(Gawkwire.com) When Nobel Prize winning novelist Elias Canetti wrote that “people’s fates are simplified by their names,” he clearly was not thinking of the web hosting industry. If an outsider were to glance at a list of the largest and most successful web hosting companies, he would quickly realize there is little correlation between the quality of a particular host’s name and its level of success. eNom, 1&1, Go Daddy, Bluehost, HostGator, The Planet, and iPowerWeb are just a few of the tremendously successful web hosts with names that will baffle more people than they will impress.
In other industries, the relationship between the names of companies and what they do seems to be equally meaningless. We no longer live in a time where the biggest companies have painfully obvious names like Standard Oil and US Steel. Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world and competes fiercely with a company called Target; neither name has anything to do with discount retailing. Starbucks, the largest and most financially successful coffeehouse, has a name that has nothing to do with coffee and even less to do with the caffeinated yuppies (myself included) that it caters to; the name is actually a reference to a relatively obscure character in the mid-nineteenth century novel Moby Dick. Herman Melville and his famous novel about a white whale can be described as many things, but hip is probably not a description that comes to mind right away. Google’s name is a play on a (previously) little known number that’s relation to search is a stretch at best. Yahoo is completely made up. Apple, a consumer electronics maker that is perhaps the best example of bizarrely named company that ended up successful, is named after a fruit.
Despite their curiously irrelevant names, Google, Starbucks, and Apple all managed to create impressive brands. Google is synonymous with search, Starbucks with coffee, and Apple with high-end consumer electronics. And all three of the names are memorable and easy to spell. Beyond those aspects, the success of the brands was in the implementation. Google made itself quirky and simple; Starbucks, eclectic and refreshing and Apple made itself hip and stylish. The companies looked beyond the original meanings and inspirations behind the names and created their own brands. Apples are not hip and stylish – they are ubiquitous fruits that grow on trees and are even mentioned in the Bible. Starbucks is not nautical or whale-like. Google purposely avoided branding itself as a boring math company.
The best web hosting companies have taken a similar, but less apparent approach. Go Daddy, even with a name that violates countless rules of good naming, has branded itself as a rebel domain and web hosting company. 1&1 has branded itself as a serious and professional company that has “proven products and honest pricing.” Bluehost and HostGator’s brands portray relatively non-corporate, down-to-earth web hosts. The Planet has made use of its planetary motif. However, brands of the most successful web hosting companies are generally weak when compared to strong brands in other industries. Is it because the industry is so commoditized or is it because branding has taken a backseat to other types of more overt marketing?
Web hosts experience a unique problem when it comes to naming because of the sheer competitiveness of the hosting industry. All web hosts need a name, and because domain names can be obtained so easily and inexpensively, everyone that wants a domain can get one. The pre-teen deciding to start a web hosting company in his basement can buy a great domain name for $8.95. When he does so, he takes the takes the possibility of that domain name being a potentially great name for a company away from everyone else. Worse yet, when that pre-teen’s business goes under in three months, the domain name will not be available for more than nine months and likely will be grabbed by a greedy registrar or an enterprising domain seller before it goes on sale to the general public. The immediate result? A shortage of good names for web hosts and web businesses in general. The secondary result? A plethora of web hosts and other web businesses with bizarre names.
In a post on his blog, marketing expert Seth Godin argued against overly simple, boring names and said that businesses are best off choosing names with domain names that are unique enough to stand out in Google. Generic names with great domains (such as Web.com) sound good and describe what the particular company does, but are not nearly as valuable if they cannot dominate the search engine results. Web.com does not show up on the first page when the term “web” is Googled. On the other hand, when the term “Bluehost” is Googled, all of the results on the front page relate directly to the company. The Planet is lucky that Google includes the word “the” in search results. If Google did not, the dedicated server provider would literally have to compete with the solar system for prominence in search results. By Seth Godin’s definition, Bluehost has the best name of the three companies because its name is unique enough to stand out on the search engines while also being memorable and easy to spell.
To be unique, web hosts have developed a habit of coming up with bizarre names. Some of the names have some special significance, while others were quite simply made up.
1&1, a hosting provider that claims to be the world’s largest web host, is one of most prominent examples of a host with a bizarre name; the company’s name consists entirely of non-letter characters. 1&1 is also unique for using an ampersand (a character that cannot even be included in a domain name) in its name. As the founders were brainstorming about potential names, co-founder Ralph Dommermuth suggested naming the company after the zip code of the German town the company was (and still is) based in, 5439. The other founders convinced Dommermuth that 5439 would not make for a great brand name, and the name 1&1 was their alternative. The new name represented a desire to bring what the founders thought were the two most important aspects of the company, software and customers, together. The name stuck and proved to be successful. (Ironically, five years after 1&1 was founded, the German town changed its zip code from 5439 to 56410.)
