In an article on how to track campaigns in Google Analytics, I explained how to tag urls to your site to track promotional and marketing efforts. As this generates a long url, the recommendation is to shorten them before use. An additional way to brand your site as well as separate tracking data is to use a custom or branded url to use in your promotions.
Branded Short Domains for Your Business
What is a branded short domain, also known as a custom vanity link? It is an extremely abbreviated url that can represent your company. In the original launch of standardized top level domains, the .com extension was set for commercial businesses. It was one of seven original gTLDs, the others being:
- .edu: educational institutions
- .org: nonprofit organizations
- .net: networks
- .gov: U.S. government entities
- .int: international organizations
- .mil: U.S. military units
As the price for yearly domain name registrations dropped along with the barriers to online publishing, the demand for domain names grew and new tlds were released to accommodate demand. In 2001 and 2002, four unrestricted domain names were released for general use: .biz, .info, .name, and .pro. ICANN also released a number of two letter extensions to be used for various country registrations. It was this release that later opened up opportunities for custom short domain urls.
Available gTLDs for Branded Short Domains
As I mentioned the two letter extensions were originally intended for use for web sites based in those certain countries. However, in 2010 the Columbian government release their extension, .co, for public registration. A number of large brands saw the opportunity to use the TLD as a way to stand out among the alphabet soup of the web.
“ . . . dot-CO has found the support of global brands from IBM to Starbucks, from Google to Twitter. The most valuable domains — those with just a single letter, such as “g.co” — have reportedly been sold for seven figure sums. Amazon bought three: a.co for itself, z.co for Zappos, and k.co for Kindle. “
Since then, creative use has been made of a number of other two letter extensions.
How to Choose a Domain for Your Custom Vanity Url
So how do you choose a domain for your custom short url? The most obvious short extensions are .co, .cc, .me, .to, and .us. There are a number of other two letter extensions that allow for unrestricted registration without requirements for citizenship or presence in the sponsoring country. However, make sure that you check the renewal price for the extension that you choose. Some are significantly higher than the more familiar extensions.
My personal favorites for short branded urls are the .co extension for general usage and .us if it is for a location based site. Some ideas for your vanity url might be the initials of your business or an abbreviated form of a keyword related to your business. If you can work the word to incorporate the two letter tld, even better.
How to Use a Custom Short Domain
Once you have your short domain for your url, it is time to set it up with some sort of shortening system that will redirect it to your chosen url. There are several ways to do this. As I mentioned in the article on tracking campaigns in Google analytics, you could even set up a shortening system on your own server if you wanted to.
However, if you are just starting out, that is probably overkill.
One of the easiest ways is to use the shortening service Bit.ly (note the .ly extension), particularly if you are already using the service to shorten links.
Using a Vanity Domain Name with Bit.ly
Entering Domain Information on Bit.ly
- Log in to your account on Bit.ly.
- In the upper right hand corner, click on your user name and select the “Settings” menu item
- In your account information, click on the “Advanced” tab
- Click on “Activate a Branded Short Domain for personal use.”
- Enter the name of the branded short domain that you registered and click “Add”
Redirect Domain at Registrar
The next step requires you to direct your domain to Bit.ly, allowing it to manage the redirections. This is done at your registrar, the place where you just registered your short domain, such as Godaddy or NameCheap. In the domain management, you will set the DNS (domain nameserver) to 188.8.131.52. Each registrar’s domain management is a little bit different, check with their documentation.
Once you have set the A record, it will take a little bit of time for the changes to propagate, up to 24 hours.
Finish Bit.ly Settings
- Return to the Advanced Settings tab and click “verify” to complete the Bit.ly set up.
- Once the domain is verified, select your short domain for the default shortener for your account.
- Finally, set your main domain as the branded short domain root redirect.
Using Your Short Branded Domain Name
The benefit of using Bit.ly as your main url is that a number of third party services have integrations that will allow you to use your branded url due to Bit.ly’s widespread popularity and usage. Buffer, Twitterfeed, Social Oomph and Shareaholic can be set to default to your short url.
If you have a page, service or product that you would like to create a short url to for frequent use, Bit.ly allows you to customize the url generated. However, if the custom short link you enter is already taken . . . taken in their system in general, not just your custom urls . . . You will have to upgrade to the pro tools for more flexibility.
