Category Killer Domain Names?

May 26th

Dr. Pete shared examples of the marketing funnel, highlighting how we must overcome hurdles (or break through barriers to conversion) in order to make a sale.

Why People Buy Premium Domain Names

The idea of an exact match domain (EMD) is that you are buying a piece of land right next to the highway. You sink in a lot of money upfront, but hope that it backs out over time by lowering your traffic acquisition costs. For many years this model was both logical and profitable.

At the peak of the domain name bubble recently, the domain name Poker.org sold for a million Dollars.

A domain name is an asset just like a stack of cash, a piece of gold, or a CDO is. But rather than having a fixed universal value, it is only a *relative* store of value that can go up or down based on market conditions. (Many of these other "fixed" stores of value also change in value when measured against other value stores over time, but they typically change value somewhat slowly and due to the acts of the entire market. With domain names, Google can use their dominant search position to drive massive changes in value in a short period of time).

Search Engines Influence the Value of Domain Names

Search is the primary mode of online navigation. For years search has been replacing almost all other forms of online navigation as the new default. There are about 7 billion people in the world with about half of them online. Google likely gets about a search per person every day!

Search engines can decide what variables they want to count & how much. In a world where subjective marketing aspects (like branding) are replacing signals of relevancy the value of keyword domain names is greatly diminished.

If your model works out to where it takes 3 or 4 years to break even & recoup the initial investment, then that model may look quite different if Google manages to redirect 50% or 60% of that traffic stream at some point in time ... at some point the price of the domain has to adjust to the new market conditions.

An Example of the New Normal in Search

With the above in mind, I thought it would be worth highlighting how the domain bubble grew & ultimately popped.

First, lets start with a current search result. The below example is for "pool tables."

Note that brands get a number of options to play here: AdWords ads, AdWords product ads, Google Product Search, branded navigation, big brands in the organic search results, niche vertical brands, and any local results for nationwide chain brands with a local outlet. Go back a couple years and this search result would have mostly been dominated by smaller online retailers & niche hobbyist websites.

The below image is from 2008. Notice how small the AdWords ads are & how 7 of the 10 organic listings on page 1 have "pool tables" in the domain name.

Today most of those results are off onto page 2 or 3 or beyond, where few searchers dare to go. Now even the exact match domain is forced to buy AdWords to compete for it's own name. Without the AdWords ad, the exact match domain would require a searcher to skip over 45 other links before finding it somewhere below the fold.

Other keywords (like engagement rings) which once left room for review & comparison sites have been completely dominated by brands. Outside of end consumer reviews (and who but an expert publicly reviews more than 1 engagement ring? and who is not biased in their review of said rings with emotional attachments?) there is no way to get a comparative view of quality. There is no room for such an idea in Google's brand-only search results.

Update: Checking back in a few years later ... as of August of 2013 this post has only grown more true over time. In the following image, notice how the ads keep on scrolling, the size of the local result insert increased & now even the .com EMD "category killer" isn't even on page 1 of the search results any longer.

Let's pick apart how we got here...

Google Boosting Rankings of Authoritative Brands

In 2008 Eric Schmidt made the famous quote about how consumers are hardwired for branding. I mentioned how he was signaling the future of the algorithm, but was largely ignored at the time. Since then Google has launched:

The algorithm is only going to keep adding more signals that boost brands. PoolTables.com might have better editorial content than a mega-retailer like Amazon.com, but it is hard for them to collect as many reviews as Amazon can.

Social Search Brand Boost

Matt Cutts also stated that they like the potential of +1:

Cutts confirmed what Google said when the +1 button launched: Google will use +1 activity to influence its search results.

“It’s definitely a signal we’re paying a lot of attention to,” Cutts said. “It has tons of potential. It looks very promising.”

Big brands can do giveaways to their core customer base to expand into new markets, allowing customers to pay for the discounts with a vote, stuffing the ballot box on these new "relevancy" signals.

Bigger AdWords Ads

Google shifted the top AdWords ads to having a longer headline, which provides roughly a 13% lift in CTR.

In addition, AdWords ads have grown larger due to other ad extensions, like:

  • sitelinks
  • product extensions
  • phone numbers
  • maps
  • other nascent extensions, like videos

For commercially viable keywords these have the net effect of pushing the organic search results further down the page. A recent study by Optify highlighted that while low CPC & tail keywords send most clicks (~89%) to the organic search results, for high CPC & head keywords AdWords ads consume most search clicks (~ 60%).

