Six naming myths to ignore

Originally published Apr 17, 2009

When people face challenges they feel unprepared for, they want rules. They want experts to explain to them clearly and unequivocally what to do. And there’s usually no shortage of people willing to step into that expert role.

Naming is one challenge that many people find baffling, and naming rules abound in blogs, books, and magazine articles. The rules are often stated in uncompromising terms that make them easy to follow with minimal thought. Today The Name Inspector wants to talk about some of those rules and why they’re dumb.

1. Your domain name should have no more than six letters

Some rules are bad because they continue to be passed around after they become obsolete. The myth of the six-letter domain name is one of those rules. The Name Inspector doesn’t know how it got started, but he  found something like it in writing. A Microsoft publication called Managing Your E-Commerce Business, Second Edition has the following guideline:

The perfect domain name is less than six letters long, followed by .com or some other suffix. Short domain names are easier to remember and type. However, let’s be realistic: Fewer and fewer one-word domain names are left with each passing hour.

That was written in 2001, but you’ll still find people talking about how domain names are ideally no more than six letters long. Sometimes they point to a bunch of prominent names like eBayYahooGoogleAmazon, etc. as “proof” of this idea. But anyone who has tried to find a good domain name in the last five years or so knows that the six-letter limit is unrealistic. The five-letter limit urged in the passage above is now laughable. Some companies, like Biznik, do manage to find great six-letter domains, but they’re the lucky exceptions.

There’s some truth to the idea that short domain names are more memorable than long ones, but it’s not a matter of counting letters. The name is far more memorable than the name, even though the former has eighteen letters and the latter has only six. Memorability depends on the units being remembered. Meaningful phrases are more memorable than random sequences of letters, for example.

While it’s true that there are several big names on the web that have six or fewer letters, there are plenty of popular sites that have longer domain names. The following sites are all in the Alexa Top 100:  YouTube (7 letters), FaceBook (8 letters), Wikipedia (9 letters), Craigslist (10 letters), Photobucket (11 letters), and even Adultfriendfinder (17 letters). What these names have in common is that they consist of familiar parts put together (except Wikipedia, which was named before anyone knew what wiki meant).

So when you’re trying to come up with a domain name, you want to keep reasonably short, but you might also want to make it meaningful. If that’s your goal, don’t worry about arbitrary letter limits.

2. A name should be an empty vessel

You’ll hear a lot of marketing people say that a name should be an “empty vessel”. Hardly anyone gives a coherent explanation of the term, though. Here’s a statement taken from the website of Heckler Associates, the esteemed Seattle branding agency that came up with the name Starbucks:

Unique brand names serve as relevant ‘empty vessels,’ their meaning filled entirely by brand equity. Brand names that embrace market trends and conventions or associate too closely to common words signal a follower’s position. They reduce the opportunity for distinction, limit assimilation of your brand values, and make legal protection difficult.

The phrase “their meaning filled entirely by brand equity” implies that an empy vessel has no meaning. But what counts as meaning? Heckler came up with the name Cinnabon, which clearly resembles the phrase cinnamon bun. That’s not meaning? Do they mean the name doesn’t appear verbatim in the dictionary? If so, they should say that. The image of an empty vessel is a terrible way to get that point across. Cinnabon does not get all its meaning from brand equity. It gets most of its meaning from its resemblance to the phrase cinnamon bun. The first time The Name Inspector saw one of these places in an airport, he thought to himself, “Huh, I guess they sell cinnamon buns”. Cinnabon is about as descriptive as a name can be.

So it’s really unclear what marketing people are getting at when they talk about this empty vessel stuff. One thing they mean is that a name shouldn’t limit a company too strictly to one area of business, lest it make future diversification difficult. That’s a legitimate concern. But it has nothing to do with a name being devoid of meaning.

