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Skrenta on Naming

Would Google have been as successful if it had been called BackRub?

Before 'Google', that's what Larry's project was called. And yes, that's Larry's hand.

Even in 1997, names were tough. I've been registering names since 1991 and it has always seemed hard to pick a good name for a new service. Larry wanted to register 'Googol.com' but it was taken, so he took the misspelling. This was fortunate, since 'Google' is friendlier, and the misspelling makes for a stronger brand.

Google was a great service, positioned ideally to focus on quality despite an initially smaller index, against existing dominant services which were being poorly tended by their owners. And the name was great!

But what if Larry had left the original name, and called it BackRub? BackRub, despite the geek reference to link analysis, is icky, suggesting an intimacy with the product that most consumers probably wouldn't want to have. Would the takeoff rate have been as high?

* * *

The most vivid 'unfortunate name' example I can think of is Yggdrasil Linux. Yggdrasil was the first Linux distribution on CD-ROM, put out by then-college student Adam Richter. This was back in the early 90's, when if you wanted to run something Unix-like on commodity 386 boxes, your choices were UnixWare or BSDI for thousands of dollars. Yggdrasil was $30, and Adam was getting tons of mail with checks enclosed in his dorm room. A flurry of positive press followed his launch.

It was way-early for Linux, but to be the first distro -- to have the chance at being the official one, starting years before Red Hat and everyone else... Yowsa that would have been cool. But the name! Ouch. No one could remember it, speak it, or spell it. "Wtf?" "It's supposed to be the Norse tree of life... Unix source tree... Get it?"

It's not fair to beat up on Adam, I was around then and I wasn't starting a Linux distro, so he gets points for actually launching the thing. And his successors ("Slackware") didn't do much better with their names. But that's what makes it tragic. The choice of the name could have been all the difference between launching something that would grow into the next enterprise OS provider, or not getting any traction.

* * *

When we launched GnuHoo.com in 1998, we figured it would be a success if we got 1,000 editors to eventually sign up. We had 1,000 editor signups in the first three weeks, with little promotion. GnuHoo was a great name. It had the entire business concept in six letters -- open source yahoo. It rhymed. It was short. Our users loved it.

The only problems were the 'Gnu' and the 'Hoo'. First the cease & desist came from the Free Software Foundation. We changed it to NewHoo. That was a great name too. Then the cease & desist came from Yahoo. We were in the midst of selling the project to Netscape, and they didn't care about our fledgling brand, so that wasn't an issue, and once the sale was complete we renamed the project.

Which contributed greatly to a fade into obscurity. It was variously called "directory.mozilla.org", "dmoz.org" (after mozilla said they didn't want to have anything to do with us, they were just about browsers), "Netscape Open Directory", the "Open Directory Project", and the ODP or just DMOZ. We built the largest directory of the web, with 6M hand-edited sites, the thing was 4X bigger than Yahoo's directory, the data was used (and still is today) by all the major search engines. But we were like ADM. "We're in everything you eat!" But the weak and fuzzy naming really killed public awareness.

Another great thing about "NewHoo" was that it repositioned Yahoo by its very existinence: "New Yahoo". In other words, Yahoo's directory is all rotted to hell and uses an old model, come over to this new, better way to do the same thing. Of course Yahoo had to kill the name. But if you can reposition a competitor with the very introduction of your name/tagline/USP, well that's the triple word score.

* * *

Skrenta's Name Rules

  • .com must be free. :-|
  • Don't base on common words, or combos made out of common words. 'Topix' actually fails this test, since 'topics' is too common. 'Yahoo' is a word, but a rare one. 'Excite' was too common a word to work as a strong brand. 'Live' is a terrible name because it is way too common.
  • Creative misspelling turns it into a stronger brand and trademark (Googol -> Google, Flicker -> Flickr).
  • Look out for phonetic->spelling ambiguities. Too many can be a red flag. If there are just a few, see if you can stake out all the misspellings yourself, so you can install redirects. Flickr needs Flicker to redirect the type-in traffic. For "NewHoo" we had domain squatters taking "nuhoo", "nuhu", "noohoo", etc. Not critical but will save you annoyance later.
  • Try to state the USP of your product in the name. Base the name on the benefit to the user, not its features.
  • Try to look for something with an emotional connection instead of just riff on the a mechanical description of the product. Hit the Wikipedia 'random page' button to get name ideas rather than the thesaurus.
  • Think about whether your name aspires to be a verb or a place. Google and Zillow are verbs, Myspace is a place. Make sure your name works for its goal.
  • If the name has good sonorous aspects, like alliteration, consonance, assonance, etc. that is plus. They will help people to remember your name, and like it better. StubHub, FogDog, YouTube.
And finally...if you can't think of a name, and you have the resources (say in a funded startup), I would absolutely spend the bucks and hire a good naming/branding firm like A Hundred Monkeys (disclosure: we've worked with the hundred monkeys at topix, they were great.) They're going to come up with a better name than the ones you've thought up. It will be worth it in the long run. Naming fees are cheap compared to the total investment in your product, to your engineering budget, to your marketing budget, and a good name can be a strong wind at your back. The name is the cornerstone of both your product and your marketing. Get a good one!

* * *

The Name Inspector has a great blog that focuses on tech startup naming. Would love to see him analyze the search engines that got big -- Lycos, InfoSeek, AltaVista, Excite, Yahoo, Google ... maybe even LookSmart. :-)

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Skrenta on Naming:

» Histoire d'un nom from DMOZ blog
Le fondateur du r駱ertoire qui allait devenir l'Open Directory Project revient, sur son blog, sur les appellations successives du projet. [Read More]

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Below is what happened in search today, as reported on Search Engine Land and from other places across [Read More]

» Name Drafting from Marksonland
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» Gawker Envy from Marksonland
When you work at a company named Blekko, you understand the importance of choosing a good name. There are plenty of folks who know more about naming than I do - and while I do subscribe to many of Rich's... [Read More]

Comments (1)

There are two things you might want to ad to the list of good names.

0. That the is a reasonable chance you will get the text to speech correctly. Flickr works because when it was new you could say "Flicker, 'flick' ... 'r'". GnuHoo was bad because you had to say "GnuHoo - Gnu G-N-U, like GNU License (and hope they knew what you were talking about, Hoo, H-O-O".

1. That the name is searchable. For example if you type 'Excite' into topix, you probably won't get anything interesting, but if you type 'Topix' into topix, you will get good results.

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