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Imminent domain

It's no longer enough to have a sign out in front or your name in the Yellow Pages. Now you better have a dot-com address — or at least one reserved for when you actually do take your business onto the Web — or you'll be left upacreekwithoutapaddle.com.

It's a dog-eat-dog world out there in business these days. Or should I say dogeatdog.com?

That's right. While you've been trying to keep your enterprise afloat, the Internet revolution's come and turned business on its ear. Now it's no longer enough to have a snappy sign out front or your name in the Yellow Pages. Now you better have a dot.com address — or at least one reserved for when you actually do take your business onto the Web — or you'll be left upacreekwithoutapaddle.com.

The first leg of that journey's pretty easy: get yourself a dot.com, a domain name. But what does that involve? Here are the big three steps you'll need to complete in order to set yourself up to do online business.

(Oh, and by the way, although dogeatdog.com is already taken, upacreekwithoutapaddle.com is still up for grabs. Any takers?) Ultimately, the best reasons why you need a small business domain name are the same reasons why you named your business in the first place: so customers can find you on the Web and remember who you are. But there are other reasons why a domain name is the first step in a smart small business's tilt to the Web. The two most important are:

— A domain name goes where you go. Think of it this way: you would never agree to give up your business name just because you decided to leave the lease where you're at and hunt for new quarters, would you? Of course not. Then why dump time and money into a URL (like www.hostforbiz.com/yourbiz) that you'd have to write off if you headed for another Web hosting service? A domain name of your own follows you wherever you stick your site.

— A domain name gives your e-mail address spit and polish. You don't even need to have a Web site to get some gain out of a domain name. For pennies a day, you can have your ISP host e-mail accounts that end in "yourbiz.com. MindSpring, for instance, charges just $5/month for an unlimited number of domain name aliases, which forward mail to existing mailboxes. If your biz is really cash-strapped, you and your employees can sign up with one of the many free e-mail services (HotMail, for example) and forward your domain mail via aliases to them. An alias like sales@yourbiz.com could be forwarded to bob_johnson@hotmail.com, while customerservice@yourbiz.com goes to helen_thomas@hotmail.com.

The end result, of course, is that your e-mail address is snappy, business-like, and helps to build your name brand. Remember, too, that since the domain name belongs to you, you'll never have to change your e-mail address, even if you switch Internet providers. Convinced that you need a domain name? Good. Your first job is to find a name that a) you want or like and — here's the hard part — b) that is still available. You've missed the generic dot-com land grab; builder.com, hardware.com, and drycleaners.com are among the many domain names already taken. But before you panic, head to Network Solutions, which distributes domain names in the United States. (Those of you north of the border should steer to INTERNIC.CA.)

All registrars let you search the domain name database for free. Just type in the domain name to see if it's already spoken for. Remember, you can also try yourbiz.net and yourbiz.org, though frankly, anything other than a dot-com is second-rate in business.

Although generic domain names may be gone, your specific business name may still be available. And even if that's taken, try some other possibilities:

  • Your company's tag line. A neighbor of mine owns a home improvement store called Jerry's, and while jerrys.com has been grabbed, his store's advertising tag, "Better head to Jerry's," isn't. He could still snap up betterheadtojerrys.com.
  • A combination of name and generic label. A friend is a custom home builder, and although ives.com is gone (Ives is his last name), ivescustomhomes.com is not.
  • A phrase. Another acquaintance owns a small deli/bakery that does a booming coffee business. He can't use the name of his shop — Barry's, since barrys.com is in use — but he could take cakeandcoffee.com (but not coffeeandcake.com, which is reserved)
You can obtain a domain name one of two ways: either sign up on your own or have your ISP do it for you.

The first route's cheaper. At Network Solutions, you can reserve a domain name for $70 for the first two years ($35/year after that) in just minutes. You'll need to get some technical information from your ISP, though, specifically a pair of IP addresses (four numbers, separated by periods, as in 199.182.120.2).

Or you can give the job to your ISP. Look for a link reading something like "Reserve a domain name." Such links are often tucked away in the ISP's Web hosting or business sub-sections. ISPs typically charge a handling fee, usually in the $40-50 range, on top of the standard $70 for the first two years, to register and hook connect your new domain name with the IP addresses.