Google Comparison Ads

In certain high money verticals Google offers Google Comparison / Google Advisor ads, which allow them to place a 4th ad slot above the organic search results.

Notice how much larger some of these ads are than typical ad units. When Google targets your keyword with one of these ads they significantly change the dynamics of the market.

Product Ads

Google has offered graphical product ads automatically matched to the search results. Generally for bigger brands Google offers these on a risk-free cost per acquisition pricing, whereas smaller advertisers need to pay by the click to use this ad format.

Googler announced that searchers clicked on this ad format nearly twice as often as regular search ads & in some cases Google has even started testing including these ads in their ad space that appears above the organic search results.

Search clicks are a zero sum game, so the more risk-free clicks the big box brands get from this ad format the lest clicks there is to go around for everyone else.

Product Search Listings

These serve as more eye candy to distract searchers from the organic search results. Once again these typically feature listings from larger brands & Google doesn't mind if these are a bit off because they still push the eye away from the organic results and toward the AdWords ads.

Look how off those "necklaces" are. Evidently if you are not a sport's fan you have no business wearing necklaces ;)

Localization

Localization is a boon for small local businesses which can now gain a slice of the local traffic stream that they were priced out of the market on. However, as a domain buyer, the value of AutoInsurance.com drops significantly after the large metro areas have localized results which do not allow the cost of an expensive domain to be amortized by the potential to rank everywhere. What is worse, is that the largest cities are the ones with the most vibrant economic activities (more businesses, more residents, larger loan sizes, and so on). Through localization any generic unbranded nationwide player simply misses out on the most valuable traffic.

Verticalization & Double Dipping Ads

Much like how localization locks generic players out of local markets, Google's increased verticalization (and allowing certain brands to double or triple dip on ad serving) now means that some results have over 80% of the screen's real estate dominated by a single key player.

Search Box > Address Bar

When Google Chrome launched it replaced the address bar with a search box.


That allows Google to...

  • intercept & redirect type-in traffic demand
  • re-highlight content you have already seen in the past (likely to be from some larger brands, as they have larger ad budgets & more ways to be found)
  • recommend popular searched-for keywords (which are often brands, since awareness-based advertising creates search demand

When Internet Explorer 9 was launched Microsoft also adopted these features

Taking control of the address bar one step further, Google has a beta version of Chrome out where the address bar is not even visible unless you scroll over that part of the page. Firefox also offers a similar beta extension! If this feature goes mainstream it wouldn't be surprising to see Microsoft follow suit.

Google Suggest / Instant

Google Instant's search auto-completion directs users away from some keywords and toward others. At first that statement seems like it could be saying that it consolidates search volume to a smaller set of keywords & thus could make domain names more valuable. However, if you have ever looked at a list of the most popular keywords you would know that they are largely filled with branded keywords. The media was aware of this obvious shift & Amit Singhal had to do an interview stating that there was no brand bias to Google Instant.

Awareness-based advertising biases keyword recommendations, which is why Pontiac ran a TV commercial telling you to search Google for their brand. Of course when SEO consultants did similar things they got whacked. ;)

Extra White Space

In the most recent beta Google has tamed this down a bit from the absurdity they were first testing, but Google has shown an interest in using whitespace trickery to drive the organic search results further down the page.

The rise of mobile applications & mobile search devices further pull leverage away from publishers & toward ad networks.

Google Acting as a Publisher & Affiliate

Not only Google, but all the major search engines are beginning to act as publishers & affiliates.

What's worse, is through personalization they have an asymmetrical information advantage over publishers in their ad network. They can tell you that you are getting 68% of the value of an ad click, but how do you know if they don't undervalue the contribution of that click while overvaluing the contribution for clicks where they keep 100% of the income on?

Google Small Business Taxes

Some sites get the benefit of the doubt, whereas other sites just get doubt. I highlighted how Google's approach to link buying, AdWords penalties & other issues vary based on who is getting whacked in our recent post about Google small business taxes.

Too Small to Matter

Smaller sites are more likely to come under attack from "the algorithm" as they are easier to knock over & are generally less stable. That gives them a higher risk factor & makes it even harder to build reliable business processes around it. How do you scale employment (or even inventory) when one month you are up 50% and the next month you are arbitrarily off 60%?

Further, Google has consistently screwed up original source attribution, which makes it even harder to justify for a small business to go the extra mile & spend extra money creating premium content, if the result will be Google paying someone to steal that content & wrap it in AdSense ads.

Where Does this Lead Us?