One thing that I frequently spend quite a bit of time on with new clients is issues with their domain name. If someone needs a domain name, I refer them to Godaddy. Sometimes if they absolutely don’t want to mess with domain registration or if I know that they won’t keep the registration current, I will manage it for them and just bill them later.
While many web development companies resell domain registration along with hosting and web design, that is just not something that I have wanted to delve into for two main reasons. First, we are just talking about a margin of a couple of dollars a year and unless you are doing a high volume, it’s just not worth it.
The second reason, and the most important one, is that when someone buys a service through me, they expect me to be able to fix it if they have a problem. If there is an issue with their web site, I can handle it. If it is a problem with their hosting or email, I can make sure that it is fixed.
However if I resold domain registrations and someone let their domain name expire or had their domain unlocked and the nameservers were transferred, there is literally nothing I can do about it. The last thing I want to do is put my company in a situation where a client has an expectation that I can fix their problem and my hands are tied. Those couple of dollars a year (see above) just aren’t worth it.
I have written post after post about this, but I can’t say strongly enough how important it is for you to protect your business domain name. If you had a phone number for years and it had been in all your advertising and your clients had it in their phone directories, what do you think would happen if suddenly one day that phone number started directing calls to a competitor? What do you think that would do to your business?
That is exactly what can happen if you let your domain name expire or lose control of your domain.
Here again are a few tips for protecting your domain name:
Keep Your Contact Information Current
The registrant information on file at your registrar should ALWAYS be kept current and make sure emails from your registrar don’t get sent to your SPAM filter. Every registrar will send you reminder emails 60 to 90 days before the domain expires.
Keep Your Domain Locked
Your domain registrar should have a feature to “lock” your domain name to prevent transfers. If it is unlocked and someone submits a transfer request, you will have to deny that request or it will automatically be transferred. If you aren’t paying attention to emails related to your domain name or if your email isn’t current, you will have a big problem on your hands.
This should be a standard feature, you shouldn’t have to pay extra for it.
Keep your Domain Registration Independent from Your Hosting
You should never get into a situation where your domain registration is tied into your hosting. Some registrars, like Godaddy and Network Solutions, do also offer hosting; however, one isn’t conditional on the other. For example with Godaddy, you can register a domain, add hosting to it, and then if you later wanted to cancel the hosting you would still have the domain and be able to use it on another hosting account. (This article explains the basics of a web site and how domains, hosting, and web pages work together.)
You should be able to direct your domain name to point to any hosting service, and if you can’t then run.
I have spent hours over the past week trying to help someone who had signed up for a new hosting service with another company. That new company not only transferred the web site files, but also their domain names to a new registrar. Normally that wouldn’t be an issue, except for that the registrar it was transferred to is a wholesaler and the only way the site owner can manage the domain name is through the hosting AND the hosting company only allows the domain to be pointed to their own hosting service . . . essentially locking the site owner into their hosting unless they switch registrars once again. Which brings me to the next point . . .
Plan Any Domain Registrar Changes Carefully
If you plan to switch registrars, (say for example, from DirectNic to Godaddy), make sure that transfer is absolutely what you want to do. If you switch registrars or change the registrant information, you can’t switch again for 60 days. When I bought a domain from an auction on SnapNames, I couldn’t transfer it over to my GoDaddy account for 60 days. In the situation I mentioned above, the site owner is literally stuck on hosting where his site won’t function because the hosting service that the domain management is tied into won’t allow a change of nameservers and he can’t change to a registrar that would allow him that capability for another 60 days.
Never EVER Let Your Domain Expire
Let me repeat that.
Never, EVER let your domain expire.
This is a big, BIG deal. Some people think that if you let your domain expire that you can just go back and reregister it. NO. That is not the case . . . as in a great big NO.
If you let your domain expire, this is what happens. Most registrars will give you a grace period, it’s different for each one, maybe 5 days to a week. During the grace period, you may experience an interruption in your domain direction but you can renew as you normally would.However, there have been a couple of times that I have had an eye on a domain name and the registrar put it into expired status immediately.
