Nonprofits and Governments Need Smart Domain Practices


Nonprofits and governments need websites and get domains for them, but their choices fall short. Traffic is lost. People who would be interested in what the organization wants to say give up and go somewhere else. Domains cost very little and, when it comes to the beginning choice, the cost difference may be zero.

Ban the Initials

Initials lose people. Your loyalists and insiders may know you by initials or a pet name, but the larger public doesn’t remember those things. You need the larger public. Give them what’s easy to remember. Then they’ll come back.

(Getting both kinds of domains may be a good idea. I’ll discuss that in a moment.)

States and cities should use their well-known initialisms, but that’s because the main visitors are in that state or city and know the abbreviation quite well.

Bad example: The American Museum of Natural History got AMNH. You can’t pronounce it. (Well, okay, you can, but you wouldn’t want to, not at the dinner table.) What you find hard to say is also hard to recall a month from now, when you think maybe you want to go there, and instead you choose another museum or a park.

Even though the initials are technically correct, people don’t think of the initials. They think of the long name. Or, if that’s already taken by someone else, maybe something similar with words. Look at your incoming hand-written mail for ideas, especially for the same thing that several letter-writers used.

While it’s true that people know CBS and NYC, that’s because their public prominence is huge. Most nonprofits don’t get to be so well known that the initials become better known than the name. Not in the time it takes to set up their first website, they don’t get to be that well-known. So buy the initials if that’s part of your branding, or for your staff’s in-house email convenience, but also buy the easy-to-remember name for the same website.

Defensive Registrations

People make mistakes. They type wrong domain names when they’re really looking for you. So buy the likely mistakes, in addition to the popular name you want. Set your website to recognize those additional names, and you won’t have to design more websites. One website can have many domains pointing to it. At about $12 a year per domain, it’s often worth it.

One domain is your canonical domain. The other registrations are called defensive registrations. When the other names point to the same website, they’re called aliases. If a user sets a browser to a mistaken name as a favorite or bookmark, when they visit the erroneous name and then are redirected to your canonical name, the browser will usually auto-correct the favorite or bookmark in your user’s browser for next time.

Or, if you like, you can educate people who make the mistakes by giving them a small website that says something like, “Oops, sorry if someone gave you the wrong address, but here’s the right address: [insert whatever it is]. This site will take you there when you click on the link.” Some systems redirect you after a certain number of seconds, which is more convenient but less accessible for users with some disabilities, so the link is better. At any rate, many places don’t educate and prefer to simply redirect right away, automatically. Maybe that’s less annoying to users, especially those whose mistakes were accidental, especially when the page they’re landing on has the correct spelling shown on the screen anyway.

A darker reason for buying the mistakes is that other people will buy them and run ads. They won’t send you the traffic that’s meant for you. To buy those domains once their parking pages are set up can cost a lot.

If you have large numbers of unique visitors, some of the mistakes they’ll make will be more unusual. But with large traffic even unusual mistakes generate many potential visitors. It may be worthwhile to buy more domains to get the traffic of people who think like them. The price is not higher per domain.

If your organization has an old name, and people might remember it and type it into their browsers’ address bars, get it, even if the organization wishes everyone would forget it. You want the people and you wouldn’t mind if they walked in the door or called on the phone. So let them visit your website, and let them become informed about what you’re doing thse days. If you’re changing your name, keep the old name as an alias. Example: There’s a government agency for abused and neglected children. The agency changed its name. It changed its initials. This was probably meant to clean up its reputation. It changed its name and its initials more than twenty (20) years ago, with plenty of publicity. A whole generation grew up with the new name and the new initials. But people were still calling them by their old initials 20-plus years later. The agency should get domains for the old name and the old initials, but they probably think their budget is too tight for that, so they lose the outreach.

Personal Names

Personal names of very famous or notorious people associated with your organization may be worth getting, although you likely need their permission for the intended purpose. Even if you run a nonprofit, your use may be a commercial use of a likeness, and that needs consent, even from estates of people who died in the last few decades.

Personal name misspellings are a sensitive issue with the people who have those names. They may not want mistakes registered. But people in entertainment and electoral politics may be more used to the idea that some people who only know the famous people a little bit should see their website anyway despite the mistake. One politician had a name with two letters that many people switched around. About a tenth of the news articles online misspelled her name. If a tenth of journalists got it wrong, a tenth of potential voters likely did, too. A tenth is enough to matter. She should have gotten the second spelling, even though it was wrong, although maybe her family would have objected.


The additional traffic generally gains support for your organization, your mission, your fundraising, and your growth. Take advantage of it.

Imaginative Names

How come some names make no sense but rake in millions of dollars, even billions? Why in the world would anyone name a research tool “Google”? or a chocolate drink “Yoo-hoo”? Many large families who drive around live in cities, so why call a car a “Suburban”?

