Kleefeld On Webcomics #80: What's In A Name?

By Sean Kleefeld

Quick, what’s the website address of xkcd? On the off chance that you don’t know, you could Google “xkcd” and, sure enough, Randall Munroe’s webcomic site pops up as the first entry. That should come as no surprise since the letters xkcd never really appear in that specific combination in any existing word. The only other place it might appear where somebody wasn’t talking about the comic would be if your cat happened to walk across the keyboard while you were on message board or something. According to Munroe, “It's just a word with no phonetic pronunciation -- a treasured and carefully-guarded point in the space of four-character strings.”

Of course, searching for the website is something of a moot point since Munroe has it located at the straightforwardly named domain of xkcd.com. If you can remember the name of the comic, you can remember the address where it’s located.

Now, what about The Princess by Christine Smith? Unless somebody provides you with a link to the comic, you’re not likely to guess what the address is. And the words are common enough that a simple Google search might not be effective. You can indeed find it if you think to search for “Princess” and “webcomic” but “Princess” by itself yields a number of results completely unrelated to webcomics at all. Whether or not you find Smith’s comic is somewhat dependant on how good your Google-Fu is.

I was at a conference a few months back, whose focus was on comic creators that were largely associated with the underground comix scene: Robert Crumb, Gary Panter, Carol Tyler and the like. Even the most contemporary creators (Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, Seth, etc.) were still in that same vein. Not many folks there were very familiar with webcomics, other than a vague awareness that they existed. In introducing myself to one of the other attendees, a college professor, I noted that I write this column and, in the ensuing conversation, he asked for the websites of some of the webcomics I read. I can tell you that many of the ones I read did not get mentioned precisely because there wasn’t a handy way to tell him how to find them.

The problem, if you haven’t figured it out, is that making your webcomics’ name too generic means that it will be that much more difficult to get word out about it. Webcomics largely become well known by word of mouth (both in real life and virtually) and having a name and site that’s easily memorable, but also unique, is a big advantage. If I want to tell someone about Wapsi Square, if the name isn’t searchable enough, it’s easily located at WapsiSquare.com.

But the trick is striking a balance between original and memorable. Once you etch “xkcd” into your brain, it’s not difficult to recall, but because it’s a letter combination that never occurs, it’s challenging to get it to stick in your memory. A combination like “pqrs” is just as unpronounceable, but since it follows the same pattern that’s already in the alphabet, it’s easy to remember. It’s part of a larger pattern you already know. The same with Least I Could Do; it’s a familiar enough phrase that it’s already committed to your memory in some capacity. Because the “word” xkcd is unique apart from any language and doesn’t even have a phonetic pronunciation, readers have to commit four wholly unrelated random characters in a deliberate sequence to memory. Not an easy task, especially for casual readers.

See, even though Hans Rickheit’s webcomic Ectopiary uses an entirely new word for its title, it’s still familiar as people are familiar with both halves. The prefix “ecto” is used in words like ectoderm and ectoplasm, and the suffix “ary” is very common in words like library and aviary. So even though “ectopiary” is a new combination for readers, they’re familiar enough with the individual parts that they really only have to recall how they’re combined.

Needless to say, a webcomic will not live or die by its name and web address. If it’s done well, people will find their way to it. But having a good and searchable name, with an easily memorable location certainly makes things a lot easier in the early days of trying to market a webcomic!

Related Posts:

Kleefeld On Webcomics #79: Talkin' 'Bout Manga

Kleefeld On Webcomics #78: Body Image


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