After that grace period, it will go into a redemption period. This time frame varies by registrar. During the redemption period, you can still renew or “redeem” your domain name; however, it will cost you a redemption fee in addition to your renewal fee to do so. The amount varies by registrar, I’ve heard between $75 to $150.
After the redemption period, the domain goes into “pending delete” status. At that point, you can’t get it back prior to the domain dropping and it will sit there until the domain is deleted from the registry record.
Once the domain registration “drops,” it will become available and there is an entire industry around picking up dropped domains. Trust me, it is highly unlikely that you as an individual will be able to beat a domainer in reregistering a dropped domain that has any search engine credibility at all.
What will most likely happen is that the domain will be picked up by one of these companies and held. They will either make their money back by putting up Adsense sites on the domain and getting money from the click throughs from visitors coming to find you, or they will sell the domain back to you at a premium. At the point, you will have to pay whatever they ask to get it back.
So again . . . don’t let your domain expire.
Yes, they are cheap and because of that many people don’t place much importance on them. However, your business’s domain name has much greater value than the $10 a year it takes to keep the registration current. The longer you have that domain and the more prominence you build in the search engines, the greater that value becomes.
Don’t lose that value in one fell swoop over carelessness.
If you have a domain name that has been live on the web for any time at all, you have most likely received junk mail from one kind domain scammer or another. Whether it is renewal notices from “registrars” you’ve never heard of, internet “directory listing” services, or the countless email spams, there are a ton of them out there.
These predatory companies bank on the fact that in most businesses, the web/marketing arm of the operation is usually a separate department than accounting. They are hoping that the accounts payable person will just pay the bill as if it were an approved invoice.
The latest one that I received takes a different approach. I received a fax from Domain Registry Rights stating that the .us extension of a domain that I own the .com on was available and basically if I didn’t secure the other domain, that it could result in conflicting domain names and trademark infringement.
Yeah, exactly. The site for the company listed also links to the official ICANN site as its forum and quotes the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy in order to sound official. The fax actually looks like a legal document.
While it may not be technically fraud, it is using scare tactics and misleading information to get people to pay for the domain registration. These people are bottom feeders. They profit from the ignorance of others.
If I had wanted that extension, I would have registered it at the same time I registered the .com, so no, I’m not interested.
While doing a quick search on the scammers, I found numerous others who had received similar notices.
Tips for Protecting Your Domain Name
It seems like every few months I’m writing about domain names (All About Domain Names, Domain Kiting Can Cost You, and 5 Mistakes Small Businesses Make with Their Web Site). This is partly because it is so important for small businesses to keep their domain names active, and also due to the fact that there are a lot of misconceptions out there about domain registrations.
- Keep Your Domain Name Current: Every once in a while I will talk to someone that thinks that if you let a domain name expire, that it’s not that big of a deal and that you can reregister it right away. This is not the case. When a domain expires, it goes into a redemption period giving the previous owner time to reclaim it (and it will cost you extra.) After that it goes into another period of time where it is pending deletion.After all of that, it will be available for registration again and there is an entire industry devoted to snapping up expired domain names and selling them at a profit. Believe me, they have a lot more time than you do to sit and catch domains that have dropped. If you are running a business on that domain, you can’t afford to let it expire. Keep it current.
- Keep Your Contact Information Current: Your registrar will send you emails when your domains get close to their expiration date. Make sure that your contact information is current so that you receive them.
- Keep Your Domain Name Safe: Also, keep your domain names locked so that unauthorized changes can’t be made to your domains.
- Your Domain Name Registrations are Valuable: Treat your domain registrations the same as you would the documentation for any other valuable asset like the title to your house or car. Print out copies of your registration. Keep a hard copy of the information for your registrar account, including the user name and password. If you didn’t keep your contact information with the registrar current and you forget your log in information, it can be a real hassle to get back into your account.
- Manage Your Domains Well: If you are reading all of this and are thinking that you don’t want to mess with it, assign someone to manage it for you. Godaddy and other large registrars offer the option to assign account managers to all of your domains or only those in certain groups. Have one person in your company be the point person for the domain registrations. If there is no one in your company to handle it, develop a relationship with your web maintenance or development company to keep your domains up-to-date.
