How often do you search for yourself or your own business? This isn’t an idle curiosity, and it isn’t just because we have huge egos. There are legitimate business purposes. And I can thank my wife for the idea for this column.
My wife owns her own business, an interior design firm. She has gotten some great help (not all from me, I should point out) about how to get to the top of the search rankings on Google along with other sites that her potential customers would look for her services such as Yelp, Houzz, and others. And as part of her SEO assurance program, she regularly searches for her company.
Usually in her searches she finds her company at the top of the results page. The last time though there was an interesting twist: her company’s name had a link that led to another interior design firm in town. They had purchased her company name as a keyword for a paid ad. What? Little did I realize, there are folks in this world who would do this. Is it legal? Apparently, if you don’t own your name or don’t have it trademarked. (She doesn’t have a mark.) Is it ethical? I don’t think so.
She was able to call the other firm and speak to their “web guy” and get this eventually corrected. At least, we think so. Searching now brings up her website with the appropriate link, just as it is supposed to be. But I started thinking about all the things that a small business owner has to deal with when they start a business. And before we get to talk about the online stuff, trademarks should be one of the first things to consider.
When I started my business in 1992, I thought long and hard about a clever name but eventually just incorporated my own name. Then in 1995 I started writing a weekly newsletter and posting the columns to a website. This was the beginnings of Web Informant.
A few years later, I got a call from Informant Communications Group in California. They had print publications such as Oracle Informant and some other tech pubs, and wanted to start one called Web Informant. Before I did anything, I hired a lawyer and submitted a trademark application. This was fortunate, because a week later so did they. On their application, under first use, they stated some bogus date (in 1990, way before the Web was even invented), but luckily because my application was first I got the mark.
It taught me a lesson: just because you came up with a name doesn’t mean that someone else doesn’t want to appropriate it. Today those guys in Calif. are still around, and they own the domain informant.com. Good for them, I guess. Just stay away from my domain!
But the trademark is just one aspect about your branding and identity. There is the matter of your online presence. For most of us, we think about buying a domain name. It used to be so simple: back in the day when I registered my domain, you didn’t even have to pay hard cash money for your domain name. You just sent an email to InterNic, the only registrar at the time, and within a minute or two you got a confirmation note that the domain was yours.
Back in those days, few folks knew about the Internet or domains or whatnot, and there is this amusing article by Josh Quittner in Wired magazine about how he got McDonalds.com and then tried to get someone from Hamburger HQ to understand what happened. He wasn’t altogether successful, and it took some effort on his part to get their attention. But once he did, he was able to engineer the transfer of the domain name back to McDonalds, with the proviso that they wire up a magnet school in Brooklyn.
Quittner had written a piece about the school and how one of the teachers was using the Internet in her classroom. By then, Quittner had moved to Time magazine, and they also agreed to “kick in some shekels for a high-speed Internet connection for the school,” as he told me in a recent email. Before the upgrade, the school had been using a 2400 baud dial-up modem: they got the whopping speed of a 56kbps switched line. “I am pretty sure my current iPhone hits the Internet at three times that speed.” It was about the same time, in the mid 1990s, that I got my own upgrade in my office to a 128 kbps ISDN line: that seemed fast at the time.
But enough about speeds and feeds. Let’s get back to branding. Today things have gotten much more complicated. When I got strom.com, for example, I didn’t even think about davidstrom.com, let alone strom.org or strom.whatever. Too bad for me. Then there are lot more top-level domains besides the classic ones of .com, .net, and .org. You have ones that don’t even seem like domains, such as: .travel, .biz, .rocks and .xyz, just to name a few. Do you just buy the dot com or do you blanket all or most of the other ones? Then you have to grab onto likely other cyberspace locations: A WordPress blog address, a Twitter handle, a Pinterest user name, setting up your Facebook page, and more.
My favorite time-saver for this part of a search is Knowem.com, which will look through more than 500 different places across the Internet. If you want a consistent brand identity and you are too busy to deal with it, they will do it for you for the first 25 sites for $85, and more sites for more dough.
So if you are starting a new company, heed these examples. Get the domain names that you need up front, as many as you care and dare. Use KnowEm and sign up for the other stuff too. Get your trademark application in quickly; you never know if someone is riding on your heels. And don’t forget to do a search every now and then, just in case someone has squatted on your brand.