Some of them do make a lot of money, and nonprofits like green stuff and so do governments, but there’s a problem with those names. The big problem is that they create a barrier to users. The reason some of those names still succeed is that the content is so compelling people want to come back, so they want to jump over the fence and remember the magic key, which is the name. And that’s also exactly why some of the names fail: people don’t feel it’s something they want to be “in” with, or part of, so they forget the name, and then they can’t get back so easily, even when they want to.

So, yes, an imaginative name can be fabulously good, but it has to be well-chosen and, even then, you likely will need a good (and expensive) plan to promote and advertise the name, and you’ll have to teach the public the name over and over again until it sinks into their brains. One company (NameLab) charged $35,000 just to create a name for a new product, it took them a month, and that was a few decades ago. For that price, you got a piece of paper with a proposed name on it. And they were likely good at it, making up names that led to large sales of many of their clients’ products. If you want to try that path even as a do-it-yourself project, you’ll need to think about various issues, including your organization’s mission, the psychology of your consumers and other stakeholders, legal issues such as the defensibility of the name as intellectual property, and consistency with other indicia of your organization.

In-between is also a possibility. You may think up something that’s close to your organizational name, ignites people’s good thoughts, and is easy to remember. You may do all that and still spend no more than $12. Go for it.

Punctuation in Names

No, no. Big mistake. People forget dashes and underscores. One dot is the most you should have. That and a slash afterwards is okay. That’s it. Having a few words is fine as long as they make sense together. Just set the words together without separating them.

A bad example was as a public email service, even though that was backed by a big company with lots of money for advertising. It’s gone now and has been gone for years.

Tacking on a City is Not So Good

Small businesses stick city initials onto domains too often. The problem with a domain like is that no one will remember it, especially when there are a dozen food pantries and if this one only has Food Pantry on its letterhead and its storefront. Unfortunately, if the letterhead is already printed and the storefront is already painted, there may not seem to be much choice, but they’d do better with a better name, in this case a more distinct name.

Com and Net, Too?

No to *.net, but *.com is a yes. You know your organization is a not-for-profit, but is there a significant minority of visitors who might not think of that? They might type *.com. (A health clinic or art gallery might seem to be either and those are just examples. If you collect money for a service or a product, some people will think you're a dot-com. Go with the flow.) To get their traffic, buy the *.com version of the *.org name at the same time, and then set your website to accept both names. One website using multiple names means you don’t have to write and maintain two websites, just one.

Here’s an example of what goes wrong. A website offers a forum about some software, and it’s fairly popular. It’s Take a look at, click on some links, notice that you’re likely looking only at ads, and you’ll see why the *.org people probably should have bought the *.com name as well for not very many dollars.

Other Endings?

Stick to *.org and *.com. (Those are top-level domains.) If you qualify for *.edu or *.gov, get it. If your visitors are mainly from the general public and you have *.edu or *.gov, also get a *.org version of that name (and *.com).

International visitors are important for some websites, even in the United States. If you’re looking for tourists and recent immigrants (documented or not), consider getting the country-code top-level domain (ccTLD) for their home nation for your domain. It’s not always a good idea; the nation that has that top-level domain may have rules you don’t want to conform to. And you don’t need it for *.us (U.S.). But for visitors from many nations it gives your organization credibility.

If you want some other top-level domain, like one of the clever ones that have been showing up lately, also get a *.org or *.com version of it, so you don’t lose visitors who want you.

A commercial example, as tested , is the domain. If a website owner can’t get the .com domain they want, maybe they get the same second-level domain with .co (which really is for Colombia) and assume people will remember the difference. This business sells a product (if you guess what it is you won’t be far off). Eventually, they added the domain and set it to redirect to the website. From what I see in the Wayback Machine, the new domain likely was probably sold at a premium, and that often is high.

Our Name’s Taken, How Do We Get It Back?

Mostly, you pay through the nose or get another name.

Legal claims have been brought up. The World Intellectual Property Organization handles some. Perhaps your local courts will entertain a claim against unfair competition. A Federal law addresses cybersquatting, but parking pages seem largely to have been cleaned up of that particular violation and they’re still in business. The owner you might want to sue might be in another state, perhaps in another country. Add to that what your lawyer will charge and suddenly inventing a new name begins to make financial sense.

Look at ads for major Hollywood movies, down where they tell you their promotional website address. They often add “themovie” or something like that to a movie name to form a domain. I suspect it’s because even Hollywood doesn’t want to pay thousands for a domain name that some stranger snapped up first.

