(The online article is behind a paywall, so I'm going to quote liberally.)
According to the WSJ's Numbers Guy:
Industry watchers say Web users should get used to visiting sites whose names are numeric. A group in Australia plans to develop 100.com into a search engine that will deliver the 100 most relevant results. An Aspen, Colo., equity researcher has spent more than $1 million on numeric domains for a project that is yet to be determined. And on Thursday, an auction of dozens of numeric domain names closed, with bids as high as $325,000 for 88.com.
Of the 100 most expensive domains sold this year (that is, on the aftermarket), 11 were numeric. The biggest bucks went to 770.com, for $343,208. In each of the past three years, no more than one all-digit domain landed in the top 100.
Numbers Guy suggests that desperation lies behind the trend: "the increasing scarcity of word-based names." I've also noticed an increasing impatience with the necessary process of brand definition and name development, which can yield excellent "word-based names." I also encounter an unrealistic fetishization of short domain names and an unwillingness to explore creative alternatives with strong brand potential.
There's a certain irony in the all-digit trend. The domain-name system was devised 25 years ago "to spare the general public from numbers," Numbers Guy writes. Behind each URL is an 11-digit address that's challenging for most non-savants to remember.
Here's my $.02: It's hard to build a brand around a number, although sometimes a well-defined brand can be summed up by a numerical expression. Usually, numbers work best when given some context. I wrote last year about some good and bad examples of numerical naming (#3 in this post): 37 Signals, the name of a business-software company, paints a more memorable picture than "37" would; 23andMe, the genetic profiling company, benefits from the personal pronoun.
And then there's Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati, the subject of many jokes but in fact a very successfully articulated brand:
Fifth Third Bank, whose 53.com is one of the most successful two-digit online domains, spent decades building meaning around its name. A century ago, the merger of Cincinnati's Third National Bank and Fifth National Bank created Fifth Third, and soon after the bank created a logo out of the numerals five and three. Employees wear pins with those digits. Most salary increases occur on May 3. As part of a fund-raiser at Fifth Third Ballpark, in Comstock Park, Mich., one night, the bank spread 53,000 pennies on a tarp on the field and encouraged 530 children to scoop them up. The bank even tries to incorporate 5 and 3 into promotional interest-rate offers, such as 5.53%.
"People have associated our banks with numerals for a long time," says Larry Magnesen, Fifth Third's chief marketing officer. That made 53.com a no-brainer for the bank. "It makes it very easy and memorable for people," Mr. Magnesen says, adding that the two keystrokes it takes to type 53 "even beat out AOL or MSN or WSJ."
Note that those "decades" spent "building meaning around its name" came before the bank's Internet presence. By the time 53.com came to be, customers had had the digits imprinted in their memories.
And, as I frequently tell my own naming clients, a two- or three-digit domain name isn't necessarily the perfect solution. Quoting Numbers Guy again:
[O]n a computer, where most navigation occurs, long domain names aren't necessarily a barrier to success. Nate Silver's electoral-math site, fivethirtyeight.com, which launched earlier this year, had more than 800,000 unique visitors in October, according to Web-tracking company Compete. Meanwhile, 538.com, which isn't a Web site but simply a domain that has been snapped up, got one-tenth as many visitors, and many of them were presumably looking for Mr. Silver's site.
Mr. Silver says he wishes he had bought the numeric version before he launched, because his site's success has probably raised the asking price. However, he adds, "for branding purposes I think the name as spelled out" is "a lot more elegant."
And even if you have money to burn, please do some research before jumping on the numbers bandwagon.
Jason Calacanis, the Internet entrepreneur who created Weblogs Inc. and sold it for a reported $30 million to AOL, paid $70,000 for 20.com and intended to build a new business around it. "Having only two characters to type is just a huge advantage for a service," Mr. Calacanis says.
But when he eventually launched a search engine, he eschewed the numeric domain and went with Mahalo.com, he says, "after some research and soul-searching, mostly my gut." He says he gets offers as high as $400,000 for 20.com but isn't selling -- though he'd give it to LeBron James if the Cleveland Cavaliers star signs with the New York Knicks in 2010.
Mr. James wears No. 23. Mr. Calacanis, undeterred, says 20 "would look good on his back."
There's more at the Numbers Guy blog, which points out (thank you!):
There are downsides to building a brand out of a number. Pradeep Chintagunta, professor of marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, points out that “if you pick a number like three, things like brand extensions become difficult. How do you extend the domain name? To 3.1?”