What does your domain name say about you? An interview with Francesco Cetraro, Head of Registry Operations for .CLOUD

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Picking the right name for a product or a company is a crucial task that all startups face. A very important part of that process is to find a domain name that will help tell their story and make their brand stand out.

At this year’s EU-Startups Conference I had the chance to talk to Francesco Cetraro, the Head of Registry Operations for the recently launched .cloud domain. As a self-confessed “domain geek” Francesco is one of those lucky people that gets to work on something he is truly passionate about, and he is always happy to share his knowledge on domain names. We took advantage of this to get some of his best suggestions on how startups can reap the full value of a relevant domain name.

What should startups take into consideration when naming their product or service and/or when choosing a certain domain name?

First of all, the name should be easy to spell and easy to remember. If potential customers hear the name, they shouldn’t ask “what was it again?” or “how do you spell that”? If you plan to expand globally, make sure that your brand and domain name also work in other languages.

Obviously the name you pick should be available as a domain name, ideally on its own. This can be very complicated if one only looks at the traditional extensions like .com. Many startups end up adding additional keywords like “hello” or “app” just to find an available .com name, which can generate confusion.

But today, there are so many new extensions to choose from which offer several advantages, starting from a broader pool of single-keyword strings available for direct registration. Even more importantly, they bring the added bonus of providing additional context to help guide visitors to your site. For instance, a startup focusing on social media could do very well with a domain ending in .social.

The term “cloud” itself is a very popular keyword in brand and company names these days, and we have come across quite a few people that are already taking advantage of a .cloud domain to clarify their message.

One of these is ScreenCloud, a UK startup that is making digital signage affordable and accessible by replacing expensive dedicated hardware with their cloud-based solution. As they were launching, they tried to get their hands on screencloud.com, but the current owner’s asking price was way more than they could afford, so they settled for screencloud.io. But once they heard .cloud was launching, they were quick to take the opportunity to switch to screen.cloud. It’s shorter and easier to remember, and the new domain became itself yet another source of interest. Many customers and peers noticed it and the comments have been overwhelmingly positive, which is also a great argument for all those that think that if you are not using .com people will not be able to find you.

One of the factors you should keep in mind thinking about the perfect domain name for your business/product is probably also the SEO topic, right? Are there any differences between top-level domains like .com, .net, .cloud, .co and/or others?

SEO is a complex topic and achieving good rankings is the result of a combination of factors. Google itself made some clear statements in recent years that they don’t treat certain top-level domains different than others, so the simple fact of using a specific extension does not give you any intrinsic advantages or disadvantages. One of the most important SEO factors is still to have relevant content on your site and provide your visitors with the information, services and products they are searching for.

At the same time, there is more to a successful online (and offline) promotional strategy than just positioning on a search engine. Having a descriptive web address makes it easier for your visitors to get some immediate context about what you do, particularly when they are searching for the type of service you provide, rather than for your company specifically.

From this perspective, even if you are lucky enough to own your name in .com, it still makes sense to really look at what makes you special and finding out which domain name describes you best. That is the the one you should promote yourself with.

As your startup evolves, developing your product and communicating your key differentiators becomes crucial to your success. Some call it “growth hacking”, but in the end it all boils down to finding engaging ways to connect with your audience and help them understand the relevance of your message to them. Particularly when you are on a tight budget, a descriptive domain name used right can be an inexpensive yet effective marketing tool.

Here, it pays off to be true to your “startup nature” and dare to be different from the flock. Be creative and take advantage of the broad palette of available extensions to highlight what makes you unique and remarkable. You can even use multiple domains in different extensions to highlight specific products or activities.

With a bit of creativity even an extension like .cloud can do wonders, and we are seeing many great usage examples way beyond just “cloud computing”. Some of my favourites are burrito.cloud, a “collection of pictures of amazing burritos”, or the pair Partridge.cloud / Brent.cloud, which are ultimate one-stop-shops for animated GIFs from the popular UK TV Shows “Alan Partridge” and “The Office”. More recently I also discovered that Joyce.cloud is used by the Jülich ObservatorY for Cloud Evolution at the Institute of Geophysics and Meteorology of the University of Cologne (so quite literally, a site about “clouds”).

While we are clearly very happy when someone decides to do something cool with a .cloud domain, the important thing to keep in mind is that the combination of your product or company name and the top-level domain makes sense, sounds good and is easy to remember.

What else should startups think about when choosing a good domain name and the right top-level domain?

There are no “good” or “bad” extensions in absolute terms. There are however “good” and “bad” choices people make when it comes to domain names. If the combination of keyword and extension you choose does not add context and value to your message, then you are doing it wrong.

I do understand in the early stages, many startups may not have a fully developed story or understanding of their audience. That’s very natural considering how much a startup needs to do at the beginning with minimal resources. That is however not a good reason to settle for the first available option, particularly when it comes to such a visible part of your brand as your domain name.

Startups are by definition drivers of innovation, they are about challenging the status quo and finding new and better ways of doing things. This is why I get disappointed when I then see people play it safe and blindly follow the latest trends without a clear understanding of how that affects their visibility and appeal in the long run.

Take for instance .io, which in itself is a cool, quirky extension to use if you develop hardware and target a tech-savvy audience that can appreciate the alternative meaning of this extension. There are however many other startups that work in completely different spaces that are now picking it up, without even considering whether that “io” means anything to their end-users. That to me is a clear example of a “me too” approach that ultimately results in a missed opportunity.

If building a successful business is more important to you than fitting in with the latest trends, then it makes sense to spend some time and effort to find the domain that is relevant for you. Not only when you start out, but as you grow.

Sometimes the audience focus changes as you receive feedback on your product, enter into new territories, or expand your offerings.

A perfect example of rethinking your brand as you grow and enter new markets is FoodCloud. Their original domain was foodcloud.ie, which made sense because they were a local Irish startup. Their solution has proven so successful that they have now started expanding into more regions, a development reflected by their choice to move to the food.cloud domain. Not only is it a short and sweet domain, but it provides a solid framework for their growing international reach.

In the end, if you take a holistic approach to your branding and marketing effort and you do your homework right, your domain becomes “the brand” in a way that feels natural and helps focus all the attention on you and your product.