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How Do You Tell a Web Name From A Typo?

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Among the many things the Internet has added recently to contemporary life, there is this: Many grown-ups now sound like babbling toddlers when speaking about the digital world -- because many corporate names now have the ring of a collection of Dr. Seuss characters.

Friends tell friends about the hot new videos on Bebo and Joost, or Hulu and Revver. They buy movie tickets on Fandango, trade songs on Kazaa and find amusing news items on Fark. Zug is a comedy site, Yelp is a review site, Woozyfly a music-sharing site. Zune? Not a Web site at all, but rather a music player.

There's Miva (for searches and contextual ads) and Apahcinc (another search engine), Tucows (business-to-business advertising) and Babooshnik (games). There's Furl.net and Spurl.net, and if you don't know what they do, you can ask Skaffe or Sporge to help you find that information.

Who would guess -- even amid its barrage of Super Bowl ads -- that Go Daddy is the name of an Internet domain registration site? In other words, it's an oddly named company that registers the names of other oddly named companies. Sounds like a lot of mumbo jumbo, which is itself the name of a dot-com (it's a game company).

So why the rampant cuteness? Is the idea to make tech-related companies feel warm and fuzzy and not so sterile and impersonal?

Many tech companies tend to follow two naming strategies these days, says Anthony Shore, global director of naming and writing at Landor Associates, a San Francisco design company: the "nonsense" name (Joost) and names that use familiar-but-misspelled words (Flickr).

Shore, for one, likes neither strategy: "It just feels like they're throwing in the towel. It's easy to find an existing word and drop out a letter. It's easy to come up with arbitrary sounds, or to just add an 'oo.' It's far more difficult to come up with names with real words that have meanings and connections with people."

Yet they keep coming. In a recent survey of Silicon Valley start-ups, the Los Angeles Times turned up such august new enterprises as Qumana (blog editing) and Qoosa (Web browsing), TagTooga and Tendango (both social networking), Ooma (Internet phone calling) and BooRah (restaurant reviews). It also found Xobni (e-mail management), Meebo (instant messaging), Squidoo (online recommendations) and Yoomba (an e-mail service). Not to mention, which the newspaper did, other "double-o" companies such as Oodle, Renkoo and Wakoopa.

We would fault Google and Yahoo for this trend, but Google and Yahoo don't deserve blame. Google and Yahoo are creative names -- short (hence, easy to type into a browser), quirky and suggestive. Google: something very large, almost infinite, like a googolplex. Yahoo: a simple person, or an expression of joy. Ditto the sounds of Facebook and YouTube, which conjure something personal without getting silly about it.

But what to make of, say, Revver? Founder Steven Starr says he chose the name for the video file-sharing site because it suggested action, like revving up a motorcycle, or perhaps "reverence" for people who create videos. But that's not how his investors read it: "When I pitched the name," Starr says, "their reaction was 'revenue.' "

Naming consultants -- people who get paid to dream up names for products and companies -- generally take a dim view of the obtuse and the odd. Names that have no direct connection with a company's business, or don't refer to something in the real world, are bound to be "dysfunctional," says Naseem Javed, president of ABC Namebank International, a naming firm. The long list of dead companies, he adds, "is proof that this La-La Land naming" doesn't work.

Problem is, the Internet has gotten very crowded, say some in the business of naming. There were more than 60 million ".com" names registered as of mid-2007, according to the Internet services company VeriSign. Which means that many of the obvious words ("books," "shoes," "music," etc.) were claimed long ago. So new entrants have to get creative.

Like what, for example? Shore, the Landor director, recently offered a new name for an artists' cooperative: Artistsrising.com. "It makes perfect sense," he says.

Way back when, a century or more ago, most naming was straightforward. Company names were concrete and literal, reporting the "what" and perhaps the "where." Bethlehem Steel. Standard Oil of Indiana. The Generals -- Motors, Electric, Mills. An alternative was to name the company for its founders, reflecting its familial or entrepreneurial roots. These names projected the whole gray-pinstripe paradigm -- strength, propriety, stability. Yes, they were also plainly descriptive and boring, but reassuringly so.

This naming style began to change with a second great wave that began after mid-century. With mergers, globalization and conglomeratization, many companies had outgrown their original business and geography. Grand old corporate names got shortened to sound jazzier -- the National Biscuit Co. became Nabisco -- and eventually some became just a series of initials. American Telephone & Telegraph became AT&T. International Business Machine became simply IBM. And British Petroleum -- two words freighted with history and baggage -- became BP.

Along with this came the Exxon-ing of corporate America -- the creation of ambiguous conceptual names, composed of the roots of other words. Verizon. Advanta. Lucent. Altria. Diageo. Enron.

Now, in the new information economy, a kind of intellectual naming anarchy reigns -- names continue to get ever odder, quirkier and more infantile-sounding on the tongue.

Good luck out there, Xobni.

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