Less than a decade ago, campaign websites were an afterthought for political candidates. Today, they are a necessity, regardless of the office you’re running for. While the Internet has become an indispensable tool for campaign organization, candidates often devote little time to developing a solid domain strategy that will pay dividends down the road.

So before you spend time on the content and design of your website, plan on devoting some serious energy to purchasing a domain name, or even a portfolio of names, in order to enhance your online presence. Here are a few basics to ensure your campaign gets off on the right foot:

Getting the domain name right

You’ll likely want to register more than one domain name for your campaign, but it is important to establish one site as your main hub. Think of it in terms of real estate. While every candidate wants regional affiliates to localize outreach efforts, the main campaign headquarters is a vital resource for organizing your campaign, taking contributions, and disseminating information. Your other domains can forward visitors to this main site but you can only list one on your placards.

In order to promote your website to voters and potential contributors, first consider the length of your primary domain name. Domains with fewer characters are not only easier to remember, but also easier to type into a web browser and help potential voters avoid relying on unpredictable search engine results. As more people access the web on mobile devices, shorter domain names are the better choice.

Also, avoid using hyphens. Not only are they a hassle, but Americans aren’t accustomed to using them as much as Internet users in other countries.

Dates are another element to be cautious with. While the names of candidates are often tied to election years, remember that the shelf life for a domain name with a year attached to it is limited. It’s great to include a domain with your name and a date in your domain portfolio, but it may not be ideal as your primary website. What you should include if possible is a major issue that’s part of your campaign platform. Not only will it make your campaign more memorable, it will also make your viewpoint more accessible. In other words, plan ahead for your reelection.

Constructing a portfolio

Google and Bing are great tools, but people want to make as few stops as possible when searching for information. Many will skip the browser and type their inquiry directly into the navigation bar. Having a variety of domain names is a great way to capture direct navigation traffic, as well as those voters who have misspelled your domain. A portfolio of descriptive domains also makes your campaign more search-friendly, supplementing the reach of your message.

Aside from your main campaign website, consider using other domains to create more specific mini-campaigns targeted at a particular issue, region, or demographic. Using unique domains to create a collection of mini websites with varying approaches to the issues enables you to reach out to disparate groups in an accessible way, and even enables you to track the progress of your efforts in each segment.

In the digital world, email is the other primary way of communicating with constituents. Your domain name impacts the way your email looks in a person’s inbox, so consider whether it may be worth acquiring a domain to use as your email extension.

Defending your online reputation

Recently, we’ve seen high-profile politicians like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich run up against time-consuming and costly domain name disputes. While it is impossible to register every domain name that could be used to show you in a negative light, it’s easy enough to register the most obvious ones capable of damaging your image—such as IHateYourName.com, YourNameSucks.com, or DontVoteForYourName.com—which may also be the most difficult to prevent legally. While creating a domain around your name that then features negative content about you may seem like defamation, the Constitution and intellectual property laws allow your opponents to make “fair use” of your name if you’re a politician or current lawmaker, so be sure to protect yourself.

If you find that your name is being used for impermissible content such as adult content or Internet scams, that’s another issue entirely. In this case, you may be able to either file a Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) complaint with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in order to gain control of the domain name for yourself, or recover the domain and seek monetary damages as a result of the Anti-Cybersquatting Protection Act.

Maintaining your domains

Once you’ve secured your domains, protecting and maintaining them in the long-term is not to be taken lightly. Be sure your domains are registered in either the name of the candidate or the campaign, and not just to the staffer who submitted the registration. User names and passwords should only be given to responsible and reliable staff members, and the candidate should insist on copies of your registration information and credentials.

Letting a domain’s registration lapse releases it back to the public, so delegating that responsibility to a trustworthy staff member is vital. Reliable registrars will also allow you to auto-renew your domain registration, or secure it for a number of years (often up to 10).

Lastly, alternate Top Level Domains (TLDs) such as .net, .org, .co, or .us are important to consider adding to your portfolio. More recently, ICANN began accepting applications for new gTLDs—generic Top Level Domain extensions such as .bank, .jobs or .politics. These gTLDs are expected to begin winning approval in late 2012.

While the success of the new gTLDs will largely depend on how each registry is managed, politicians should keep an eye out for any relevant new extensions that may require attention for defensive registrations or benefit your domain portfolio. The domain industry is constantly evolving, so understanding it and taking advantage of that knowledge will keep your campaign on solid footing.

Jeremiah Johnston has served as general counsel at Sedo (www.sedo.com) since 2004 and represents the company as a founding member of the Internet Commerce Association (ICA).