If you buy a "category killer" it is critical that you rank #1, but in many niches the exact match domains that ranked #1 for nearly a decade are now #3 or #4 in the organic results. Add in 3 AdWords ads above the organic results & things like product ads and it isn't hard to end up below the fold. If your relationship to that 1 keyword is your core competitive strategy but you can't even promote the keyword (because you are below the fold) then the strategy is a failed one.

Further, as Google keeps adding more usage signals into the relevancy mix that will keep favoring brands.

This is not to say domain names are dead across the board. there is still plenty of opportunity in some areas, but equally some names require large investment & as an SEO strategy may get thrown under the bus by any of the above (or similar future moves in other market niches).

I Stopped Buying Domain Names

I believe I was one of the first SEOs to publicly highlight the benefits of exact match domain names. Back when Google engineers were dismissive of it some of the smart money was dismissive of what the engineers stated and made plenty of money from it. But I have prettymuch stopped buying domains at this point...as in most cases the valuations generally don't make sense on a risk adjusted basis in the current market (let alone what the market will look like after the introduction of +1 & other brand signals).

Deep Pocketed SEOs Are Selling Their Domain Names

The person who was likely the single SEO most responsible for running up the price of exact match domain names (he over-paid for some of them based on the presumption that the numbers would back out similarly to some of his earlier investments in a market that was dominated by a government-sponsored bubble) has now become a domain seller.

You don't get much more amoral capitalist opportunistic than this person is (see the following before and after for his payday loans effort)

Now even he is now dumping many of his exact match domains, which I discovered in the most recent Media Options newsletter:

In March Matt Cutts talked down exact match domain names, but the truth is that Google never really needed to discount them, simply by adding more criteria to the relevancy algorithm which boosts brands they already had the same impact.

Search has moved away from relevancy toward promoting brands. As SEOs we don't control Google. We can only focus on promoting that which they reward.

The smart money is now saying that domain names are generally significantly overpriced, especially as an asset class valued based on SEO potential.

Where do you place your wager?

Google's Matt Cutts Talks Down Keyword Domain Names

Mar 11th

I have long documented Google's preference toward brands, while Google has always stated that they don't really think of brand.

While not thinking of brands, someone on the Google UI team later added navigational aids to the search results promoting popular brands - highlighting the list of brands with the label "brands" before the list of links.

Take a look at what Matt Cutts shares in the following video, where he tries to compare brand domain names vs keyword domain names. He highlights brand over and over again, and then when he talks about exact match domains getting a bonus or benefit, he highlights that Google may well dial that down soon.

Now if you are still on the fence, let me just give you a bit of color. that we have looked at the rankings and the weights that we give to keyword domains, & some people have complained that we are giving a little too much weight for keywords in domains. So we have been thinking about at adjusting that mix a bit and sort of turning the knob down within the algorithm, so that given 2 different domains it wouldn't necessarily help you as much to have a domain name with a bunch of keywords in it. - Matt Cutts

For years the Google algorithm moved in one direction, and that was placing increased emphasis on brand and domain authority. That created the content farm problem, but with the content farm update they figured out how to dial down a lot of junk hollow authority sites. They were able to replace "on-topic-ness" with "good-ness," according to the search quality engineer who goes by the nickname moultano. As part of that content farm update, they dialed up brands to the point where now doorway pages are ranking well (so long as they are hosted on brand websites).

Google keeps creating more signals from social media and how people interact with the search results. A lot of those types of signals are going to end up favoring established brands which have large labor forces & offline marketing + distribution channels. Google owns about 97% of the mobile search market, so more and more of that signal will eventually end up bleeding into the online world.

In addition to learning from the firehose of mobile search data, Google is also talking about selling hotel ads on a price per booking. Google can get a taste of any transaction simply by offering free traffic in exchange for giving them the data needed to make a marketplace & then requiring access to the best deals & discounts:

It is believed that Google requires participating hotels to provide Google Maps with the lowest publicly available rates, for stays of one to seven nights, double occupancy, with arrival days up to 90 days ahead.

In a world where Google has business volume data, clientele demographics, pricing data, and customer satisfaction data for most offline businesses they don't really need to place too much weight on links or domain names. Businesses can be seen as being great simply by being great.*

(*and encouraging people to stuff the ballot box for them with discounts :D)

Classical SEO signals (on-page optimization, link anchor text, domain names, etc.) have value up until a point, but if Google is going to keep mixing in more and more signals from other data sources then the value of any single signal drops. I haven't bought any great domain names in a while, and with Google's continued brand push and Google coming over the top with more ad units (in markets like credit cards and mortgage) I am seeing more and more reason to think harder about brand. It seems that is where Google is headed. The link graph is rotted out by nepotism & paid links. Domain names are seen as a tool for speculation & a short cut. It is not surprising Google is looking for more signals.

