Thinking about domains

Thirteen years ago, Josh Quittner wrote an article in Wired that almost made me richer than Donald Trump.

He wrote about how many domain names were up for grabs, including

Inspired, I sat down and registered hundreds of them. I was about to hit the ‘buy’ button when my office mate persuaded me that it was somehow unethical. Persuaded, I only ended up buying one or two generic terms.


Anyway, a decade and a half later, boom over, domains persist. Many are worth a fortune, tens of thousands are worth a semi-fortune.

Why are they still worth so much?

For a long time, clueless surfers would type a word into the address bar of their browser, figuring it was some sort of magic search engine. Type "gloves" into the address bar of Safari, and yes, it will take you to

But Firefox and others are wising up and connecting that spot to the search engines. Type "gloves" into Firefox and you’ll automatically go to the number one result on Google. Research shows that the number of people who accidentally end up on these sites is going down. So why the value?

I’m going to argue that it comes from two things.

1. Commitment. Because there’s ony one "dot com" TLD and no serious contenders, there’s only one neighborhood for business online. You’re either on Fifth Ave. (or Rodeo Drive, your choice) or you’re not. If you build a site at, you’re making it really clear to the surfer that you care about this topic, that you’re here to stay and that you can be trusted.

2. Focus. Similar, but not quite the same. By having a domain that matches what you do, you are able to focus the attention of the surfer. They know what to expect before they get there, and you can spend less time explaining yourself. The web already offers too many choices–this way, your site doesn’t have to.

I think this can help lead us to some useful strategies. If you own domains:

  • Reinforce the idea of commitment. Don’t use generic photos or standard layouts. The incremental effort to make your domain look like it sounds, to demonstrate your commitment through your actions, is very small, but worth it.

If you don’t own a domain that’s a perfect match (and that’s most of us):

  • Make up for the fact that your domain is imperfect by using design, testimonials and other substantial cues to remind people just how committed you are.
  • Don’t hesitate to create multiple domains for your efforts if you think it will help your visitors focus.

Over the last few weeks, Squidoo has launched a number of new domains to take advantage of this focus impulse: Squidbids, Squidvids and Squidwho, to name a few.

I’ve been amazed at how quickly people ‘get it’ when they visit each domain, and how productive the effort has been. The internet has taught people what to do when they see a domain. It’s not just an address, it’s the first bit of marketing.

One last bit of backward thinking: if you’re looking to start an online business, consider finding a great domain and build the business around it, not the other way around. If you subscribe to the snapnames newsletter, you can see which interesting domains are about to be sold for not much money. No guarantees as to how effective this service is, but it’s a neat way to think about what to build next.