Guide to Naming Your Startup

Tech Companies

Tech CompaniesCore Naming Conventions: Abstract, Literal, Metaphors, Invented and Domain Extensions

There are a number of popular naming conventions that can be used when coming up with a name for your startup or product. Note that none of these are considered best or worst practice, however they do have their pros and cons, many of which are discussed in this post.

Naming Trends

Over the past few years I have seen a number of naming styles go in and out of fashion.

The dropping of vowels was one of those interesting trends that has exploded recently. It is likely that this was started as a response to the lack of availability of the broader domain names or was created just for flair. The likes of Flickr, Tumblr, Scribd, Etsy are following this style of naming and it is now associated with a number technology based web start-ups.

Another relatively new naming adoption comes from the use of domain extensions. Bit.ly, Del.icio.us, Fast.fm and others are following this naming convention, opening up a new market of available domain names. Bare in mind that you may need to shop around for your desired domain extension as not all domain registrars offer the ability to buy domains with lesser known country codes.

Earlier to these two examples it was highly common to see colours being used in naming. it wasn’t hard to find companies with obscure names like Yellow Monkey, Green Fire, Purple Kiwi, Blue Noodle etc. This trend has recently subsided and I have not heard of many new company names containing colours. I will say that if you do intend to go down this route please read into the psychology of colours.

Abstract and Metaphorical Naming

  • Apple
  • Shell
  • Orange
  • foursquare
  • Steam
  • Hulu
  • Amazon
  • Twitter
  • Kayak

When using this naming convention it often helps to keep the name short and apply words that have diverse connotations. Amazon is a fantastic example that conjures up images of something vast in size that is powerful and diverse.

Twitter is of course the language of a bird and when we think of this style of chatter it suggests the use of short, sharp speech. For me this also promotes the image of mass conversation, after all it is not uncommon to see dozens of birds all chatting together in a group.

The main challenge with abstract naming is that the word is almost certainly going to be taken when searching for the domain. Not only that, you are then tasked with the somewhat difficult job of associating the abstract word with your start-up or product. However, once established you could potentially set yourself up for a powerful and widely known brand.

Literal

  • Money Supermarket
  • Go Compare
  • Compare the Market
  • Weight Watchers
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • Word Press
  • Live Journal
  • Slide Share
  • Microsoft

I have included facebook here as it started life as a literal meaning; it was simply a book that contained the faces of fellow university alumni. Microsoft has also been included in this section. In the early days this literally meant micro software. This name is somewhat ironic these days as the company and the software are far from micro!

There are a number of benefits to literal meaning, for one, it is easy to understand what the company or product offers. It is also possible to add positive and/or possessive adjectives such as “My”, “You” and “Your”.

Literal names are not always the most memorable and can easily become confused with other literal terms. Names containing the literal terms can also be perceived as bland. Go Compare and Compare the Market have cleverly beaten this bland appearance using clever gimmicks to help set them apart. Go Compare with their somewhat annoying but catchy jingle and Compare the Market with Compare the Meerkat campaign.

Invented and Misspellings

  • Tumblr
  • Flickr
  • Scribd
  • Etsy
  • GroupOn
  • Google
  • Squidoo
  • eBay
  • yfrog
  • Technorati
  • Delicious
  • Bebo
  • Digg

Google are obviously the most well-known name in this group. The Google name began life as Googol, which is the mathematical name given to describe ten raised to the power of one hundred (10^100). Realizing this was a somewhat convoluted word they decided to append the more commonly used suffix –le, also known as the final stable syllable.

Other examples previously discussed here are Tumblr and Flickr, which drop the vowel from the suffix. This technique often only works well with single word names, applying this to multiple worded names can have a negative effect; it also becomes harder to remember.

Domain Extensions

  • bit.ly
  • Adf.ly
  • Del.icio.us
  • Last.fm
  • About.me
  • Blip.tv

As previously discussed in this post a number of names constructed using domain extensions. Offline these names become harder to communicate, for example bit.ly becomes bit dot ly, Del.iciou.us becomes even harder to communicate, although delicious.com is now their preferred domain.

Including the domain extension opens you up to hundreds more naming options, many of which can be shorter in construction, but can be somewhat harder to optimize for on the search engine results pages (SERPs).

Mixing Conventions Doesn’t Always Work

Try to stick to a single naming convention where possible. The use of abstract and literal meaning combined does not always work well and can send mixed signals.