How have you adjusted your strategies of late? What happens to the value of domain names if EMD bonus goes away & Google keeps adding other data sources?

Google Chrome May Remove Address Bar?

Feb 21st

The Amazing Power of Domains!

A couple days ago there was a blog post on TheDomains about "how stupid SEOs are" and "the amazing power of domaining" where they highlighted how awesome domaining was because a guy registered a domain name he saw in a comic and it sent a bunch of traffic.

What that article failed to mention was:

  • That traffic wasn’t from the power of the domain name…that was the power of free advertising & the distribution of the comic strip.
  • The same domain name likely received ~ 0 traffic until it was featured in the comic strip. If it had an organic traffic stream for years before being highlighted it most likely would have already been purchased.
  • As that comic strip falls into the archives & into obscurity the organic traffic it was driving will drop back to roughly where it started at: 0.
  • The flood of new found traffic was hardly a goldmine anyhow. It was entirely irrelevant to his main business, and thus entirely worthless. The only exception there would be unless the person was offering information about comics, installing malware, pushing reverse billing scams, etc.

Being Ignorant Doesn't Create Profit

The laughable (and ignorant) thing about the comments on that post were that some of the people who were commenting were equating SEOs to misdirection & scams that sell traffic off to the highest bidder. Sorry, but that is what PPC domain parking is all about...the ad networks optimize yield & the publishers agnostically push whatever generates the most yield: often scams!

Stating that all SEOs are dumb spammers is precisely the same as stating that all domainers are cybersquatters. Neither are true, and neither serves much purpose, other than aiding the spread of ignorance.

Why Domainers View SEOs Dimly

Many domainers who try to hire SEOs fail badly because they are too cheap & buy from lousy service providers. They feel that since they bought domain x (and sat on it while literally doing nothing for a decade) that they somehow deserve to be the top ranked result. To be fair, it is pretty easy to become lazy and not want to change things when you register domain names & then literally watch them spit money at you. ;)

Against that approach, the smart SEOs (the ones actually worth hiring) realize that it is more profitable to buy their own domain names and keep all the cashflow for your efforts rather than doing 95% of the job for 5% of the revenues. Yes a good domain name is helpful, but with the right attitude you can still do quite well even on a hyphenated nasty looking .info domain name. ;)

Why SEOs View Domainers Dimly

A combination of squandered opportunity & arrogance.

I frequently tell myself that in 3 years or 5 years that the web will be so competitive that it will no longer be as profitable as it is today. And every year I have pushed that mindset back another year while we grew. But who knows how long that will last? Sure as long as there are signals there will be ways to influence them, but if you are not one of the favored parties then at some point it will be challenging to compete.

The Real Challenge: the Search Duopoly vs Publishers

At the end of the day, a lot of us are small players trying to carve out our own niches in a network that is increasingly dominated by a few large companies.

When Google got into the web browser game, one of the big "innovations" was the Omnibox. They integrated search right into the address bar to help drive incremental search volume.

As they were a new browser it was not a big risk or big concern to domainers (as most people who use direct navigation are either people revisiting a website they already visited or people new to the web who are likely to use the most common default web browser - Internet Explorer). Nonetheless, address bar as search box highlighted things to come & a way the web would change.

When Google announced their Chrome OS they decided to do away with the CAPS LOCK BUTTON AND REPLACE IT WITH A SEARCH BUTTON. OOPS SORRY ABOUT THAT. Again, it is not a big deal today, but if that ever became standard the future would grow more challenging.

The big problem with Google doing such innovations is that whatever they do, they also give Microsoft permission to do. Google can't complain about what Microsoft is doing if Microsoft is only following Google's lead.

Let me take that back.

Google can complain, but they come off looking like douchebags when they do.

Hey look, Google will recommend *any* browser so long as it is monetized by promoting Google Search. Internet Explorer (the most popular browser) need not apply.

Rather than fighting Google's approach, Microsoft is riding on the coattails. Google's Toolbar sniffs end user data to help make search more relevant. So does Microsoft's web browser.

Google allows ads on trademarks. So then will Microsoft.

Just like the Omnibox, Internet Explorer 9 integrates search into the address bar.

As soon as IE9 rolls out, domainers can count on losing traffic month after month. This trend is non reversible in well established markets like the United States & Europe, and in 3rd world markets the ad markets pay crumbs.

