies invented by naming firms. Which is a fine signal to send to Wall Street, but nothing you’d want to name your kid or your web 2.0 company.

The shift, then, is from what the words mean to what the words remind you of. The structure of the words, the way they sound, the memes they recall… all go into making a great name. Starbucks is made of two words that have nothing at all to do with coffee (except for their profits!) and the reference to Moby Dick is tenuous for most of us. But over time, the shape of the letters, the way they sound and the unique quality of the word makes it close to perfect.

So, using the [Update 2019, no longer fantastic, hard to recommend] fantastic NameBoy service (also a great name), I found thousands of available domains that managed to sound right and were unique. It took more than a month. Along the way, I almost bought but the owner (who has a charter boat in the Cayman Islands) wasn’t budging.

The last thing to tell you is this: you need to sell a name internally. There are two things you should keep in mind:
1. don’t use a placeholder name. People will fall in love with it. Find your name, use that name and that’s it.
2. don’t listen to what your friends and neighbors and colleagues tell you about a name. We had a placeholder name (yikes), I had to change it and everyone hated the new name. For weeks! Now, it feels like it couldn’t be anything else.

The entire point of “secondary meaning” is that the first meaning doesn’t matter at all (especially since you picked a name with no meaning to begin with). Over time, a surprisingly short time, your unique word, especially if it sounds right, will soon be the one and only word.