I’m afraid I’ll have problems if I choose a different TLD for my startup.

This is a common concern because “.com” is far and away the most common TLD (top-level domain). When normal everyday internet users type in a URL, they expect it to end in “.com.” As an owner of some alternative TLDs (including this site), I’ve experienced confusion when I try to tell regular people my domain. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, after giving someone one of my “.io” domains, “Is it dot i-o dot com?”

Some ‘Splainin’ to Do

“No, it’s just dot i-o.”

In general, it’s not great if you have to explain something to your prospective customers about your domain. This is why I caution people against using articles (i.e. “a”, “an”, “the”) or special characters (e.g. “-“) in their domains or getting cute by substituting numerals for words (“2” for “to”). Now, in additon to remembering your domain, the person you’re talking to also has to remember a silly rule about why the domain isn’t what they think it should be. Since most people think your domain should end in “.com,” this is a further example of that problem. You should get a “.com” domain if you can (and if it makes sense for you).

So, I Should Avoid Other TLDs At All Costs, Right?

Buying a domain with an alternative TLD is not the end of the world. It’s not going to destroy your business in the same way getting the “.com” doesn’t guarantee your success. The amount of impact this has on you depends on a few of factors:

  • Who is visiting your site?
  • What is your site for?
  • How are they getting there?

Your Audience

If the audience you’re targetting with your startup is very familiar with the internet, they’ve probably seen and used (or at least chuckled about) some of the newer TLDs like “.christmas” and “.baby.” They’re predisposed to hearing and understanding your alternative TLD domain. If they’re not sure of your domain, even they might be more likely to try “.com” before something else, but they’re much more likely to just search for you from the start.

If your audience is not web developers or otherwise extremely internet-savvy, anything besides “.com” is going to through a tiny wrench in their understanding of domains. Once they get past that barrier, it’s not a big deal… but they have to get through that barrier. They may still have to fight with their understanding when recalling your domain, but they’ll get there… eventually.

The Site’s Purpose

Some people point to vine.co as proof that the domain doesn’t matter. Many other recent apps have launched with domains that use the “.com” TLD but add words to the name of the product (e.g. get___.com, use___.com). This would seem to be a bad idea for a domain since it requires users to memorize another arbitrary word to to get to the site. It doesn’t seem to have much effect on these sites though. In the case of Vine and many of the others, this is because the site is secondary to an app. When Vine launched, the app was the central value proposition. The only way to access the content was through the app. Additionally, the app was downloaded via one of the app stores. The “vine.co” domain was home only to a landing page for the app, which isn’t make-or-break in this case since it wasn’t even necessary in getting users to the app.

If your site is not central to your strategy, it won’t matter much what your domain is. Otherwise, you should give your domain selection more weight.

How They Get There

This is closely related to the site’s purpose. How are your users getting to the site? If they’re not typing in the URL to get to the site, the domain is obviously less important. If it’s just a landing page for your mobile app, most users probably aren’t getting there at all. If your web site is the app and users access it through their browser, be extra careful in your domain choice. You’ll want something that is short and easy to recall. For those of you who remember social bookmarking site Delicious, for as clever as  their original domain name was (del.icio.us), it wasn’t good when they decided they wanted to attract users who were not early adopter internet nerds like myself. They ended up changing it to “delicious.com” instead. (They still failed, but surely this is more the fault of the Yahoo curse than of the newly more familiar domain name.)

Important But…

Your domain name can be extremely important, but it can also be less important depending on your circumstances. Whatever you choose, don’t let your choice of domain be a showstopper. Pick something and move on. You can always circle back around and make improvements later. If the domain you really want is up for sale, you can always make a bid for it later once you have either revenue or investment dollars to work with.