More recently Google has suggested dumping the address bar from the browser. Everything goes through the Google front door! A front door which increasingly is 100% ads above the fold.

If that happens, it won't impact domainers much, but if Microsoft copies it, then look out below on domain prices. You wouldn't be able to get to a domain name without first being intercepted by a search engine toll booth. In that environment, a PPC park page produces ~ $0. And even established sites that are generic might not be a great strategy for creating *sustainable* profits if/when the organic results are below the fold. People who invest in brand have some protection against pricing pressures & irrelevant search results, but those who are generic don't typically have much brand to protect their placement nor profits.

This dominance over the search channel is even more fierce when you get on the mobile platform, as there is often only 1 or 2 results visible. Google's Get scraped or go to hell TM approach to review websites is all about extending their platform dominance onto the mobile phone. It has little screen space & they want to be able to suck in as much content as they can to slow down search market fragmentation into custom apps.

Google despised how Microsoft bundled services & believes all other competitors should win market by market based on the merit of the product. Google does not believe this line of thinking should be applied to TheGoogle though, as you need to be a seriously dominant market player to stay in the lead position while opting out of appearing in the search results of the default search engine.

Even on the regular web staying competitive is growing increasingly challenging due to these moves to lock up and redirect normal user behaviors to shift it through an increasingly ad dominated search channel.

Should You Buy An Exact Match Domain Name?

Nov 19th

According to Matt Cutts, speaking at a recent PubCon, Google will be looking at why exact domain matches rank so well. For example, if you have a site at blue-widgets.com it may rank a bit too well for the keyword phrase [blue widgets].

Curious.

Don't Google know? ;)

More likely, Matt would not make a concrete statement, one way or the other. "Yes, exact Match domains rank better!", is not something Matt is likely to say.

Secondly, the implication is that exact match domains are a problem.

Why Use Exact Match Domain Names

Exact match domains names, as the name suggests, are domain names that match the search keyword term. i.e. Hotels.com, shoes.net, planetickets.org etc.

Is it a good idea to adopt this strategy for SEO? Ask ten different SEOs and you'll likely get ten different answers.

On the plus side, an exact match may help you target one, specific keyword phrase. Your link text and domain name match up naturally. The domain name will likely be highlighted in Google's search results, thus giving the listing more visibility. There may be ranking advantages, depending on who you ask.

On the negative side, an exact match only "helps" you target one keyword. It may be too generic for wider applications, such as brand building. Exact match domains may be over-hyped, and not worth a premium. There are, after all, many domains ranking #1 that aren't exact match, so it is debatable how much SEO advantage they actually provide, particularly as Google keeps pushing brand.

Is There A Problem With Exact Match Domains?

So why would Matt imply exact match domain names might be a problem?

It is understandable that some in the SEO community - perhaps an SEO working on client sites, or those who don't own any exact match domains and see others ranking above them - would have a vested interest in making a noise about the competition. If webmasters make enough noise about it, then Matt Cutts may feel a need to respond.

The supposed ranking power of exact match is probably a red herring. The problem Google may be hinting at is that exact match may be more likely to be involved with spam, thin affiliate, or other low value content than other types of domains. In other words, it becomes a quality signal.

If that is the case - and I'm not saying it is - then that may be the reason Google would look closer at exact match domains, not the fact that a domain matching a keyword is somehow evil.

Because it isn't.

There is nothing wrong with owning an exact match domain.

Should You Buy Exact Match Domain Names?

Aaron covered this question in an earlier post, Why Exact Match Domains Aren't As Important As Many SEO's Believe.

In summary, it depends.

It comes down to business fundamentals. If you're trying to build a unique brand, and resulting keyword stream, then an exact match domain name will be a hindrance rather than a help. You'll forever be competing with generic search traffic. Keyword domains names aren't particularly memorable.

The premium that an exact-match domain name commands, when sold on the after-market, may not be worth it. You don't need an exact-match domain name to rank well, so the money may be better spent getting a new $10 domain name to rank. Or, alternatively, you could buy an existing site that already ranks well for your keyword, and others, for similar money as an inflated exact match domain.

Finally, if you're competing with a clear market leader, then generic isn't going to help you much. i.e. owning searchengine.com isn't going to make Google lose any sleep. You may also be over-looking an opportunity to differentiate your offering against the market leader in terms of brand. Think Blekko vs searchengine.com.

Exact Match Domains

Oct 25th

Are exact match domains "too" powerful?

Not in my humble opinion. :)

Sure across the entire web exact match domains can rank for a wide variety of keywords, but there are a couple things to think about when stating that...

