Choosing a domain name is one of the most important decisions you can make as a business owner.
It’s a choice that can ultimately lead to its success or its eventual failure. Setting up a website with your own domain is like saying: “look out world! I’m here. I exist. I’m open for business!”
Impact of domain names on SEO
It’s the first thing people are going to notice when they see your website listed on Google search results. It’ll often be how people refer to you when they recommend your business to their friends, family, and coworkers. Coming up with a domain name is a practice that’s worth putting some time and energy into. It could even cost you some money, but the investment could be well worth it.
A good domain name backed by a memorable brand, a location, or a useful service goes a long way towards getting a new business off the ground. A well-thought-out domain name with a catchy, unique name can attract people to your business. It can make you stand out from the competition, and help people find you as word-of-mouth about your business gets around.
Conversely, a bad domain name can confuse people, send customers to your competition, and make your business languish in obscurity. That’s never a good place for an online business to be. Finding a domain name that encapsulates your brand and your service while still being comprehensible to both people and search engines alike is tricky. It requires patience, creativity, and maybe a little bit of luck.
We’ll explain what a domain name is, how it affects your website’s search rankings, and how to choose a domain name that gets your website noticed, grows your search traffic, and establishes your brand.
What is a domain?
First things first: what exactly is a domain name anyway?
Your domain is your website’s location on the internet. It identifies where people can find your website, in the same way that your street address tells people where your house is. A domain is used to identify one or more IP Addresses. The anatomy of a domain is broken down into three distinct parts: the top-level domain (TLD), the domain name, and the subdomain.
The TLD is the suffix appended to a domain. It can also be referred to as an extension. A TLD tells people and search engines what kind of website you own at a glance.
There are four TLDs that you’re probably already familiar with:
.com: for corporate or for-profit businesses. This is a globally-recognized TLD but it typically refers to companies or businesses located in the United States
.org: for non-profit organizations
.edu: for schools and universities
.gov: for government websites
Those are the most common TLDs used since the earliest days of the internet. Since then, thousands of TLDs have been made available for use. We’ll get more into that later.
A domain name is simply the name of your website. This is how your website is identified from among the billions that currently exist on the internet. This is the name that appears before your website’s TLD. For instance, the G2 in learn.g2.com is the website’s domain name.
The combination of G2 and .com is known as your website’s root domain. The root domain is the most important page in your website’s hierarchy and is typically your homepage. It’s also where your website’s authoritativeness is centered as you accumulate backlinks.
There are two ways to get a domain name for your website: you can either create one of your own and host it on a web hosting provider, or you can purchase one from a domain name registrar or from the webmaster themselves.
A subdomain is the third part of your URL’s anatomy. This is what appears in front of your website’s root domain. The most common subdomain is www., short for world-wide-web. In the case of learn.g2.com, the subdomain is learn.
To clarify, in the website address learn.g2.com/:
.com is the TLD
G2 is the domain name
Learn is the subdomain
What is domain SEO?
Domain SEO is the practice of formatting your domain name in a way that’s optimized for search traffic. In other words, it means creating a domain name that helps your customers find you on search engines such as Google.
Making an SEO-friendly domain name entails making it readable for both your users (that is to say, your customers) and search engines (Google).
This is typically done in two ways: through branding and keyword targeting In the past, website owners would stuff their domain names with keywords in an attempt to rank higher in search engines. This led to the propagation of spammy, low-quality websites that used deceptive marketing in their domain names to get more search traffic.
While adding a keyword or two might be helpful depending on the nature of your business, in most cases SEO-friendly domain name creation is more about branding: creating a domain name that is easy to remember, easy to type into an address bar, and sticks in your head. That’s the important thing about creating a domain name: for it to work for you, it needs to be memorable, short, and catchy. Creating a domain name is essentially a copywriting exercise.
Remember: your domain needs to be easy to remember. Your customer needs to be able to pull it from memory without prompting and type it into a search bar whenever they need to. For this reason, your domain name should also be easy to both type and to read. Shorter domain names are typically better in most cases because they’re easier for the brain to process. Words and ideas that are easier to process plays into people’s cognitive bias and are more likely to be received positively.
Your domain name should also be unique to your brand. It should be the first thing that pops up on Google when someone types your name into Google. That will make it easier for word about your business to spread via word-of-mouth and for people to link to it, which is another important ranking factor in search engines.
While branding is most important, it could still be helpful to include a broad keyword in your domain that’s related to your business if it makes sense to do so. But most importantly, your domain needs to be easy to read and easy to remember.
SEO best practices for domains
Let’s go over the core best practices you should be following as you develop your domains.
There are currently 4.2 billion webpageson the world-wide-web. That’s one webpage for every two people on the planet earth.
The internet is oversaturated with content, including businesses that offer the same thing you do or something similar. If you want to compete with them, you need to make a domain name that stands out. If you choose a bland name that’s bland or forgettable, you can make it difficult for your customer to find you, or worse send them to your competition.
Mike Blumenthal, Co-Founder of GatherUp! and an expert at local SEO agrees that memorable branding is the best thing you can do to optimize your domain for SEO:
“Local is about branding. And a great brand with a matching domain is easy for the customer to find and remember.”
We also reached out to Moz, the creators of the SEO suite of tools. They agree with Mike on this one: “As for optimizing your domain for your target audience...the most important thing is to make your domain memorable. Type-in traffic is highly qualified traffic, and only domains that are memorable get it. A memorable domain can also be marketed in creative ways that non-memorable domains can't.”
