How to use domain names for SEO

Across your journey to increase the reach of your brand through search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques, the domain name will soon emerge. This can be located in any web browser – offering a concise link that enterprises will promote throughout all of their marketing campaigns.

Take the example of Google’s homepage domain http://www.google.com.au. Here we will find:

  • Protocol: http://
  • Subdomain: www.
  • Domain name (Second-Level domain): google
  • Top-Level domain: .com.au

The domain name is considered to be the second level of the process and this is where companies need to spend money on registering their title with the appropriate online authorities.

One of these operations domestically is Netregistry, a site that packages together hosting and marketing services but their key offering is providing domain registration. They are one of many in this marketplace.

How to use domain names for SEO

Do you know how domain names effect SEO? Photo: Onephoto, Bigstock

In years gone by, the answer to the question about which domain names are best suited would be incredibly simple. Keywords used to be the single most important search engine ranking factor, meaning that the niche of “cheap pool equipment” would see a rush to secure the root domain (domain name and top-level domain) of cheappoolequipment.com.

Today this scenario is simply not the case. There is far more subtlety and intricacy to the rankings than in this era, placing an imperative on SEO operators to examine how a domain name can be maximised.

So let us delve now into the micro details of the domain that will play a role in your SEO health.

Top-level domain

The central factor at play for the top-level domain comes down to the relevance of your geographic location. Should you be based in a city, have a local store front or simply rely on the need to drive home a domestic postcode, then the top-level domain is all encompassing for how you will operate.

Take a men’s clothing store in Coffs Harbour as a case in point. Two of the top three hits in this niche happen to contain a .com.au for their top-level domain:

  • com.au
  • com
  • com.au

Due to the many metrics that are at play when determining SEO scores, the top-level domain does not necessarily need to be a .com.au for Australian sites. Yet it certainly helps their cause if they are.

This enables Google crawlers to easily identify and rank your URL based on your niche’s geography, giving them less work to do to categorise your brand by location.

Should one physical location not be your priority where international shipping or global downloads are offered, then a .com is advised. The more general the service, the more general the top-level domain should be.

Second-level domain

How to use domain names for SEO

The second level domain is where a brand name becomes synonyms with a product or service. Photo: Onephoto, Bigstock

We explored in the opening the notion that keywords are no longer an important metric that has to be tied to your domain name. That is simply a myth and there is a litany of examples that prove this to be true.

Consider the area of search engines themselves. When that phrase is typed in, it is not dominated by sites that are labeled “search engines,” but rather the likes of Google, Yahoo and Bing. It is the brands that become the frontrunners on the search engine results page (SERP) leaderboard, not the keywords.

The same can be seen when we conduct a search for “social media software tools.” This will produce Hootsuite, Sprout Social, TweetDeck and AgoraPulse among others. There is no socialmediasoftware.com to be seen.

So the second-level domain then becomes an opportunity to plug your brand name and feed into the concept of brand awareness. The industry-related keywords can be utilised in other locations including backlinks, descriptions, alt-text, titles, headings and efficiently throughout written and multimedia content.

The second-level domain of any major corporation or successful small to medium enterprise is about pushing the brand message. What is on the logo, what is on the letterhead and what image is dominant on your marketing material? This is where you tap into the brand name between the subdomain and top-level domain.

It is also vital to consider this from the user’s perspective. The brand name is all encompassing for searchers – take Uber, Starbucks, KFC, AirBnb and Spotify as illustrations of this phenomenon. Only those who don’t have a solid grasp of what they are searching for will offer a general enquiry such as “coffee shops,” “taxi service,” “take away chicken” or “music streaming app.”

Help the consumer think about your brand name when they think about your niche. That enables your logo and presence to have a stronger association with the product. What’s more is that the search engines will begin to mimic this behaviour of the marketplace, linking your brand with the niche.

Domain authority

A smaller detail that occurs behind the scenes with domains and their relationship to SEO is domain authority or DA for short. This can be seen through an application like Moz that will enable users to download a Chrome extension or Open Site Explorer that tells them in no uncertain terms how well a domain is ranking.