  • those rankings are spread across many different domains
  • the bonus any domain gets is only relevant to their 1 exact match phrase
  • Many domains are seen as exact match, but the keyword is popular precisely because the keyword is a brand (like eBay, Amazon.com, Monster.com, Google, Yahoo!, or Bing).
  • Many brand owners (especially small & local ones, where there are few signals of quality) are not heavily engaged in SEO. If Google doesn't show the official site on a brand search they look bad (in 2005 there was a brief period of time when Paypal.com wasn't ranking for "Paypal" due to botched aggressive Google link anchor text filters), whereas if they rank an exact match domain where it is relevant it doesn't really significantly detract from the searcher's experience.

At SES San Jose 2009, Nick Fox stated that Google has about 30 million words in the AdWords advertiser database. In spite of their database being that large, they keep trying to push advertisers toward broad match (and searchers down a well worn path with Google Instant) because roughly 25% of searches are unique.

Adam Lewis highlighted how advertisers can get a glimpse into the endless sea of words searchers use & how impractical it is to presume they can know everything in advance:

One of the most impactful new features lies within the keywords tab and is called "see search terms". This option allows advertisers to choose one or more keywords and see the search term users typed in to trigger that keyword. It also shows which ones are being clicked most often and which are not being clicked.

Often the exact keyword it not what users are actually typing in. Guessing all the possible variations that a user might enter to find your product is essentially impossible. "See search terms" gives you the most popular user queries that triggered your ads. Not only does it help people learn about their user, but it can also potentially save money on SEM by exposing highly specific keywords with less competition and better quality scores.

Note the sentence that I bolded...guessing everything that is searched for that is relevant is roughly impossible. In SEO there are a variety of implications associated with that, but one of the most important ones is this: when you pick an exact match domain it is mainly only helping you with that 1 main keyword that you chose.

Yes there are implications in terms of perceived credibility and such, but those impacts can be created through brand building. With an EMD you pay thousands of Dollars (sometimes 10's or 100's of thousands) to target that one keyword. If a person were to buy MyKeywordStore.com (or similar) for $8 & spend that $10,000 on marketing, then in many cases that $10,000 would generally / typically more than make up for any advantage MyKeyword.com gets.

Much like often overstated type-in traffic, when you look beyond brands, there are not many individual keywords that represent a huge market by themselves.

We have built a database of 10 million + keywords & few of them (less than 10,000 of them) have a combined CPC * estimated search volume of $1,000 or more per month (presuming you captured 100% of the search traffic for that keyword & monetized it as well as Google does).

However, those numbers overstate the market ...

  • many of those valuable keywords *are* brands (seo book wasn't much of a keyword until *after* it was a brand, which is why the domain name was available to me for $8)
  • brands that are created on keywords can be forced to change due to market conditions (FreeCreditReport.com ---> FreeCreditScore.com, legislation whacked the student loan consolidation market, Google Instant promotes some keywords at the expense of others, the US government has launched names like Cars.gov, StudentLoans.gov, Change.gov, etc. ... who wants to compete directly against the government when they control legislation, can create an EMD on the fly, and can cross-link new sites in their network ... allowing them to outrank you in a couple weeks)
  • If you are not a brand & rank #1 in the organic search results (with 3 AdWords ads above you) then you might only get about 25% to 40% of the search traffic. Worse yet, in some of the largest markets Google puts a 4th "Google comparison" ad above the organic search results, further driving down the organic search results.
  • Google's search volume data & suggested bid prices have typically overstated the market (because they want to create bidding wars on core keywords & drive bids upward)
  • Almost nobody monetizes as well as Google does. In many cases when their number shows $100,000+ per month the actual publisher earnings for that keyword might only be a few thousand Dollars.

There are at most a few hundred exceptionally potent keywords where the single word will build a business for a generalist webmaster. That number would be higher if you combined them with professional training in an area and significant industry knowledge, but if you know your industry well and have access to capital and are investing into a premium domain name then odds are good you are investing heavily elsewhere and doing quality work elsewhere. The idea that there are tons of lucrative exact match domains on the market which anyone can use to build thriving businesses on and are available at a discount is somewhat (perhaps completely?) inaccurate.

Exact match only gives you that bonus on exact match. Not a collection of keywords - just that 1 word. And tying your business to 1 keyword can be risky. Just ask anyone who is on a singular version of a domain name where Google Instant promotes the plural version of that keyword. Some of those folks likely had chunks of cinder block falling out their pants the day that launched.

