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Creating Usable Domain Names

When the General Services Administration (GSA) changed the names of the U.S. government's official Web portals from FirstGov.gov to USA.gov and FirstGov en español.gov to GobiernoUSA.gov, we researched domain name options and usable domain name characteristics. The strategies for selecting domain names discussed in this article apply to top-level domain names, not to all types of URLs.

Ten Characteristics of Usable Domain Names

Between our research and experience at GSA, we uncovered 10 characteristics of usable domain names that help to increase trust. The most usable domain names are:

  • short (12 characters or less)
  • guessable
  • easy to spell
  • easy to type
  • easy to say and pronounce
  • memorable
  • meaningful to customers
  • meaningful to Web site partners
  • meaningful in the intended language
  • run together without punctuation, if compound words (e.g., GobiernoUSA.gov)

The USA.gov Experience

FirstGov.gov had never been a popular name for the official portal of the U.S. government. It was redundant and awkward to say. In fact, GSA conducted several focus groups and learned that many members of the public thought FirstGov.gov referred to a bank or an insurance company, despite the .gov suffix. Some government agencies were hesitant to provide the required link on their homepages because the name didn't mean anything to their customers. In addition, Web logs showed that thousands of people were already typing "USA.gov" into their browsers, guessing at what the name should be.

The name originally chosen for the Spanish-language site also had issues; it was a hybrid-language name. "FirstGov en español" did not describe the site from a Spanish-speaking point of view. "Español" means "Spanish" but "FirstGov" has no meaning in the Spanish language. In September 2006, GSA conducted an online survey of Spanish speakers in the U.S. to test five possible names for the Spanish portal. GobiernoUSA.gov was the clear favorite because "gobierno" means "government" in Spanish.

Based on this research and direct user feedback, the names for both sites were changed. Both USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov follow the naming conventions of most national and state portals.

Twelve Strategies for Usable Domain Names

Building trust is an important function of an organization's Web site. You can enhance the trustworthiness of your Web site by using these domain name strategies:

  • Allow the use of domain names with and without the "www", e.g., epa.gov or www.epa.gov. Many Web users don't bother to type in the "www" and you'll lose credibility with those customers if your site doesn't work without the "www." Use the full domain name with the "www," however, on all publicity because it clearly identifies the name as a Web site. We found that without including "www" on written documents, people were unsure whether the name referred to a Web site or an email address.
  • Support domain name or prefix typos, e.g., "w", "ww", or "wwww" instead of "www."
  • Follow the OMB Policy on Domain Registration, and use .gov, .fed.us, or .mil domains.
  • Reserve similar and abbreviated domain names, and redirect the traffic to your main site, e.g., "usagov.gov" and "us.gov" redirect to USA.gov. Most domain names are relatively inexpensive to procure (government domains are only $125 a year) and reserving those that are similar to your domain name will help your customers find the right site the first time.
  • Before adopting a new domain name, check for synonym sites using the .com, .org, .net, .info, .biz, and .us suffixes. You may be able to buy those domain names; if not, at least you'll be aware if your "competition" is unsavory. This information may also convince your management to choose an alternative domain name.
  • Avoid extra punctuation in the domain name, such as hyphens; they're hard to remember.
  • Numbers may be used as part of the domain name as long as they are meaningful and memorable, such as Section508.gov. There are drawbacks; numbers may be harder for customers to type and there could be confusion between some numbers, such as "for," "four," and "4."
  • Short domain names (12 characters or less) are best because people often type them manually.
  • Avoid using mixed case since people can't remember the difference between upper-case and lower-case characters; and domain names themselves are case insensitive.
  • When creating a new domain name, consult your Web logs to see what keywords customers are typing to get to your Web site; perhaps those keywords should be part of the domain name, for example "fedsales" is seldom used but "auctions.gov" is often typed.
  • Avoid unmemorable and unintentional acronyms; both can damage your organization's reputation.
  • Construct a custom error page to help customers if they try to guess at URLs deeper in your Web site; guide them to logical alternative pages.

Be sure to usability test domain name options before adopting them. You can test them through online surveys, phone surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one usability studies. Domain names are easier to change before they have been put into production.

Related Guidelines

Several of the Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines support the importance of choosing usable domain names, including:

  • 1:3 Understand and Meet Users Expectations;
  • 1:6 Focus on Performance Before Preference
  • 2:4 Reduce the User's Workload.

Conclusion

In his book, Killer Web Content, author and Web content expert Gerry McGovern, likens link-writing to headline writing; by extension, domain naming is akin to marquee construction: Your domain name represents the sign over the front door to your organization. It will be printed on every brochure, press release, report, and business card that your organization or project produces. Make sure your domain name truly welcomes your customers by being easy to find, easy to use, and easy to remember.

References

Garrett, J.J. (2002, September 24). User-centered URL design Site exit disclaimer. Adaptive Path.

McGovern, G. (2006). Killer web content. A&C Black, London

Nielsen, J. (1999, March 21, updated 2005). URL as UI Site exit disclaimer. Alertbox.

Nielsen, J. (1999, March 21, updated 2005. Compound domain names Site exit disclaimer. Alertbox sidebar.

Olson, H. (2003, April 13). User-friendly URLs Site exit disclaimer. GUUUI.

Olson, H. (2004). Server side usability Site exit disclaimer. GUUUI.

Web Managers Advisory Council. (2007) Domain registration Site exit disclaimer. Webcontent.gov.

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