Cybersquatting’s role in new tech start-ups’ bizarre, senseless names

Let’s say you happen to be looking for a roommate in London. You’re in luck – Ruumi, a new UK-based start-up, will help you to find one through an Airbnb-like crowd-sourcing website.

Or what if you want to simply “review” other people the same way you might review a restaurant? Then there’s Peeple. Or rather there might have been Peeple. The Canadian woman who was looking to launch the app looks to have axed it in response to the backlash – from people – it generated.

What’s perhaps most notable about the two ideas _ both of which made headlines recently – is not the services they seek to deliver, but rather their names. They stand out, and not for good reasons.

Websites, apps and online services are increasingly adopting strange names, or strangely spelled names, and it’s unfortunate for those who would like to see the sanctity of the English language and the spelling of its words preserved.

Whether it’s Ruumi or Peeple, or Lyft, Shyp, or even Flickr, Tumblr and Nuzzel – or closer to home, the UAE’s Guiddoo or Egypt’s Kngine – technology companies are butchering the language. Even Google, started in 1998, when the web was young, is a misspelling of the word “googol”, or the number one followed by a hundred zeros.

Even worse are companies that are making up entirely new, bizarre words for their names. Kaggle, Zynga, Choozle, Foodler, Shodogg, Bawte, Mibblio … the list goes on.

Compare that with the relentlessly mundanity of the names of the biggest American companies a half-century ago: General Motors, Armour, International Paper, and American Can.

This is not the modern companies’ fault. Aside from the age-old challenge of trying to think up a catchy name and brand, start-ups today face the additional 21st-century problem of having to come up with something that isn’t already taken online. And that’s a near impossibility with the amount of cyber-squatting going on.

Here’s a fun exercise: Think up 10 names for a new business and then look them up to see if the domain names are available. Chances are, they aren’t.

Here’s another fun one: Take a week and think up 10 more, then look them up. Once again, those names are more than likely to be taken, probably by someone who spends all their time thinking up word combinations and registering them. They’ll gladly sell you the domain name you really want, for a handsome price.

Stories abound about companies paying a lot of money for domain names. The US chain Toys R Us paid US$5.1 million for in 2009 and Apple paid $6m for in 2011, both of which pale compared to the $35.6m paid by the California-based marketing company QuinStreet in 2010 for

Many jurisdictions have rules against cybersquatting, or profiting from someone else’s trademark by purposely registering domains that another company may want or need. But that doesn’t really apply in cases where someone has simply thought of a potential business name first.

It’s here that this becomes more than just a pedantic complaint about spelling. It’s also a real problem for start-ups. Many don’t have the time to think up names for their businesses and products that still vaguely fall within the realm of English, or the money to pay marketing agencies to solve the issue for them.

It’s a problem that plagues even the most successful ventures. Twitter, when it started in 2006, called itself Twttr. The company was able to buy back the vowels and thus its full domain name from cyber squatters only after it got some traction in the marketplace.

Some efforts to fix the issue have arisen. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the California-based organisation in charge of managing domains, routinely approves and releases new extensions, but it’s not an elegant solution. Nobody really wants a dot-io, dot-airforce or dot-blackfriday as part of their website name.

Regional and country-specific domain extensions – say dot-ae, dot-jo and dot-ye for the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Yemen, respectively – are considerably more available, but they can be off-putting to people in other countries. Companies seeking to do business globally are under inescapable pressure to get a dot-com name.

E-commerce enablers such as Shopify also offer tools that generate business names for you. Simply type in a word you want to include and voila, you get a list of available domain names that include it. It’s a functional option, but again, it’s not elegant or creative.

You might be better off spending your time thinking of how you can mangle vowels or drop letters to get the name you really want, much to the dismay of the English language.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

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