Combining two of the popular names in the examples above highlight how mixing can weaken the name. For example, “Hulu Space” (combination of Hulu and My Space) could be taken literally as a place to talk about hulu. It is no longer abstract enough to be memorable and it has confused meaning when considered literally.

Issues with Adjectives

In some cases positive adjectives can help establish the image behind the name. For example, “The Dependable Accountants”, although not a particular sexy name, does communicate one of the positive attributes behind the company. The main issue with this style of name is that it can be very hard to make it stand out from the crowd and is potentially not very memorable.

In my earlier start-up we adopted the use of “Falling” in the name; this was primarily to promote the concept of motion. It quickly became clear that people were confusing this with the alternate adjective “Fallen”.  It is easy to see how “Dependable” could become confused with “Trustworthy”, “Loyal”, “Reliable” and other commonly used positive adjectives.

Soft vs Hard Naming

There are certain letters and words that have the power to promote a given psychological response.

Letters like m, o, p, s and b are all “soft”, that is, they look smooth and rounded and are softer to pronounce. Letters like this can also be extended vocally. For example, “ooooo”, “mmmmm”, “ssssss”. Moo.com is an interesting example of the use of soft letters; it is easy on the eyes, has friendly connotations and is very easy to spell.

“Hard” letters like t, f, v, x, z are more abrupt. It is hard to extend “t”. However, this letter construction can have positive connotations within certain industries. Lawyers and accountants may be interested in promoting a professional and formal company; the use of more defined words can certainly help give the name this tone.

It is important to understand that our mind-set and expectations can change depending on a given industry. It is not surprising that we commonly find serif fonts used on legal documentation and san-serif on blogs. Serif is often seen as formal and professional while san-serif promotes a less formal aesthetic.

The same can be said for logo design. Using soft and rounded shapes can work well for companies that want to promote their friendly and approachable nature, but it is playful and unprofessional when used in the wrong context.

Search Engine Optimization

Having the keyword term in the domain name itself can carry a lot of weight with the search engines. It is considered highly relevant to the service offered, which works well for literal naming, but of course not so well with abstract naming.

Google puts a lot of weight on this. As of writing, 7 of the 10 results for the term “Supermarket” contain this keyword in the domain name, the 3 that lack this are found as the last 3 results on the first page.

That said, you shouldn’t let that put you off. It is entirely possible to optimize for the keyword term of your choosing through on page and off page optimization. Landing pages with the keyword term used in the URL can also help establish the keyword term within the SERPs.

Social Media

There was a time when we only had to worry about acquiring a single domain, however, today we have a plethora of social media services that should be considered when selecting a name. The trouble is that these social media usernames are easy to register and tend to get snapped up very quickly.

Be sure to check LinkedIn Groups, Facebook Pages, Twitter Profiles even forums for the same use of the username. The last thing you want is to start appending numbers to your name so that you can have your service on these sites.

Services like namechk can help you to see what usernames are available on a large bank of social sites. Remember that if just because you do not intend to use social sites to promote your service today, doesn’t mean you wont in the future!

Trademarks and other Legal Considerations

It is important to find out who is using the name. Spend a bit of time searching the web to find out if the name is in use, who is using it and why. If you are searching for Lloyd’s Widgets make sure you also search for the term with and without spaces  .Encapsulate the term in quotations in most search engines will also find an exact match on the given name.

You may come across a company product or service that uses the same name. While they may or may not have a trademark, but ask yourself if you would be adding confusion to the marketplace by using the same name, especially if they are operating in the same industry.

It is possible to use archiving sites to delve deeper into the history of the usage of the names used on a particular site. Perhaps they have not been using this a long time or perhaps it’s an old product no longer offered.

Remember, if you cannot find the product used on the web this doesn’t mean that someone does not hold the trademark term. Be sure to check your local patent and trademark office for more information. The US trademark database and UK trademark database are quite comprehensive and worth checking out.

Naming alternatives

When constructing a name be sure to write it down and spot for any hidden words that can be derived from the name. The web has some hilarious examples of naming fails, the likes of:

Winters Express – Winter Sex Press,
Childrens Wear – Children Swear,
Speed of Art – Speed O Fart,
Pen Island –  Penis Land,
Experts Exchange – Expert Sex Change,
Who Represents – Whore Presents

Closing Comments

Don’t let the name hold you back and don’t be afraid to explore other names even if you feel you have stumbled on the best name for your company. I would also recommend involving other people during the naming process. Note down all ideas no matter how good/bad you initially  think they are.

When you have the name be sure to test it out. Type it, read it and say it out loud.

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