A couple of months ago I was looking for domain names related to my business. Not that I’m not happy with my current one, it’s just that I was trying to get away from the email address that never ends.
So I hopped over to GoDaddy and started searching.
Already registered . . .
Already registered . . .
Already registered . . .
If you’ve ever searched for a domain name, you know just how frustrating it is to try to find one. Particularly when 90% of the domains you check out are registered by squatters.
On a fluke, I just happened to do a WHOIS look up on one that was already registered. The registrant was Network Solutions. I thought it was a little odd and was wondering if it was in a redemption period.
So I went to the Network Solutions web site and looked up the same domain. It was listed as available.
They were kiting the domain name I wanted!
Domain Kitingwas coined in 2006 by Bob Parsons, CEO and Founder of GoDaddy.com. What is it? There is a more detailed description on Bob Parson’s blog, but in a nutshell unethical registrars commandeer the use of domain names without paying for them.
So because Network Solutions had a hold on the domain name, I had to go through them to register it when I should have been able to go to the registrar of my choice. Their registration fee is $34.95 per year to GoDaddy.com’s $9.95.
Here are a few tips if you are looking for a domain name:
- Use an ethical registrar to search for availability.
- Look up the WHOIS registrant data. If it looks like it is held by a registrar, go to their web site and see if it is listed as available.
- Visit the web site to see if there is an actual site up.
- If you absolutely love the name, consider a domain buy agent to make an offer to buy the domain.
I was doing market research today on small businesses and noticed a few common mistakes when it came to to their web site.
- They don’t keep control of their domain names.This is a big one. I have worked with so many people to try to get their domain name back that has either expired or they lost control of that I should start domain recovery services.Your domain name is the online doorway to your business. Without it, no one is going to be able to find you. Don’t have someone else manage your domain name. If you absolutely just don’t want to deal with it, make sure that you and your company are listed as the official registrant and list your web manager as the administrative, technical, or billing contact.
- They don’t include their domain name on their other marketing materials. I’ve seen businesses spend thousands of dollars a month on a Yellow Page ad that doesn’t list their domain name. Billboards with a phone number, but no web site address.And my favorite, business cards with a url that goes nowhere. If you don’t have an actual web site up, don’t say that you do. It looks flaky.
- Focusing on the pretty and ignoring the content. Of course everyone wants a site that looks good, however designing for print is not the same as designing for the web. How the graphics and content are displayed can determine how effective your web site is.One of the sites I found did not have one single character of spiderable text on the entire web site. Not one. No, I’m not kidding.When I first looked at it, I thought it was a bunch of images masquerading as a web site. Actually it would have been better if it had been. At least then there would have been some text and links in the image map.
The entire site was Flash. It didn’t look like it at first because there was absolutely no interactivity other than calling up a new page when a menu item was clicked.
If you’re reading this and don’t understand why any of the above matters, images are to search engines what paintings are to a blind person . . . absolutely irrelevant.
- Not Keeping Their Web Site CurrentOne of the worst things you can do to your business’s credibility is having obviously outdated information on your web site: old phone numbers, old addresses, employees that moved on in the last century, “specials” dated from two years ago, and so on.
- Making Wholesale Changes to Their Web SiteThis may seem like a contradiction to #4; however, you can do just as much damage to your rankings in the search engines by making changes to it as you can to your credibility by doing nothing at all.Believe me, I’ve done this before. I was updating and changing the structure on one of my hobby sites which ranked really well for certain terms. Since it was just a hobby site, I didn’t want to spend the time on updating it properly and redirecting the old pages to the new.
So I just switched it . . . and the SERPs and traffic tanked for two months. It’s a very good example of what not to do.
If you have pages on your business’s web site that rank well for certain terms, be very careful of making changes to the key components of the page.
There are a lot of web solutions out there today that make it easy for a business owner to maintain a web site themselves. This is a plus in that it makes a site more affordable for some and can more accurately reflect the services and offerings of a business.
The danger in this is that it also makes it easy to make major changes that can drastically affect rankings.
One of my clients is very comfortable with updating their web site . . . which is great. They rank pretty well on several key words in their industry, but quite frankly I’m amazed that they rank at all because they are constantly changing page titles and categories. Those poor pages don’t have a chance to gain any authority at all before they are redone.