The Research Trap

Don’t Do It

Online research can drive you close to psychotic. Here’s why: Snoopy creeps see your research underway and one of them grabs the name you’ve been researching. You like the results of your research and try to buy the name but what you get is an offer to sell it to you for, oh, I don’t know, ten thousand dollars. Some sell for over an order of magnitude more than that.

Do not type the proposed name into your browser address bar, a Whois search field, or a domain registrar’s or reseller’s page for looking up names for availability. You’ll have to do without the knowledge you’d get that way.

Really, No Research? Can We Talk?

Offline research is safer. Just keep it secret. Talking about what you want your domain to convey to the public before you select an ideal name is safer. You can talk about concepts, history, what stakeholders think, articles you’ve read, and that sort of stuff. But not about specific domains themselves, or hints of them. Keep them secret and you’ll often save noticeable money.

Better Method

Do this:

Dream up names for your wish list. A bunch of names, in case some are taken. Almost any single word that’s in a dictionary is probably already taken, but two- and three-word phrases are often available.

Don’t research them online. Keep the wish list on paper or in a memo on your computer, but keep it secret. Prioritize them. Group the ones that go together if you don’t want a name unless another name is also available, such as *.com and *.org together. For example, if a name is easily misspelled or confused and so you want to register several names to get all the traffic, you might group them together and only buy from the group if you can buy the whole group. Grouping and prioritizing are your judgment calls.

Select your domain registrar or reseller. Prices should be normal (unless you want a special service but few of us do); twelve dollars or so is normal for *.org and *.com. The registrar or reseller should let you enter accurate ownership information, let you lock the domain, give you (whenever you want) a transfer code (or EPP code or auth info code or transfer secret) in case you want to move the domain to another registrar or reseller to manage, and generally should be reliable and trustworthy. Your host may have a service for registering domains or may recommend one, and there are hundreds of other providers. Agree to legal terms. If your organization has a procedure for approving contracts, you can follow that procedure before you reveal any domain names. You can agree to terms and create an account before you say what names you’re thinking about. Have your payment method ready. It may be plastic. You need your purchase to be immediate, not delayed because your check has to clear or because your credit has to be approved by someone else. If you’re concerned about sharing plastic details, get a debit card that does not alllow recurring charges and deposit money into it only as needed and with only a small cushion.

If you don’t have a website yet, get one. You can’t register a domain unless you have a website to point it to. It can be empty or blank, and you don’t have to tell anyone about it, but you have to have it. If you’re not going to get your domain through your website host, or if you’re not sure where you’ll get it, find out the two IP addresses for your website. You can’t get a domain if you don’t know them. Copy them exactly.

Then, and only then, start your research. Do your research only within a few minutes before your purchase. Research the highest-priority group of names (maybe it’s a “group” with just one name). If the result is good, buy every domain in the group without researching the next group down. If you’re buying more groups of names, do it in this order: research, buy, research, buy, etc. Do not risk getting the rug pulled out from under your feet by researching your whole list before buying one group, unless every group fails your research and you’re stuck with going back to the drawing board. Buy the first group you discover is available.

An exception to the no-research rule is if your organization requires research and consideration by other people, such as for policy implications or legal issues, before buying, and it will be too costly to give those other people a long list of potential domains rather than a short list, so your organizaiton has a financial incentive to research the names even if some mystery buyer gets in the door first and buys the name away from you. Here’s an alternative: Buy the name without the long process, then do the long process, and if it turns out you shouldn’t use the name as canonical, use it only as an alias with some other name being the main or public or canonical name, or use the bad name for a dead end, a blank website (perhaps like formerly). If that alternative is not satisfactory, okay, do the research, but do it only once (use Whois for that and only once) and remind your inside people that the longer your internal process takes or the more research is done on domain availability, either way, the greater the risk of losing the chance to buy the domain at a low price.

Where to do the research, when you’re on the verge of buying, is in the Whois service of a domain registrar. Resellers may not have the Whois link, but every *.com and *.org registrar does. It’s on the home page; search for the word “Whois” (one word without quote marks). Do not use the more prominent field for checking if a name is available. The Whois service is authoritative. You mainly want to find out if what you want is already owned; the other information doesn’t much matter. If you want to know what Whois results look like, do Whois searches on one name you know is already owned and another on a made-up name that’s likely too random for anyone to have bought (you may have to try a few just to be sure, a long bunch of meaningless digits followed by .com being a good try).

What to Tell People

When someone tells you to operate like a business, and you don’t always want to do that, here’s a case where operating like a business will make you look good. Quite a few businesses have whole portfolios of names for a single website. Businesses typically use word names rather than initials, or they have both. And you’ll be sharper than many businesses, because you’re more nimble about researching and buying within minutes.

You’re improving your organization’s outreach. Your clients and your organization will all be the better for it.