How to name your startup (and yourself) with SEO in mind

September 15, 2016

Wedding planning is essentially a series of decisions.

Fall or spring? White or ivory? Band or DJ? Buffet or plated dinner? Veil or no veil? Should we splurge on envelope liners? What color bow tie should our dog wear in the custom fondant cake topper?

Most of these are relatively inconsequential decisions that my fiancé and I made relatively easily (turns out we’re both envelope liner people). There was one decision, however, that wasn’t so easy: would I change my name?

As a feminist, the idea that the woman by default takes the name of the man she’s marrying has never sat well with me. As someone named “Ellen Miller,” however, there’s something quite enticing about becoming a Gilcrest. Plus, I like the idea of sharing a last name with my future husband – I just don’t like the assumption that it should automatically be his.

So, together, my fiancé and I developed a list of criteria to help us determine which last name should win: Miller or Gilcrest. After attending more than a few naming brainstorms for startup companies and products, I realized that the list we devised might come in handy for any naming process – human, company, service or otherwise.

Round No. 1: SEO value

Google Ellen Miller. You’ll meet a mountaineer, an acclaimed author and a political activist, none of whom are me. While I’m nowhere near page one of Google search results, my fiancé has top billing, thanks to his unique moniker. [Winner: Gilcrest]

When you’re naming a product or company, remember that using a common noun or verb – even if it’s proceeded by another word or initials – will make it much harder for potential customers to find you online. Do sample searches with your front-runner names to see which other companies, blogs and forums pop up and ensure you’re aware of the SEO competition.

Round No. 2: Availability of digital properties

I was a relatively early Gmail user, and yet still was not able to wrangle any version of an email address that resembled my actual name, even when I added numbers. The same goes for website domains, social media handles – you name it. When I discovered that @EllenGilcrest was available on Twitter and everywhere else I could want it, the world suddenly seemed full of possibilities. [Winner: Gilcrest]

Online real estate is a big consideration for naming companies and products, and it goes hand-in-hand with SEO. The less work customers have to do to find your website, locate your Twitter handle or get in touch online, the more likely it is that they’ll engage with you. Plus, consistency in digital property names helps support overall brand cohesion.

Round No. 3: Ease of use

No one likes it when her name gets pronounced or spelled wrong. As a Miller, this is something I’ve never experienced. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for my fiancé to receive letters addressed to Robert “Gilchrist.” [Winner: Miller]

While choosing a unique name makes you more discoverable, don’t go too far as to confuse your audience. Conduct focus groups to ensure that the majority of people who hear your name know how to spell it, and that people reading your name know how to say it. Bonus points if your name can somehow convey what your company does.

Round No. 4: Sound

It’s subjective, but the sound of a name – and how it makes you feel when you say it – matters a lot. “Ellen Miller” is fine, but “Ellen Gilcrest” somehow feels slightly more dignified, like she can climb mountains or distill whiskey in her spare time. [Winner: Gilcrest]

Many brands try to be cutesy by cleverly fusing words that represent that their mission, culture or market. It’s fine to aim for that goal, but don’t do it at the expense of having a name that actually sounds good and inspires your customers. Once you have a final list of names, run them by someone outside your organization for a gut check.

Round No. 5: The next generation

The final consideration for my last name battle: legacy. Are there others in the family who will keep a name alive? Fortunately, my fiancé and I are both rich in cousins and siblings, so neither of us felt the pressure to carry on the family name legacy. [Winner: Tie]

For business owners, it’s important to be somewhat future-oriented when choosing company and product names. What’s the vision of the company and how will a name enable you to expand into new markets and products? Could it potentially hold you back down the road? Make sure the name you choose sets you up for growth.

As for my name? The score, for those not keeping track: Gilcrest, 3 - Miller, 1. Looks like I’ll be getting a new last name this fall. I’ll miss being a “Miller,” but we arrived at this decision together, and let’s be honest: Gilcrest knocked out the competition.

What’s in a name? A lot, actually. If you need advice on positioning and launching a new product or company, we'd love to talk.

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