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Buying a domain name is about as easy as ordering food online.
Finding a good domain is much harder. Don’t just register whatever domain name is available and call it a day. That’s a big mistake.
In this guide, I want to walk you through my process for buying a domain name, starting with how I go about coming up with a name in the first place.
Top Rated Domain Registrars to Buy a Domain Name
If you want to buy a domain name, you’ll need a domain registrar. Here’s the best options.
- Domain.com — Best for keeping domain costs low
- Bluehost — Best for creating your first website
- GoDaddy — Best domain registrar for protecting your personal data
- Namecheap — Best domain registrar for tight budgets
4 Steps to Buy a Domain Name
Follow the step-by-step instructions below to buy a domain name:
Step #1 – Brainstorm Concepts and Ideas
If you already have a name you want to buy, awesome! Head on down to the next section.
If you want to see if your domain name is actually good (or if you don’t know what domain name to pick), keep reading.
This is crucial. It’s the name you’ll use for your business, or a campaign, or a blog. You want to try your best to nail this on the first try.
Create a Concept List
Take your project and write down of all the words, descriptors, phrases, ideas, mantras, etc. that come to mind. Aim for 25 – 50. Seriously, come up with as many as possible.
Use a thesaurus to help. I like to call this a concept list. It’s the list before your final name list.
Some high level rules:
- Don’t worry about SEO or keywords — that doesn’t matter.
- Avoid hyphens.
- Stick with a .com only. If you are in the UK, Australia, etc. then of course a .co.uk, .au, etc. is also good.
- The shorter the better, generally speaking.
Remember: It’s just concepts for now. This doesn’t have to be perfect.
Choose Potential Domain Names
Now you can develop a more refined list of potential names.
Start by listing all the names you like. Since you might not have an unlimited budget, make sure to dig deep here. You can’t be too picky yet, because that will end up limiting your options. Write down everything you think might work.
I recommend browsing through the following websites to get more ideas. You might get lucky and find something you like just by browsing. If you do, add those to your list as well.
BrandBucket — They put together more creative, brandable domain names and then sell them. I’ve found a lot of names here I would not have thought of on my own.
Sedo.com — Probably the biggest selection of domain names and the most well known place to acquire a name.
More Naming Tools to Come Up with Concepts
Stuck? Don’t worry. This is a tricky process.
My recommendation: Listen to this podcast episode with Anthony Shore from Operative Word, a company that specializes in naming things.
He’s named the on-demand fitness system Tonal (love how it’s a word that conveys fitness tone and some sense of the futuristic) and Virgin Voyages (formerly Virgin Cruises, which really, who wants to take a cruise when you can take a voyage?). He uses a variety of tools, too, which I’ll list here:
OneLook.com – This is like a thesaurus juiced up with killer capabilities and wildcarding options. Say you want a name that starts with Bl and ends with rd, and it’s seven letters long — you can literally search for that.
RhymeZone – Pretty self explanatory. Bet you didn’t know that Quick Sprout rhymes with six out, big trout, this crowd, clear out, and sixth round. In addition to rhymes, you can also find synonyms and adjectives.
Sketch Engine – This is very intense corpus linguistics database; it uses a large body of real world language that it runs through a computer to organize and tag that language. Anthony sets his to all the news articles from 2014–2017. You can look up words that are used near or in relationship with other words. Basically, you’re finding words that are already natural together. This makes your name more relatable, credible, and adoptable. He talks about it more on the How Brands Are Built podcast.
MRC Psycholinguistic Database – He talks about this more in the podcast — it’s a pretty advanced way to search for words with certain criteria. You can use it to find words that start or end a certain way for example.
Now that you have a giant list of options it’s time to narrow down the list.
Step #2 – Narrow Down the List According to Viability
Narrow your list down quickly by typing in the .com for each name that you like. Type it into your browser and see what is there.
- If there is an established website built on the domain name, cross it off your list. It is very unlikely to be a viable option.
- If nothing comes up at all, then keep it on your list. That could mean that the domain name isn’t registered yet, which is great!
- If a landing page with ads comes up, the domain name is parked. It is owned by someone already, but might be an acquisition target. Keep this on your list.