Whereas brand allows you to keep spreading ... but it can take a lot of work to turn a generic keyword into a brand. And by the time you do, your business model and/or the market may have already moved elsewhere. An exact match domain name can sorta box you in and make your business less flexible. SEO Book is a bit of a weird fit for a private SEO community & training website, and Oakland Pizza will *never* become Dominoes or Pizza Hut.

And (when compared against generic keywords) brands are not only more flexible, but they are more memorable, make it easier for you to differentiate, allow to engage at a deeper emotional level & charge more for your products or services.

I don't regret choosing SeoBook.com in 2003 (it certainly worked out awesome in the short run), however if I had more foresight I would have shifted to a different domain in the 2004 to 2005 timeframe. So often when people join our community they are amazed by the depth and breadth of discussion outside of SEO, but a rebrand at this point would be brutal. ;)

Owning SearchEngine.com doesn't really do much for you when there is a Google or a Bing in your market. Owning Auction.com (or maybe Auctions.com) doesn't do much against eBay. Owning Portal.com (or maybe WebPortal.com) isn't going to compete against Yahoo!. Microblogging.com is no Twitter, SocialNetwork.com is no Facebook, VideoHosting.com is no YouTube.

It is basically a choice of short-term vs long-term goals:

  • do you want to pick a specific keyword & try to sell something relevant today (with less flexibility going forward)
  • do you have the assets available to build a brand that will remain flexible under changing market conditions

While exact match domains can box you in, it is a sign of relevancy for that specific keyword: as you have tied your business to it!

Either you got to the market early, or you shelled out thousands of Dollars. OnlineKredit.org just went for $36,400! Whoever bought it is not probably going to be signing guestbooks / comment spamming / auto-generating content /etc. And the guy who paid $1 million for Poker.org wouldn't have paid that unless he planned on building something sustainable there.

Even Matt Cutts recommends buying relevant domain names as gifts :)

The one area of exact match domains where I think Google has been (and will continue to) tighten up is some of the longtail cybersquatting, but...

  • tightening up can be tricky because the same word can have different meanings in different markets (perhaps continued efforts into localizing results will solve some of these issues)
  • earlier this year Google did whack some longtail EMDs that had few other signals of quality
  • more recently, Google has been showing far more results from 1 domain on navigational queries, and has been ranking official sites for related queries even if they didn't have some of the keywords in their content or link anchor text
  • even for generic search queries (like "cameras") Google sometimes lists suggested related brand navigation in the search results
  • trademarks protect usage & legislation is moving in the direction of making it easier / cheaper / faster for brand owners to whack cybersquatting

eHow Aggregating Bulk Register.com & eNom Data

Jun 5th

The third reason we really like [eNom] is because the data, right. Almost 10% of the entire web hits our servers. At least 10 million domains. In a world like the web, where everybody is everywhere, trying to figure out what people are doing, particularly in the longtail this is a really exciting source of data.

If the domain name data leakage from eNom & BulkRegister is "exciting" for him that means sharing it must be "not exiting" for their customers.

One more from the "competing against yourself" series. ;)

A few other recent examples: giving away your analytics data, giving away your most valuable keywords, and doing link research for competitors.

Who is the #1 Domainer in the World?

Jul 12th

Obama has been known to use domain names to go after emotionally charged empty words that are easy to support (like change), but now the government is going after commercial keywords like cars.

Cars.gov was launched on June 30th and is already ranking #3 in Google for cars!

What does it do to the value of cars.com when cars.gov is a co-opted business deal between the government and select auto companies (which the government may have confiscated some of your money to prop up and is now propping them up again via rebates and direct marketing to compete directly against you once more)?

Who has a link network large enough to compete with the United States government when they are at the core of what Google considers to be the clean & trustworthy parts of the web? In 2007 Matt Cutts stated:

But, certainly, all of the things that have good qualities of a link from a .edu or a .gov site, as well as the fact that we hard-code and say: .edu or .gov links are good - and when there are good links, .edu links tend to be a little better on average; they tend to have a little higher PageRank, and they do have this sort of characteristic that we would trust a little more.

(Update: Google's Matt Cutts stated there was no hard coding of .edu and .gov links & stated the above quote sorta came out of a mis-interpretation or transcription error on a run on sentence.)

Imagine launching a 1 word domain name late into 2009 in a multi-billion dollar field and ranking it above the fold in less than 2 weeks. The government just did that. And they can do it at will. Over and over again. For free :)

Now if you invest in a big keyword rich domain name you not only need to worry about Google and the market, but now you have to worry about how the government might start competing against you.

