So what is in a domain name exactly? When the topic of search engine optimisation (SEO) arises for online marketers, this is a tactic that will garner some debate among professionals.
Is there currency in a domain name to boost visibility or should time and energy be spent focusing on the myriad of other issues that optimisers have to encounter on a daily basis?
The answer will depend on the circumstance of the organisation because the world of SEO has changed significantly in the past 5 years. What was considered a simple practice to increase awareness and set a website skyrocketing up the rankings is now a more organic process that takes time and meticulous detail.
Why is this the case? Well the 500-600 annual algorithm updates don’t help the cause for operators wanting a static set of guidelines for SEO. Keyword popularity and competition fluctuates and the search engines are continually looking for ways and means of translating social habits and norms towards the presentation of navigation.
For domain names, there are different schools of thought: do you engage a title that is relevant to the niche at hand e.g. Coffee Culture, or do you venture for something bold and unique e.g. Apple?
The shortcut response to this equation is that both philosophies do not provide an end game all unto itself. Each one of these techniques will take time and integrating an entire SEO campaign will venture far beyond the choice of the domain name.
However, let us explore some key points in history that will help to serve a satisfying conclusion, as well as a series of tactics that will offer a gauge on optimisation for the benefit of the search engine.
What is a domain name?
The domain name of a brand is the listing of the IP address and is broken down to two compartments:
- Top-level domain
The secondary part known as the subdomain is simply the “www.” placed in front of the link. The top-level domain is text that follows until the first subcategory is reached.
Subdomain: www. Top-level domain: telstra.com.au
This is a location that all enterprises will plug and will usually operate as the default landing page. Here is where new visitors and regular customers will find the relevant tabs that will guide them to products, services, a history of the brand, added features and a contact section.
All digital marketing endeavours will aim to send traffic to the domain in some shape or form. The question then surrounds the identity of that title and there is one alteration from 2012 that offers a pointer on this matter.
The EMD experience
At the turn of the decade, a question about domain names and SEO would never even arise. The simple response would be: yes! This was a result of the phenomenon known as exact match domains (EMDs) where brands would opt for the most obvious title imaginable.
Rather than devising a unique and clever domain that would allow the company to standalone and garner their own brand, they would fall in line with whatever the market was searching for. It would lead to a farcical scenario whereby consumers would see the following as leading results:
Put simply, the results would be as bland and generic as possible and designed purely for the benefit of the search engine. There was little on-brand messaging whereby only the major outlets like Microsoft and Disney were crafting their own space.
Fast forward a few years and with a number of algorithm changes, most notably the Exact Match Domain Update for September 2012, sites that only concerned themselves with the domain name dropped down the table. Given their negligent approach to content, backlinks and other metrics, search engines punished them severely to allow flexibility for domain name messaging.
Now that EMDs are consigned to the history books, the strongest gauge for search engine success comes down the elevation of the brand name. Awareness on this front is seen through any number of online channels, from Google to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Instagram, business directories, advertisements and anywhere a logo and name can be listed.
In essence, a domain name is the brand. Consider the heavy hitters on the web and how they have garnered major cut-through in the market with a title that encapsulates their existence:
Awareness over a period of years builds to trust and this is true for the customer base at large and the search engines who bank on reliable links for their ranking process. If a keyword can be integrated or partially-integrated into a domain name – that is ideal. Yet the bold strategy is to embrace your own alias for the sake of being unique and ensuring that competitors cannot mimic the same approach.
One of the best means of integrating various keywords into your online marketing strategy is to embrace the use of subfolders. Rather than attempt to buy a series of new, standalone domains on their own, take advantage of unique tabs that can work as their own signals for crawlers to place your domain name in the correct niche space you are competing in.
Continuing our look at telstra.com.au, their sports and entertainment packages are very much tied to the domain name subfolder “TVs, Movies and Music.” This is presented as the following: www.telstra.com.au/tv-movies-music.
The inclusion of individual brands within that subfolder also boost performance, looking at Apple, Samsung and Disney products that all contribute to relevance. They are signs of trust from authoritative sources where Google have to acknowledge that Telstra are issuing their consumer base with top of the market brands for their stores.
The practice is seen with general SEO content whereby the top brand name is utilised for H1 headline tags while the alternative keyword drivers are kept for the lower category H2 and H3 tags.
Country code your domain
A country code or ccTLD for a domain name can be a helpful marker for web crawlers to geo-locate your brand. In Telstra’s case, they are helped in part to stand as Australia’s major telecommunications outlet by providing a top-level domain that ends with a .com.au.
Integrating a country code offers search engines a shortcut to identify what region of the world an enterprise is based in and where they want to be ranked for users across the globe.
Some sites that have a reach to numerous continents like sports broadcasting service beIN SPORTS will have a series of country codes to cater to markets in Australia, North, South America and Asia. Yet the majority of marketers will take on a country code that is specific to their circumstance.
Keywords via industry
Getting down to the crux of the matter – just how vital is the domain name for the sake of keywords? The best response to this talking point comes down to the specificity of the niche. The more condensed and limited the consumer base, the greater the need is to include relevant and on-topic keywords.
We see social media hub giants like Hootsuite dominate the market not because the title ‘Hootsuite’ has anything to do with a multifaceted Facebook and Twitter platform. It is because they drive the best service and have executed a long-term SEO strategy that boosts their domain name at every opportunity.
Now for industry types like plumbing suppliers, printing services and cake stalls, the challenge is different. The vocabulary has to be spot-on for what is being searched without the brand recognition to start with.
Here is where an outlet like Google’s Keyword Planner comes into play, giving brands a chance to examine what is being searched and where a brand name and keyword can come together to form a domain.
Thoughts and strategies
There are other influences to consider when we think about domain names and their impact on SEO. While Google has officially stated that the age of a URL has zero impact on rankings, there is enough evidence to suggest that a domain which has lasted long-term will consistently perform better than their newer counterparts.
Yet those fresh on the scene don’t need to fret over this issue because sincere organic growth will lead to more traffic as the process takes its natural course.
After running your URL through a free software application tool like UpTime’s Domain Health Check, it is worthwhile following some basic principles to ensure that your title is in sync with the fundamentals of SEO:
- Be on-brand before integrating keywords
- Be concise with domain length (12-15 characters ideal)
- Utilise an extension that matches your reach and target market (.com for general or .com.au for domestic)
- Make use of subfolders
The easier the link is to type from the end user’s point of view, the greater the chance that more traffic will be sourced. Short, sharp and punchy domains that are on-message will always be leading contenders for Google and Bing and it is important to consider these factors when choosing a title with your web hosting provider.
A domain name is important to any working SEO strategy the same way a functioning door is to a home or commercial residency.
There is a string of other fundamentals to ensuring the location is performing well like the roof, the living room and the kitchen. However, the door is a major first impression and proves to be a gateway that will determine how a brand is perceived and how easily it can be accessed from the outside.
Of course there are ongoing issues that need to be fixed and maintained in order for the enterprise to be on track for team objectives, but the domain name can stand as a pillar for search engines to rank your site on a myriad of other factors.
Dropping the ball on the domain name will lead to other problems down the line, so embrace a URL that meets general requirements all the while allowing your site to standout from the crowd.
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.