Domain names with keywords in them are considered valuable for a variety of reasons, including a long-standing idea that they might be directly or indirectly helpful for ranking purposes.
Choosing a domain name is an important step for launching a website, so it’s important to make the right choice.
The choice of a domain name generally falls into three categories:
- Keyword domain.
- Word + keyword domain.
- Brand domain.
It is arguable which approach is best. What is not debatable is that it’s helpful to learn about the topic before making a decision.
A keyword domain is a domain name with keywords in it. An example can be Widgets.com.
Using a domain name with the keywords in it can provide the perception of authority.
Some companies own generic domain names and redirect them to their websites, for whatever reason.
For example, Coffee.com redirects to Peet’s Coffee, an artisanal coffee roasting company. That makes it easy for people to navigate to Peet’s.
But, the downside of generic keyword domains is that “all of the good ones” are already registered and prohibitively expensive to pry off of a domainer.
There is also some internet history related to generic keyword domains.
There was a time when internet users typed the keywords of a product or service they wanted straight into the browser or search engine. This practice was called direct navigation.
Direct navigation resulted in significant ad revenues to those who owned those domains and “parked” them.
Parking the domain was setting it up so that the domain names showed ads and only ads.
The lucrative business of parked domains was helped by search engines of the time that ranked those parked domain names in the search results.
So, if someone typed a one-word query like [burgers], then Google might rank Burgers.com.
Then in 2011, Google reduced the search visibility of parked domains from the search results.
So, is there ranking power to keyword domains? Not anymore, but John Mueller of Google has something to say about it, more on that below.
Word + Keyword Domain
That’s why the popular choice is to add a word to the domain name that helps to describe what a site visitor can expect on the site.
This results in domains like Cheap[name of product/service].com, [name of product/service]Reviews.com, Fast[name of product/service], and so on.
A word plus a keyword for a domain name is not a bad way to go.
Upside Of Word + Keyword Domain
The keyword instantly brands what the site is about, and the word tells the site visitor what to expect in terms of the user intent.
Searching for a review? Try [name of product/service]Reviews.com.
Downside Of Word + Keyword Domain
The downside of this approach is that it locks the website into providing a specific niche and can limit its ability to grow.
So, if you start out as [JoesCameraReviews], it’s going to be hard to transition that site to reviewing (or selling) other products.
There are many sites with keywords in the domain that rank very well.
A branded domain is a domain name that doesn’t necessarily have keywords in it.
Amazon, Zappos, and Etsy are examples of branded domains.
What’s great about a branded domain is that the brand name is that it doesn’t necessarily limit what the site can be about.
Many sites with branded domains have very little trouble ranking in the search results.
Google Offers Four Insights On Keyword Domains
In the course of answering a question in a recent Webmaster Hangout, Google’s John Mueller offered four insights on the ranking power of keyword domain names.
Four insights into Keyword Domains and Ranking:
- Keyword domains don’t rank faster.
- Keyword domains don’t automatically rank better.
- Keyword domains lost strong ranking influence years ago.
- Keyword domains ranked the same as branded domains.
1. Keyword Domains Don’t Have A Time Advantage
There is a belief that keyword domains are able to rank better faster than branded domains. But according to Google’s John Mueller, this is not the case.
There is a perceived advantage with obtaining keywords in links through the anchor text. This is something that’s been discussed for years. An argument can be made for and against.
Unfortunately, John Mueller’s statement didn’t address this perceived advantage.
Here’s what John Mueller confirmed:
“…it takes time like any other new website… Obviously there are lots of websites out there that do rank for the keywords in their domain name. But they worked on this maybe for years and years…”
2. Keywords In Domains Don’t Rank Better
John Mueller was quite firm in asserting that keyword domains do not rank better than branded domains.
“…just because keywords are in a domain name doesn’t mean that it’ll automatically rank for those keywords.”
