Does the name of a site significantly influence the expectations of visitors? Specifically for domain and sub-domains with meaning; this question is excluding trademark names (google.com, yahoo.com, tumblr.com) and only aimed at sites with meaning.

reader.google.com, docs.google.com, fonts.com, programmers.stackexchange.com, academia.stackexchange.com

Is there a reason to pay attention to the meaning of the words that are part of your site name beyond their power as a brand? Can it have a significant effect on the expectations of visitors or their involvement with the site? If someone has research (or anecdotes) about this it would be nice.

My personal opinion is that the name matters, but only until users arrive; it swiftly becomes nothing but a brand, but it can influence users first impressions of a site, or influence whether they visit it at all.


5 Answers 5


If the site's name is descriptive, and not an "empty vessel" name, then I would expect the description to match the content.

The site name is the first, and often only piece of information a person has when visiting a site initially, and they will make assumptions about the site based on the name of the site.

If a descriptive site name does not match its content, then I think a site is not at it's full potential since they are losing what could potentially be a large part of their user base. The loss could occur because the content is not what the user expects, so they leave, or it could occur because users actually searching for a site like the one you provide are not finding your site, or maybe are seeing it, but are assuming it is something else.

For example, here are my assumptions based on the sample links you gave, and my thoughts as your typical new user to the sites about their naming decisions

  • reader.google.com

    My assumption: Google's Reader. I would assume I can either read books here, or read files in some custom format.

    Actual definition: Going to the site takes me to a page that tells me the site is actually for tracking your favorite sites and new content posted there

    Good/Bad site name? Bad, however they made up for it by the initial page which makes it very clear what the site actually is

  • docs.google.com

    My assumption: Place on Google to create and store documents

    Actual definition: Matches my assumption (and does more!)

    Good/Bad site name? Good

  • fonts.com

    My assumption: Site all about fonts, or a place to obtain fonts

    Actual definition: Matches my assumption

    Good/Bad site name? Good

  • programmers.stackexchange.com

    My assumption: Stack Exchange's site about programmers

    Actual definition: Stack Exchange's site for conceptual software development questions

    Good/Bad site name? Bad

    In my personal opinion (you may not agree), this is a bad site name because the site does not welcome most questions about programmers, and is for Q&A site about software development. There is a welcome message that tells users the site is for "professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development", however that is stating that the site is about a specific type of programmer, not about software development.

  • academia.stackexchange.com - Stack Exchange's site about academia

    My assumption: Stack Exchange's site about academics

    Actual definition: Welcome message, FAQ, and questions on front page seem to match my assumption

    Good/Bad site name? Good, providing my assumption is correct

So to summarize, the site name should ideally match the content of the site if it wants new users to understand what the site is for and how it is used. If it doesn't match, it can still be redeemed by stating the site's purpose clearly on the initial page for new users.

As you said in your question, once users arrive and understand the site, the site name has no significant meaning beyond having to remember what to type to access the site (determining an appropriate name is a different discussion), however if the purpose is to attract new users, then I think the site name should definitely match the content the site provides.


I think there is some significance to the domain name, as users who google something on your site see the url. If it is an .ac.uk domain, I know that it is an academic site, which will either guide me towards or away from it, depending on my intent.

I will also see, for example, that a page is from stackoverflow, and similarly this will guide me to or away from that. But if the name is not clear - say it is RenaultCars, not just Renault, I will suspect it is not the official site, and so treat it with more caution. This is especially the case if it looks like it is trying to be the official site.

So I would say that the domain name needs to be clear and relevant, to attract first-time, or infrequent visitors, and let them know what sort of site it is. Beyond that, it is not highly relevant, because there are other and better ways of demonstrating the veracity of the site ( certificates, for example )


In terms of user experience, it's huge. I can never get back to Basecamp without googling, and it's a huge pain. Similarly, my job uses an outsourced HR program that uses some sub-domain nonsense as the sole point of entry for the web application, and it takes an email search every time I need to visit the web application.

Whether or not this affects user conversion rates and sales, on the other hand, is a different question entirely.

  • I don't understand what you mean by being unable to get back to Basecamp; can you elaborate? While my examples are heavy on subdomains that's just because those are the ones that came to mind; they are not really the focus of the question. Perhaps I should update the question... Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 0:35
  • 3
    @MyrddinEmrys: probably because he means backpack not basecamp. Basecamp can be found at basecamp.com but backpack is at backpackit.com, just like campfire and highrise (also by 37signals) are at campfirenow.com and highrisehq.com... In other words, the app names don't match the domain names and without browser address history, bookmarks or links in mails etc. they are that much harder to go to. Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 6:22

Well it's a tricky situation, because you never give name of a domain or sub domain expecting it to attract visitors, not every good named domain or sub domain has attracted people. The main ingredient is the content, as you mentioned if people have experienced your content power then all others becomes history!

having said that, I also strongly suggest that naming of domain or sub domain should match with the content of the site so that it attracts initial visitors. It becomes easy for visitors to remember and map the site with the content they are looking for.


'Empty vessel' names like Google can be a great choice as they allow you to own the term itself and your product can change without renaming.

I remember reading that Reed Hastings was under pressure to have the words 'DVD' or 'Mail' in his product name before he made the decision to call it Netflix.

Extra points if you can tell someone your product name and not have to spell it out for them.

EDIT: As far as subdomains go I think they piss me off more often than not - as I often forget that my company (or account name) is what I need to start typing to get autofill to bring it up.

  • 1
    As I mentioned, I'm only discussing dictionary sites, rather than 'empty vessel' names. I agree with you, but that's off-topic for this question. Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 0:32
  • misread. sorry!
    – Max
    Commented Apr 20, 2012 at 0:49

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