HostGator, a shared, reseller, and dedicated host that has since moved to Houston, was originally located in Boca Raton, Florida. The city of Boca Raton happens to lie right on the edge of the Florida Everglades, a subtropical wetland that is home to roughly two million American alligators. When founder Brent Oxley had trouble deciding between HostGator and GatorHost, he let a coin flip determine the brand’s fate. Since then, the company has made use of the gator motif beyond just the name: the company’s official slogan is “we eat up the competition” and the logo features an alligator chomping on the letter “h” in the HostGator name.
Other names have less interesting roots. The Planet was originally known as NTAccess, a name the company quickly changed after Microsoft voiced concerns about the name’s similarity to software giant’s multi-billion dollar operating system. “We hired a domain name broke and found that theplanet.com was available. It was the most appealing choice since it enabled us to present a global image and brand,” said Steve Kahan, vice president of marketing and product management at The Planet.
Domain registrar and hosting company Go Daddy was originally known as Jomax Technologies. With the understanding that the name Jomax was neither unique nor impressive, Barbara Rechterman, who later became Go Daddy’s executive vice president of marketing, suggested the name ‘Big Daddy.’ After learning that the suggested name was taken, founder Bob Parsons suggested the name Go Daddy. “The staff and anyone else who heard our funny new name, fell in love with "Go Daddy" and it stuck,” wrote Parons in a December 2004 blog post. When the team observed people hearing the name Go Daddy for the first time, they noticed the listeners not only smiled, but also remembered the name. For a company trying to build a brand during the height of the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, having a name that would stand out and could easily be remembered was essential.
Shared and reseller provider Site5, another web hosting company that includes a number in its name, admits the origins of its name have no special significance. The company’s founders, Matt Lightner and Rod Armstrong, chose the name Site5 because they were determined to have a name that was both unique name and did not include the word “host” in it. Ten years later, the brand today represents just that rationale – beyond being in the company’s name, the five seems to be insignificant the company’s overall brand.
While there is nothing explicitly wrong with choosing to include a number in a company’s name, branding common sense says that companies should own and control as many iterations of their name as possible, with the goal being to eliminate any possible confusion. Site5 took steps to protect its brand and eliminate potential confusion by ensuring it owned both the site5.com and sitefive.com versions of its name. 1&1 also left out the possibility of confusing potential customers by purchasing both 1and1.com and oneandone.com. HostNine, yet another hosting company with a number in its name, has branding that could potentially lead to confusion – its logo is an H followed by a 9 (H9), but h9.com is an advertising site that has nothing to do with the host. The company does not own Host9.com, either.
In what seems to be desperation, many web hosts come up with names that might not have the best connotation in a technical industry. Frozen Web Host, an Atlanta-based shared hosting provider has a name that rarely comes with positive associations (frozen computers are perhaps the most the apparent). Banana Host’s quirky name is certainly unique. Darkstar Communications, a game server host, shares its interesting name with a 1974 sci-fi-comedy-thriller and a California-based manufacturer of wood skateboard decks. Pair Networks shares the pronunciation of its name with a fruit. Dathron Internet Services uses the perhaps inappropriate acronym of “dis” in its logo.
Other hosts, even those with less bizarre names, have names that seem to have little to do with the company’s actual brand. HostDime’s name might suggest affordability (which is accurate), but the company’s home page touts exceptional service, not low prices, as HostDime’s primary competitive advantage. Based on its name, one might assume Rackspace is a budget provider of co-location services, while in actuality, the 2,000-employee company is a high-end managed hosting company that prides itself on its deep-rooted commitment to “Fanatical Support.”
The oddity of web hosting names does not seem to be as apparent among sites that support the web hosting industry. The most popular web host review sites have simple names such as Web Hosting Geeks, HostReview, FindMyHost.com, Web Hosting Jury, and Best Host Ratings. The people behind these web sites realized a name that would rank well on Google was crucial to the success of their respective businesses. Web Hosting Talk, the largest forum community related to the web hosting industry, has a name that is both catchy and appropriate.
The major control panel makers have a mix of names – some unique, others not. cPanel is an uncomplicated name for a control panel. DirectAdmin is also self-explanatory. However, Ensim and Plesk seem to be made up words that have little to do with web hosting. The makers of Plesk used to be known as SWsoft, but later decided to take the much more marketable name of an acquisition and rename the company Parallels – a far less ambiguous name that actually represents what the company does.
Much to Elias Canetti’s dismay, the fates of the companies in the web hosting industry are not simplified by their names. The names of the top web hosting companies can each be described with a seemingly endless number of adjectives: bizarre, random, catchy, awkward, meaningful, creative, mundane, and perhaps even fun. One adjective describing these companies does not need to be debated, though, and that one adjective is successful.
These companies have defied the odds by not only surviving, but actually succeeding in one of the most competitive industries in the world. They have overcome countless obstacles, built great brands, and dealt with an unimaginable number of challenges. And perhaps most surprising of all, they have managed to do all of it with funny names.
Writer’s Bio: Douglas Hanna is a consultant and the Customer Service Editor for Ping! Zine. His first name, which is Gaelic in origin, was originally the name of a river.

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