There is so much that goes into ranking, like content, user intent for that content as well as links. All of that likely takes significant precedence toward something like keywords in the domain.
While John Mueller didn’t specifically say keywords in the domain name are not a ranking signal, he did affirm that there is no dramatic benefit from having the keywords in the domain name. And that’s an important insight.
3. Keyword Domains Lost Influence Years Ago
John Mueller asserted that keyword domains lost influence years ago.
Here is what John Mueller stated:
“…just because keywords are in a domain name doesn’t mean that it’ll automatically rank for those keywords. And that’s something that’s been the case for a really, really long time.”
This may be a reference to an algorithm update from 2011 (official Google announcement here).
In late 2011, Google updated its algorithm to add a classifier to remove parked domains from the search results.
A quote from Google’s algorithm update announcement:
“This is a new algorithm for automatically detecting parked domains. Parked domains are placeholder sites with little unique content for our users and are often filled only with ads.
In most cases, we prefer not to show them.”
Nevertheless, the idea that keyword domains were better than brand domains continued in the search industry, even though Google was no longer giving a boost to parked keyword domains.
An argument can be made that there is a minimal signal. But there is nothing to lend support to that theory.
It’s been a long time since any search engine has published research that included keywords in domains as any kind of signal.
We’re living in a time when keywords in headings (H1, H2) have diminished ranking weight.
Current algorithms no longer give extra weight to title tags. This we know, and it calls into question the idea that Google continues to give a direct ranking bonus to a keyword in a domain name.
4. Keyword Domains Ranked The Same As Branded Domains
This is another statement that contradicts the idea that keywords in a domain name have a ranking benefit.
John Mueller points out that the keywords in a domain are unrelated to their current ranking:
John Mueller’s statement on keywords in domains:
“…it’s kind of normal that they would rank for those keywords and that they happen to have them in their domain name is kind of unrelated to their current ranking.”
Mueller clearly notes that having the keywords in the domain name is unrelated to their ranking.
Research A Domain Name Before Using It
It’s always a good idea to research a domain name to see if it was previously registered and how it was used.
There are rare cases where a domain that was used to spam can become stuck in a Google algorithm loop, causing it to become banned for a month, getting released for a few days then banned all over again, preventing the site from ranking higher than the second page of the search results.
For more information on the legacy domain penalty, read Google Algorithm Bug Puts Sites In Weird Limbo State.
SEO Advantage Of Keyword Domains
There are many advantages to having a keyword in a domain name. But an SEO advantage is not necessarily one of the advantages, as Mueller makes clear.
“…that they happen to have them in their domain name is kind of unrelated to their current ranking.”
Stand Out With Your Domain
It may be a good idea to choose a domain that stands out. This can be with a keyword or it could be with a brand name.
Former Googler Matt Cutts recommended in a webmaster help video in 2011 that choosing a domain name that stands out can be a good idea in certain situations.
“For example, if you have 15 sites about Android and they all have Android, Android, Android, Android, it’s going to be a little hard to remember, to rise above the noise, to rise above the din.
Whereas, if you have something that’s a little more brandable, then people are going to remember that. They’re going to be able to come back to it. Even sites like TechCrunch, nothing in there says tech news.”
Takeaway On Domain Names
There are pros and cons to the different kinds of domain names to use for a website.
If the business wants to leave wiggle room to grow to encompass a wider topic, then a domain name that is less committed to a topic or even a brand name is appropriate.
Of course, one can start out with a narrow-topic domain name and change it in the future. But that can result in other sites changing their mind about linking to the site and fans of the site losing interest.
So, the best advice may be for the business to consider what it wants to accomplish now, what impression it wants to make to site visitors, what story the domain name communicates to the visitor, and also how well the domain name fits into the future of the business.
On the question of ranking, it’s clear that there is no direct keyword-based ranking benefit to a domain name, which makes selecting one a little easier.
Watch John Mueller discuss domain names at the 21:50 minute mark:
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