Groucho is not my real name. I’m breaking it in for a friend. – Groucho Marx
One of the most important and one of the most difficult decisions that a business can make is what to call themselves. A friend managed to put together a business model in few days. The same friend struggled for months to come up with a name to go with that model, and sent me emails every few days with different ideas (Hey, Bill, what do you think of this one…). He finally choose a name after much begging from me.
The challenge of finding a name to represent your goods, your services, and yourself has become harder because of search engines, and because of the global reach that a web site can provide…
A business can face this problem at more stages than just when they are first starting out. It can also come up when:
- They decide to change the legal structure of their business from sole proprietorship or partnership to corporation or limited liability company
- They decide to create an online presence and want to be unique
- They move into new territories, perhaps from local to regional or to national or even global
- They face some conflict with another company using the same name, which forces them to change
- Their business or marketing plan changes, and a change of name makes sense
- They come up with a product line or set of services under a legally protected name, and become better known under their trademark or service mark than business name
Before the Web enabled businesses to join a world wide community with the simple publishing of a Web site, some of these decisions could be made as a business slowly evolved and grew. Now, searches in Google and Yahoo and Microsoft are an early and integral part of picking a name for a business. The Web has created a new set of obstacles for someone choosing a business name.
Old Naming Challenges
Choosing a name used to mean finding something unique in your community. A few simple rules were often helpful to follow. Things like make your business name short, memorable, meaningful, easy to spell, easy to pronounce, and unique. If your name was Tom, and you decided to open a hardware store in a small town, you could call your business “Tom’s Hardware.” If you decide to bring your business online, you might struggle to be found against Tom’s Hardware. This section looks at some of the old difficulties facing people trying to decide upon a business name.
There are some significant benefits to moving from a sole proprietorship or partnership to a corporate structure, or a Limited Liability Company for many businesses. These benefits include the possibility of reduced taxes, and limiting the risk of losing your personal assets if the company finds itself in legal troubles. In the US, incorporation is done on the state level. Some states have online search functions that allow for the reservation of a corporate name, or limited liability company name. What state overview of the incorporation process means is that a business incorporated in Kentucky and another incorporated in Michigan can both legally have the same name, but businesses from the same state can’t. For a company that doesn’t do much business across state lines, that shouldn’t be much of a problem, at least until another company with the same name from outside decides to move into your territory.
Trade names/dba/fictious names
You may recognize the trade names of most businesses that you are familiar with rather than their business name if they’ve incorporated. A name that one uses to conduct business may often not be the official name of the business. For example, when you go shopping in your local mall, take a look around at the signs on shop windows, and see how many of them include an “Inc.” or “Corp” or “Ltd” on their signs. In the case of a sole proprietorship or partnership, that name on the sign may be the business name, but a legally formed business is required to have a legally recognized suffix at the end of their name.
If you want to protect the use of a trade name or fictitious name or “doing business as” (dba) name, you need to go through a separate registration process, which usually involves visiting a county courthouse or county level business registration office, to search and see if others are using the name, and to register it yourself. Most counties don’t allow you to search through these name lists online. This level of county registration is a remnant of a time before publishing a little HTML could stretch your audience base from a single county to a few hundred countries.
There are a number of different stories about the orgins of trademarks, and regardless of which are true, they mostly come down to craftsmen leaving signatures or symbols on their pottery or jewelry or furniture to help people distinquish between their works, and the efforts of others.
A trademark can be registered on a state level, a country level, and an international level. It can be unregistered, and still enforceable against others under common law if the trademark was used in commerce. So, how do you look to see if the business name that you are trying to decide upon might be someone else’s trademark or service mark? The answer is “carefully.”
There are commercial organizations that will perform trademark searches for reasonable rates, who have experience performing those searches. You can do some of this searching yourself at the major search engines, and through the trademark searches at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) pages. You can try to find a Trademark registration on the USPTO’s TESS service. Some states may even let you try to find a trademark online on their sites. But if a business has been using a trademark in the ordinary course of commerce, they may be entitled to use that name regardless of whether or not they have filed for a trademark.
As a small business owner, it’s often to your benefit to file for a trademark for your business, and for product lines that you might sell as well as applying for a service mark, for services that you offer if you are attempting to brand a service with its own name. This helps give others notice that the name is being used.
Changing a name
There are many reasons why it might be a good idea to change the name of your business. You may change the kinds of goods and services that you offer, and your name may not be a good match for those. You may move from one state to another, and decide to reincorporate. Someone else may lay claim to the use of your name, and force you to take a new one. Name changes don’t always just happen at the start of the life of a business.
New Naming Challenges
If you’ve tried to find a domain name for your business over the past couple of years, you know how difficult that can be. Small businesses cannot afford to spend a million dollars for the .com version of a name. Hours of typing name ideas into a whois search can end in disappointment. Back a few years, Budget Truck Rental was using the domain name yellowtrucks.com. They’ve painted their trucks white since then, and gotten a domain name that more closely matches their business name.
Using hyphens in domain names can make conversations involving those names sound like morse code, filled with dots and dashes and confusion. Domain names with abbreviations in them, when the company involved rarely uses abbreviations while referring to themselves, can make type-in traffic unimaginable. Merging words together into compound words for a domain name can result in potentially embarassing and unanticipated meanings. For example, the computer consultant community site Experts Exchange added a hypen between the “experts” and “exchange” in their domain name after initially starting with expertsexchange.com.
Intentional Misspellings and Spell Correction
In the world of Web 2.0 sites, we’ve seen companies come up with intentional misspellings for their names, from Flickr to Del.icio.us, Blnk to Skrbl. When you choose a misspelling for your name, and people start searching for your business on the web, they may see spelling correction suggestions at the top of search results, and overlook the link to your site (if it is even listed). Perseverance usually pays off after enough links and mentions online for the search engine to recognize that people actually meant to type your business name into a search box.
Trademark, Cybersquatting and Dispute Resolution
I mentioned trademark above in the context of the difficulties of finding whether someone else owns a trademark for a name. What happens when you register a domain name, spend time and money putting a site online, and then get a cease and desist letter from someone demanding that you turn your domain name over to them, and threatening a trademark action against you in court? A number of law schools have joined together to create a resource for people in that predicament at the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse. Their section on Trademarks is recommended reading for all business owners, small and large. It covers such things as the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act and the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy, and has an excellent FAQ on Trademark Infringement.
If you decide to use an intentional misspelling for a business name, and a trademark holder with a similar name who offers similar goods and services finds out, you may find a cease and desist notice making its way towards your mailbox.
Changing a Domain Name
Changing your domain name is probably a big enough topic to deserve its own article, and it’s likely something that we will cover in the future. I linked in the first paragraph of this section to a blog post from Rich Skrenta on the decision to change the domain name of Topix.net to Topix.com. It’s not a major change, but he believes that it is one that will be worth making on the assumption that most people who will use the Topix site prefer a name with a .com top level domain (tld) instead of a .net tld.
When you change the name of your business offline, that means making what could be an incredible amount of changes to things like signs, stationary, and Yellow Page listings, as well as contacting clients and vendors and others. If you change your domain name to match, the task can become much harder and can involve technical obstacles with search engines as well as changes to links that you might have control over from directories and other sources, and changes that you can’t easily make to links from sites outside of your control.
The Web can make choosing and changing a name much harder in an online business community, but the benefits of being found online, available around the clock and around the world, can more than make up for the challenges.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.