When you start coming up with ideas for your domain name, write down some possibilities on a notepad. Highlight or circle the options that are:
Clear about what your business is and does
Tell people everything they need to know about your business in a single word or phrase
Coming up with ideas for a domain name takes a bit of a knack. If you’re struggling with this part, you can try using a domain name registrar consultant.
Short, simple, sweet
You should use a domain name that’s easy to spell and easy to type in a search bar. Don’t use anything gimmicky, something short and simple is good enough. Think of Amazon, Apple, Yahoo, Google, or Twitter. These are multi-billion dollar brand names that are encompassed in one, easy-to-spell word.
Don’t use hyphens or numbers if you can help it, as they’re often associated with spammy websites. Domains that use hyphens or numbers often lead to misspellings which can cause confusion or make your domain name look like gobbledegook. Names that are hard to pronounce can be bad for word-of-mouth marketing.
Remember the three S’s: Short. Simple. Sweet.
Age doesn’t matter
The age of a domain (how long it has existed for) is not a ranking factor. Google doesn’t care how old a domain is.
But there are reasons why you might opt to buy a used domain rather than create a new one. A used domain is already broken-in might have a more robust backlink profile that will make it more likely to rank on search engines for your chosen keywords.
That said, you need to make sure that the backlinks are coming from contextually-relevant websites that are related to your niche. If your website is for your brick-and-mortar shoe store, and the domain you own has a backlink from a website about 5-minute recipes, it’s not likely to help you much.
Also, keep it to one domain. Some website owners try to buy multiple domains and then redirect them to the main domain, but this isn’t an effective tactic. Google’s algorithms can see that the domains are owned by you and that they’re being redirected to your website, so the other domains will not be included in search results and therefore won’t send you organic search traffic.
It’s worth considering if the domains you’re redirecting have backlink profiles, but you need to be sure that the backlinks are contextually relevant and originate from websites related to your niche.
Use a broad keyword if it makes sense
We already established that exact match domains are ineffective and put you at risk for penalization. However, it might be a good idea to incorporate a broad keyword in your domain if you can do so without coming across as spammy, and if you can easily associate it with your brand and what you do.If you do, tie the keyword to your product or service, or maybe your geographic location.
Let’s say your name is Bob (statistically, there’s a 1.67% chance that it is if you’re reading this in the United States). You offer guitar lessons and you’re based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
You might choose to make your domain www.bobsguitarlessons.com or bobfromsanfrancisco.com. However, that might not work for you if you don’t want to limit yourself to a specific set of services or tie yourself down to a physical location. Still, the option is there.
Avoid long-tail keywords. It’s no longer an effective tactic to resort to keyword stuffing. Bobsguitarlessonssanfrancisco.com is not a good domain name. AdBlock is an example of a company that does this successfully. They are able to incorporate a broad keyword (i.e. www.getadblock.com) in their domain name, even if it doesn’t perfectly match their business name.
Choose a strong TLD
More than half of TLDs have the .com extension. When most people search for you online, chances are they’re expecting you to have a .com address. That being the case, having an alternate top-level domain can still work for you if you can tie it to your brand in a way that’s unique and clever.
Alternate TLDs have become more popular in recent years. The .io and .app extensions are becoming increasingly popular among startups, for example. Lead generation tool Snovio has the domain snov.io. This is a clever use of wordplay that helps it stand out.
Similarly, Google’s holding company Alphabet has the domain name abc.xyz. For other websites, this would look spammy. However, it works for Google because it’s tied to their holding company’s name.
The list of alternative TLDs just goes on from there. There are straightforward ones like .biz, and .coop domains. Industry-specific TLDs like .marketing and .lawyer could be used for your marketing agency or law firm. There are even ones like .pizza or .coffee for your pizza restaurant or boutique cafe.
Get creative and see what you can come up with. You might surprise yourself.
Choose a country code TLD if you’re targeting a region
Having a country-code TLD (ccTLD) such as .ca (Canada) or .co.uk (the United Kingdom) is good if you’re in a region outside the US. This will make it easier to use geo-targeting to attract people from your country of choice by using tools like Google Search Console.
If your business has an international audience and you’re localizing for multiple languages, you will probably want to include English as one of them. When you do this, be sure to use the subdirectory method (yourdomain.ca/en-ca) rather than creating new subdomains for each language (en-ca.yourdomain.ca).
Consolidate your subdomains
SEO best practice typically advises that you keep the number of subdomains on your website to a minimum. The reason for this is that the links you accumulate that are directed to a subdomain will boost the authoritativeness of that subdomain, but not your root domain. This doesn’t do you any favors for your website if you want to grow your organic search traffic, which you do.
Choosing an appropriate domain name has implications that impact the online visibility of your business. There are a lot of things that you need to keep in mind when making a domain name. How do you get people to remember it? How does it clearly and succinctly tell people who you are and what you offer?
On top of that, there are some best practices to keep in mind. To sum up, when choosing a domain name you should:
Short, simple, sweet
Use a broad keyword if it makes sense
Choose a strong TLD
Choose a country code TLD if you’re targeting a certain area
Thomas Barrett is the President and CEO of EnCirca. Established in 2001, EnCirca provides domain name and trademark protection services. Thomas has over 20 years of experience helping companies with brand protection and the development of digital technologies to improve online security.