Five Years Too Late

November 20, 2008

What’s in a Name?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — fiveyearstoolate @ 7:59 pm
Eric Wiesen

Eric Wiesen

I’ve been on a few panels (and been in the audience for many more) that focus on starting up a company. A lot of the questions (unsurprisingly) are about starting up web companies and best practices around doing so. Inevitably, one question arises:

“How much does the name matter?”

What does surprise me is the answer I usually hear from VCs, successful entrepreneurs, and other luminaries:

“It doesn’t matter.”

They go on to say focus on your product, great customer experience, scalability and all the other important company-formation features. And I agree that those are all critical, first-order concerns. But I disagree that names don’t matter, at least where consumer-facing applications and services are concerned.

Businesses generally don’t care what things are called – they have the time and financial interest to due significant due diligence on various offerings (although truthfully it doesn’t always happen) and decisions are made around more metrics-oriented decision criteria. But consumers are a whole different ballgame. You need to grab a share of their increasingly overwhelmed and attention-deficit suffering consciousness. You need, to use a metaphor I like in many contexts, to be no or low-friction. And your name is the first thing they are going to see.

So I’d lay out three rules for naming a consumer-facing web product:

  1. Be easy to spell
  2. Be 8 characters or less
  3. Be in plain language

You don’t need all three. But you need the first and one of the last two to have a good web name. Looking at some of the top (US) consumer-facing websites, let’s see how they stack up:

Yahoo (Easy to spell, 5 characters, arguably plain language): 2.5/3 PASS
Google (Easy to spell, 6 characters): 2/3 PASS
YouTube (Easy to spell, 7 characters, plain language): 3/3 PASS
MySpace (Easy to spell, 7 characters, plain language): 3/3 PASS
Facebook (Easy to spell, 8 characters, plain language): 3/3 PASS
Blogger (Easy to spell, 7 characters): 2/3 PASS
Ebay (Easy to spell, 4 characters): 2/3 PASS
Amazon (Easy to spell, 6 characters, plain language): 3/3 PASS
Flickr (5 characters): 1/3 FAIL

This is a somewhat cherry picked list, but most of remaining top sites by traffic are either abbreviations (MSN, AOL) or similarly compliant sites (, photobucket, etc…). We find only one site – flickr – that doesn’t meet these criteria for consumer-facing name success.

We can speculate about why this is, but I would suggest that the obvious answer is likely the right one, as Occam would say. If consumers can’t remember, recognize or spell your name, they are unlikely to get to your site via direct, type-in traffic. That leaves you with SEO, SEM and other indirect methods for drawing in users, all of which are important, but without that initial primary funnel you may struggle. To pick on Charles (because I know he can take it), iminlikewithyou is not a good consumer-facing name. It’s 15 characters, is plain language, but includes a word with an apostrophe, so it only partially passes the spell test. Really good product, bad name.

We can draw some conclusions from Flickr’s success, or we can just say it’s the exception that proves the rule. Flickr built its audience largely of “net natives” who quickly adopted the “missing e” as the next creative web naming convention (sort of like ____ster became earlier), and we’ve soon lots of similarly-spelled “Web 2.0” company names. In fairness, a lot of this is driven by domain squatters taking many of the plain language names. But in the absence of plain language, I would argue that your new company’s name should be short and easy to spell, even if it’s meaningless (worked pretty well for Google). Sure, the tech-saavy crowd may figure out but will your parents or your friends who aren’t “webheads”? If you are comfortable building a big, successful business out of just us (it can be done), by all means. But if you are going for mainstream…

Ultimately, if you are being thoughtful about your core site, service or application, you are carefully instrumenting your processes (registration, sign-on, setup, etc…) to minimize the waterfall of dropped users and are being diligent about removing friction to lower bounce rate and registration failure. Don’t start out on the wrong foot with a name that won’t stay with potential users. Path101? Good. Xoopit? Well…

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  1. All this is good and well, but the limited number of short, plain-language domain names means there’s real tension between what is ideal and what is possible. Startups with the potential to make the internet a better place are at the mercy of cybersquatters who are unburdened by any such ambition.

    Comment by Jordan — November 21, 2008 @ 11:52 am

  2. Jordan – completely agree about the cybersquatters and the difficulty of obtaining plain language names. Which is why the naming guidelines in the post say you don’t have to have plain language – just that it’s desirable. If you can’t get a good plain language name, use one that’s easily spelled and short. It can even use a web naming convention, if it’s one that is now commonly accepted. Jobster. Tumblr. Twitter. Netvibes. It’s harder than it should be, but worth doing right.

    Comment by fiveyearstoolate — November 21, 2008 @ 1:04 pm

  3. I did a lot of a research into naming my company recently so here’s a couple of things I found:

    Igor naming guide is a free 115page PDF document that is very readable and educational on the importance of names and how to evaluate a name’s effectiveness:
    You put up a cash prize and a community comes up with names, votes on them, and the cash is distributed. I got my top choice from these guys although am still not sure if I will use it.

    Comment by Carter — November 29, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

  4. I would definitely place much blame on domain squatters for the funny spellings of names. Honestly I’m a big fan of free-form TLDs, and even raising the base price of names

    Comment by Q dub — December 27, 2008 @ 11:55 pm

  5. {cough} {cough cough}

    Comment by J — September 22, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    • Yes… well, it’s a subject that has come up between me and Sam. I’ll leave it at that.

      Comment by Eric Wiesen — September 22, 2009 @ 7:15 pm

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