SEO Question: Do domain names play a role in SEO? Do search engines understand that the words are in the URL even if they are ran together without hyphens in between them? What techniques are best for registering a domain name that search engines like Google will like?
Answer: Over time the role of the domain name as an SEO tool has changed, but currently I think they carry a lot of weight for the associated exact match search. Depending on how they are leveraged going forward they may or may not continue to be a strong signal of quality to search engines.
Domain Names & Link Anchor Text
When I first got in the SEO game a good domain name was valuable because if you got the exact keywords you wanted to rank for in your name it made it easier to get anchor text related to what you wanted to rank for. For example, being seobook.com made it easier for me to rank for seo book and seo.
That link still exists, but nowhere near as strongly or broadly as it once did.
The Fall of Anchor Text & the Rise of Filters
Anchor text as an SEO technique is no secret. To make up for the long ongoing abuse of it, Google started placing less weight on anchor text AND creating more aggressive filters that would filter out sites that have a link profile that looked too spammy with too many inbound links containing the exact same anchor text. If everyone who links to me uses seo book as the anchor text it is much harder to consistently rank for that term than it would be if there was a more natural mixture to it. A natural mix would have some of the following
- Aaron Wall
- Aaron Wall's blog
- SEO Book blog
- book about SEO
- the SEO Book
- Aaron Wall's Seo Book
Natural link profiles also contain deep links to internal pages, whereas spammy sites tend to point almost all of their links at their home page.
Domain Names in Action
As Google started getting more aggressive at filtering anchor text, they started placing more weight on the domain name if the domain name exactly matched the keyword search query. They had to do this because they were filtering out too many brands for the search query attached to their brand. Some examples of how this works:
- At one point, about 2 years back, SeoBook.com stopped ranking for seo book due to a wonky filter that also prevented Paypal for ranking for their own name for a little bit.
- A friend recently 301 redirected an education site on a bad URL to a stronger domain name. The site's ranking for the exact phrase went from 100+ to top 20 in Google. But, it still is a long way from #1, and it still is at 100+ for the singular version. In competitive industries you need a lot of links to compete, and the redirect also caused the site to slip a bit for some of the other target keyword phrases that the site used to rank for.
- When you launch a new site on a domain name like mykeywordphrase.com and get it a few trusted links it should almost immediately rank for mykeywordphrase. A friend launched a 3-word education site about a week ago. That site ranks #1 in Google right now for those keywords ran together. That site also just ranked #118 in Google for the phrase with the words spread apart. As the site ages and gets more links it should be easier to rank for that exact phrase (but that domain probably wouldn't help its rankings much for stuff like the root sub-phrase).
- My domain name Search Engine History.com ranked better than it should have for the query search engine history when its only real signs of trust were age and domain name. It was nowhere in the rankings for just about any other query.
Things Will Change Over Time
A few other caveats worth noting
- From my experience this exact match domain bonus works with all domain extensions (even .info), but that could change over time. And if the content isn't any good it is still going to be hard to get traction in any market worth developing content for. This exact match domain bonus also works well in local markets for regional domains like .ca.
- This post is about the current market, and is highly focused on Google's relevancy algorithms (rather than other search engines). I expect the weight on domain names to be lowered significantly (especially for competitive queries) as Google moves toward incorporation more usage data into their relevancy algorithms. This is especially true if many domainers put up low quality to average quality websites on premium domain names. Moves like creating 100,000 keyword laden sites in one massive push (as Marchex recently did) don't bode well for the future of domain names as a signal of quality.
- The search traffic trends are moving toward consolidating traffic onto the largest high authority sites, so it probably is not a good idea to have 100 deep niche domain names like OnlineHealthcareDegrees.org, OnlineNurseDegrees.net, OnlineNursingSchools.com, OnlineLawDegrees.com, OnlineParalegalDegrees.net etc when you can cover a lot of those topics with a singular broad domain like Online Degrees.org.
- Any advantage exact match domains seem to have for ranking is much smaller for related phrases that do not exactly match the keyword string or phrases within the anchor text of most of the inbound links.
- For local businesses a keyword matching domain might be a way around paying to list in all the regional directories and other related arbitrage plays.
- Domains that use familiar language and sound credible also have a resonance that helps build trust, make the information seem more credible, easier to link at, easier to syndicate, and easier to do business with. It is hard to estimate the value of that since much of it is indirect, and few have measured the affect of domain name on linkability or clickability of a listing outside of paid search arbitrage.
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