- If the domain name is for sale, that’s the best case scenario. It’s exactly what we are looking for. Keep this option on your list, and take note of the listed price if there is a listed price.
The best domains are typically the ones for sale unfortunately. But if you have the budget for it, it’s well worth the investment.
Once you have the narrowed down list, the next step is to dig even deeper to determine what your final options will be.
Step #3 – Choose Your Name
It’s now time for the big decision.
Remember the rules-of-thumb:
- Don’t worry about SEO or keywords — that doesn’t matter.
- Avoid hyphens.
- Stick with a .com domain extension only. If you are in the UK, Australia, etc. then of course a .co.uk, .au, etc. is also good.
- The shorter the better.
Then, ask yourself these 10 questions about each of your domain name options:
- Do you feel good about the name?
- Do you like it?
- Are you confident when you say it?
- Does it feel good when you write it down?
- When you read it?
- Is it brandable?
- Is it unique, easy to remember and meaningful?
- Is it easy to read and spell?
- Does it pass the Google test? Google the name. Ideally there are not any other organizations that pop up. If there are, you at least want to make sure they are not in the same industry, or even in a closely related industry.
- If it passes the Google test, you are probably good to go, but just in case is it trademarked?
The Starter Domain Approach
An approach that I am a fan of is to use the starter domain approach. The idea here is that you can start with a domain name with the intention to move to another one down the road.
Let’s say you identify a domain name that you really like, but it is out of range for your budget. For example, when I was coming up with a name for my latest company, I really liked GoodLife.com. Someone else owns it and isn’t necessarily looking to sell it.
If I wanted to buy it, I would have to offer a lot of money — a lot more than I was ready to pay.
If I wanted to take the starter domain approach, I could start with GoodLifeMedia.com, theGoodLifeCompany.com, or something else that’s close to what I want. Over time, I can work to acquire the GoodLife.com via a domain broker or trying to strike a deal myself.
If you want a real-life example, Tesla had to use “teslamotors.com” for years before they could acquire the “tesla.com” domain.
Considerations for the starter domain approach
- Make sure the names will translate cleanly. The two names have to be very closely related. Ideally they’re so close you could use the desired name everywhere outside of the actual domain name, including in your logo.
- It’s a risk — there is no guarantee your desired target domain name will be there when you are ready.
- I recommend getting into discussions with the broker or domain owner of your desired name as soon as possible. Even if you know there isn’t any chance you can afford it today. They don’t need to know that. This is actually a huge advantage for you, because it is common that over time the owner will drop the price as they realize their high price isn’t going to happen.
A Note on Social Handles
In a perfect world, you’d pick a domain name whose social handles are also available. This isn’t a perfect world. My take on this is that it’s hard enough to get a good domain name. Don’t make it even harder or nearly impossible by also adding this criteria.
When it comes to picking up the social handles, you’ll have options. You can get creative, or even potentially acquire the handles from the current owners.
It’s a good idea to consider social handles when making your final decision, but don’t let that stop you from picking the right name.
Step #4 – Buy Your Domain Name
At this point you should have a narrowed down list of viable options for your domain name. The next step is to own it.
Each of your options should fall into one of three categories:
- The domain name is available and unregistered.
- The domain name seems to be acquirable, but it is not clear.
- The domain name is clearly for sale.
We’ll tackle each one of these situations.
What to Do If the Domain Name is Unregistered
In this case, all you need to do is go to Domain.com and register the domain name.
You’ll find out for sure if that is an option or not once you type the domain name into the search bar.
You’ll go through a straightforward process here. Don’t buy any of the add ons or worry about web hosting or any of that yet except for “privacy protection”.
It’s what will keep your name off a bunch of spam call lists. You want to use Domain.com to register your domain name and keep your information private. That’s it.
They are the best domain registrar and I use them exclusively. I do not use them for anything else because there are other companies that I use for the rest of my web needs. I’m a huge proponent of going to the expert in each area of my business.
After you finish registering the domain name, you’re done! You are officially the proud owner of your new domain name. All you have to do moving forward is renew the domain name each year.