It takes account a series of factors but essentially operates to validate the credibility and popularity of a site based on an aggregated score out of 100. Therefore a dubious blog page littered with cookies and illegitimate links will be below the 10 mark. At the other end of the scale will be news sites like smh.com.au and social media hubs including Facebook that will be upwards of 75-80.

This area should not see SEO marketers stress that they aren’t maximising their domain authority potential. Not every beauty salon can be expected to have the same DA as Apple.com for example. It is though a great means of testing sites from other competitors, because it will include elements such as load time, backlink quality, amount of incoming organic traffic, brand recognition etc.

If you are running an analysis on your domain and want some type of tangible tool that tells you directly how you are performing – then apps on domain authority is the way to go. It will break down all the technical algorithms to formulate a user-friendly scoring system and depending on how you use these software tools, ways and means of combating a poor score.

Domain age

How to use domain names for SEO

The age of a domain is less important for rankings but is still a factor overall. Photo: Rawpixel, Bigstock

In 2017, Google’s own John Mueller confirmed on social media that the age of a domain was not a consideration for search engine rankings. His compatriot Matt Cutts confirmed as much in a later statement to outline that the difference between a domain in one niche that is 6 months old won’t be superior to one that is 12.

There are elements though that would give a domain of a few years a head start over a start-up that is in the embryotic phase. We know that a quality SEO strategy takes up to 3 months before genuine results start to take place. That would mean a website that is 6 months down this track would be far better placed than one that would be 6 weeks.

So while the domain age is not a major consideration on the surface because it is not a metric that Google takes into account, the lifespan of a website still plays a role in some respect. Essentially, it is easier to continue a journey that you have started by renewing a domain name than letting it expire and starting from scratch.

Venture away from exact name domains

Up until 2012, marketers believed they had struck gold with a name that was specific to their keyword requirement. Having secured the domain sydneylandscapingservices.com, the rest of the competition had to spend thousands to keep up because they could not register that domain.

Then the Exact Match Domain Update from Google dropped. That Sydney landscaping service suddenly fell from a lofty position without having to invest much in SEO to behind the opening page and sinking fast.

Depending on what niche you are examining, this might not be the case across the board. If your operation is selling antique chairs in Campbelltown, then campbelltownantiquechairs.com is still probably a safe bet to be the number one hit. What this 2012 change affected was the competitive occupations including accountancy firms, dentists, personal trainers, cafes and anything that involved genuine competition for visibility and commercial space.

Needless to say that the past 5-6 years has seen brands venture away from this school of thinking because the rewards are simply not there.

Subfolders over subdomains

How to use domain names for SEO

For the purposes of SEO rankings, subfolders are better than subdomains. Photo: N_Defender, Bigstock

The internet is a vast marketplace which will see a difference in domain approach and philosophy. One of the stark differences on this topic is the idea of subfolders or subdomains where a category inside your brand name is situated either before or after the secondary-level domain.

For example, sports giant Foxsports have decided to have their football content as follows: https://www.foxsports.com.au/football. This is an example of a subfolder where the secondary-level domain foxsports sees the title “football” utilised as a subfolder behind the main link.

The subdomain approach to this would read: http://www.football.foxsports.com.au – producing something that is almost entirely the same, but happens to switch around the order. A bit of semantics right? Not exactly.

Unless there is a preference to change the language of the site such as spanish.foxsports.com.au/football then there really is no need to head down the subdomain route. Search engines like Google have been fairly vague on how they rank subdomains as compared to subfolders, but those professional analysts who are tasked with examining the data believe that subfolders encounter far less problems in relation to search engine ranking.

Even from a general user’s perspective, it is far more simple and straightforward to follow through on a subfolder than it is on a subdomain, creating some confusion from the very beginning.

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Kieran is the Social Media Manager and SEO Expert at SEO Shark. He is an expert in Social Media, link building, PPC and of course SEO. In his time off work Kieran enjoys reading and playing rugby, as well as following all kinds of sports! You can read some more of his articles here.