When  you talk about the “meanings” of a name, you really have to consider two things. First there are meanings of the word(s) that the name is based on. Then there’s the way those meanings relate to the company, product, or service the name stands for. Some names based on real words, like Internation Business Machines, are essentially literal descriptions and can indeed be limiting. Other names based on real words, like Apple, evoke concepts that relate only imaginatively to what the names stand for. Two very different kinds of name, neither devoid of meaning.

So, there are three problems with the “empty vessel” idea: (1) no one explains clearly what it means, (2) actual naming practice doesn’t seem to follow the dictate of the empty vessel, and (3) this way of talking about meaning completely misses the crucial role of context.

Meaning is good. Meaning is your friend. You just have to use it imaginatively. Forget the empty vessel.

3. Your name should yield almost no results in Google

This rule is proposed by Seth Godin in his post The New Rules of Naming. It’s based entirely on the idea that customers will find a company’s website by typing the company’s name into a search engine. It is important to be findable in that way. But to be found on Google, what you really need is to be the first search result. The rest don’t matter for findability purposes. If you own, then you’re already halfway there.

There’s another important way potential customers use web searches: to learn about the credibility and reputation of a company before becoming actual customers. If you search on a company’s name and their site doesn’t turn up as the first result, you might think the company lacks legitimacy. If the first several results aren’t web pages that mention the company, you might think the company is small potatoes. Godin’s rule will help a company avoid these situations. But it’s overkill to say a name  should only yield a few results in Google before you start using it. What’s really important is that you be able to dominate the top ten or so results for a search on your name. Results after that will probably be ignored by web searchers. So what matters is not so much the number of results you get for a search on a potential name, but how much “Google juice” those results have to compete with you, should you decide to use the name.

Let’s amend Seth’s rule: It’s a good idea to choose a name that will allow you to dominate the first page of search results on Google (and other search engines, of course). That means not having too much competition from popular websites.

4. Your name should start with a letter near the beginning of the alphabet

Guy Kawasaki promotes this rule in his book The Art of the Start. It’s a pretty old-school rule, based on the idea that you want to appear early in alphabetical listings like the phone book or a list of conference vendors. Again, the validity of this rule really depends on the situation. How much of your business do you expect to get from the phone book or from conference attendees? How much do you expect to get from web search, word-of-mouth, and advertising? If you’re relying more on the latter, message and memorability are way more important than what letter your name starts with.

5. Your name should begin with/contain the letter(s) __.

Experts often tell you that your name should ideally start with or contain a certain letter.

From the website of KaZaK Composites:

While visiting Sony in Japan, Dr. Fanucci [that’s the founder] attended a presentation on the principles of choosing a good corporate name. There he learned what makes a good company name, including that it should include the letters k, z and x.

Who was that mysterious “expert” giving bogus naming advice in Japan?

The branding professionals at Shift Partners suggest that a company name should begin with the letter V.

Now, The Name Inspector is obviously in favor of being sensitive to the nuances of words, sounds, and even letters. But people, there are no magic letters. Worry about things that matter first, like whether your name evokes ideas that help your brand.

6. Names of such-and-such a type are bad

The company Brains on Fire sometimes advertises itself this way in Google search ads:

No Latin roots. No mashed together words. Names that mean something.

The Name Inspector has already made it pretty clear that he loves meaning, so he doesn’t object to that last sentence. It’s the first two that are puzzling. Surely the folks at Brains on Fire don’t actually avoid using any words based on Latin in their names. They’re probably talking about avoiding a certain naming style that was popular in the 1990s–the one that gave us names like Acura Integra. Fair enough. But no mashed together words? Does that mean no blends, like Viralmentalist or Fiskateers? Wait, those names came out of Brains On Fire projects. Do they mean no compounds, like IndieBound? Oh, that’s a name they came up with. So what does their ad mean, exactly?

Linguistically speaking, there are only so many ways to create a name. The Name Inspector can’t understand why anyone would want to take perfectly serviceable types of name off the table. It’s already hard enough to come up with a good, meaningful name.

The bottom line: when naming, you can follow simple rules that will get you nowhere, or you can do the hard work of using language creatively to help people see your company, product, or service in the best and most interesting way.

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