If you fail to renew it, then someone else will be able to replace you as the owner. I recommend setting your domain to auto-renew. It’s just one less thing to worry about.
What to Do If the Domain Name Seems Acquirable
If the domain name seems acquirable, but it isn’t clear — you have two options. Either you can try to figure out who owns the domain name yourself and reach out to them. Or, you can hire a broker to do it for you.
If you hire a domain broker, there isn’t much risk. Typically, the only way you will have to pay a fee is if you buy the domain name. That’s the biggest downside.
In the case of doing it yourself, you can start with a WHOIS search to try to figure out who owns the domain name. Googling the domain name and seeing if it is tied to any social media profiles or other websites is also a good approach.
More times than not, I will fail at finding out who owns the domain name myself. It is common for people to use privacy features that hide their contact information. Most domain registrars offer this for free, so people tend to do it by default. (Like I said above, you should definitely opt into this feature.)
The benefit of a domain broker is that they have a huge network. They almost always know who owns what, and if they don’t, they have ways of figuring it out.
Back to my GoodLife.com example. There is no way I would have figured out who owns that domain name if I didn’t have a broker figure it out for me. Of course, I still do not know who owns that domain name, but at least I have a broker who does.
Another benefit of a broker is that you do not have to deal with the awkwardness of negotiating price. You have a middle man who can be the bad guy for you.
What to Do If the Domain Name Is Clearly for Sale
Domain names that might be acquirable, as outlined above, can be challenging. I much prefer to focus on names that are clearly for sale. These are easy.
If the name is already for sale, the process is straightforward. The only thing you really need to think about is negotiating price.
How Much Domain Names Cost
There are two options when it comes to getting your domain name:
- Register a name that isn’t already currently registered.
- Buy a name that is already registered from the person that owns it.
Regardless of which option you go with, you’ll pay an annual registration fee of $7–$15/year on average. If you are acquiring the name on top of that, you’ll pay an additional acquisition price.
The cost of acquiring a domain name varies widely: You can easily spend 4–5 figures on a name. In some cases you can find a good one for hundreds of dollars. Some domain names aren’t for sale at all, while others have sold for millions of dollars.
Unless you choose a more creative route, that is. See, you can get a domain name completely for free by choosing to host your site on Bluehost’s yearly hosting plans.
This is a little bit easier for folks starting from scratch—part of getting a site up and running is choosing a domain, finding a hosting provider, and building a site. If you’re in this boat, this is the way to take care of two of those three in one fell swoop.
Already committed to a hosting provider? That’s okay, there’s still a way to save on your domain if you’re still considering site builders.
Paying for a premium plan from Squarespace, Wix, or most of our other top-recommended website builders will open you up to a great deal more useful features.
It’s likely best if you’re building a new web store. That way you can build a stunning website through a service that is packed with useful ecommerce features while also taking advantage of an included domain name.
That being said, most of these paid plans only include the first year of the domain registration for free. Take a careful look at what the renewal rates are after that before committing to this route.
There’s nothing wrong with registering a domain name that is available, as long as you’ve thought it through and are intentional about it. In fact, I encourage that.
The issue is that in many cases, people don’t even realize that there are other options. Getting your hands on the optimal name is more doable than you might think.
I suggest you put some budget behind your domain name — especially if it’s for your business. The tighter your budget, the more limited you’ll be more limited in what you can do.
Like most things you don’t pay for, a domain you get for free sometimes shouts to your customers that you’re cheap.
I agree with Anthony Shore of the naming agency Operative Words that a non-natural word name probably won’t serve your brand well because it comes off as he puts it in this podcast, “domain desperation.” It’s not a good look.
There is often opportunity to negotiate price. Depending on who you are dealing with, there could be some room to get the price down.
I don’t recommend pushing too hard or overthinking this. That might just lead to wasting time and potentially losing out on the name. However, there is no harm in giving it a shot and doing some level of negotiating.
Conclusion – After the Acquisition
Once you acquire the domain name, the next step is to transfer to your domain registrar. Again, I recommend Domain.com. You can see the process for transferring your domain name here. It also helps to understand how domains work.
Regardless of how you acquire your domain name, the final step is to see it sitting inside of your account. That is when it’s official!