What might happen to the value of mortgage.com or credit.com or health.com when the government launches the equivalent government portals co-sponsored by whatever relevant multi-billion dollar corporations pitch the idea to a congressman from their district?

If the equivalent .com sites are thin arbitrage sites they will gain value as misdirected visitors stop by. But longterm the trend has to corrode value of domain names. If they are real sites they may lose out by finding themselves below the fold for their own brand if the government pushes hard enough.

Once politicians realize the value of domain names how long will it be before there are .gov domain names for every aspect of life? Diet.gov anyone? Are you ready for love.gov?

Brand Considerations When Choosing Domain Names

Apr 28th

Choosing a domain name for a new project can be a little daunting.

All the good names are gone. Once you find something acceptable, you'll have to be sure you can live with it for a long time. And what about the implications for SEO?

So many considerations.

Do You Want A Disposable Domain Name?

Some domains are throw-away, so the domain name doesn't matter so much. buy-viagra-online-cheapest.com might be just fine for someones 100th pharma site. We all know it's going to be blitzed eventually, anyhow ;)

For such domains, brand is never going to be a major consideration. But for most other projects, I'd recommend devoting time to brand considerations and credibility factors.

Why?

Traffic Comes From Everywhere

Obviously, traffic doesn't just originate at search engines. The way things are going, the webmasters who used to frequently link to sites will just Twitter about you instead!

Word of mouth is becoming more and more important on the web. The most popular websites today facilitate personal publishing.

In order to capitalize on this, it is helpful to have a brand name that is easy for people to remember. It should be distinctive. It should be credible. It should be something people feel comfortable passing on.

When people mention you in the context of a social network, are they going to talk about cheap-mp3-online-buy-cheapest.com? Would they feel comfortable recommending it to their friends and networks of contacts? Does it make them look good? Will they remember your domain name five minutes later? Would it be something they'll pass on?

Even those webmasters who do link out tend to be cagey about where they link. The last place they'll link to is the trashy looking domain name.

The credibility of a domain name in such an environment counts for a lot.

Brand Naming Strategy

Brand is a is a collection of experiences and associations connected with a service, a person or any other entity

What does "Google.com" mean to you? An incorrectly spelled mathematical term meaning 1 followed by 100 zeros?

I'm guessing Google means finding things, making money, technology, the future, and various other experiences. That's the power of brand. Made-up, memorable "meaningless" words become incredibly valuable and significant.

That's ok for big companies who spend a lot of money on building these associations, but what about the site owned by the little guy?

One idea is to use soft branding. Leverage off a concept that is already known, and twist it a little.

For example, an xml feed product that acts like a mail client might use the term "mail" in the brand name, because people are already familiar with the concept of mail. "Hotmail" is an example of soft branding. AfterMail is a service that retains copies of emails sent by employees and holds them in a central database. The brand name is partly unique and memorable, and partly describes the function.

Good Domain Names Appreciate

Once you have a good, brand-able domain name, it will very likely appreciate.

As time goes on, good domain names become more scarce. Add to this the associations you're building, and the domain name can become a valuable asset in it's own right. This is seldom, if ever, the case with disposable domain names.

How much is SEOBook.com worth? Would it have been near as valuable now if Aaron had called it learn-seo-online.com? Possibly, but I suspect the latter is always going to have credibility issues, not to mention the dreaded hyphens.

Exact Match

There is a lot of debate about exact match domain names. There is evidence to suggest Google weights this factor highly, but ask different SEOs and you'll likely get different answers.

SEO considerations aside, exact match has a bonus when it comes to PPC. Check out this article by Frank Schilling:

What do you suppose would happen if I advertised my URL under the key-phrase that matches the name? Well, I tried it and I found that because my URL matched the key-phrase people were searching for, I had to bid less for traffic. People were more apt to click on a link when it matched the URL.. and the power of .com just reaffirmed to Jane Public that she had found the market leader.

What has this got to do with brand? If you build a brand to the point where it becomes a searchable phrase i.e "seo book" you'll enjoy the same benefit as the guys who own the exact match names. You'll find it easier, and cheaper, to dominate both organic and PPC listings.

It's harder to do that with a watered-down generic name.

Linking Factors

If people do link to you, it's desirable to have a keyword in url. However, sometimes this conflicts with brand imperatives i.e. being memorable and distinctive.

So what do you do?

Try using a byline.

For example, if your domain name is Acme.com, you could add a byline that describes what you do i.e "Acme.com - SEO Services". People may well link the full description, or use that phrase when talking about you. The by-line becomes an integral part of your brand. This approach is especially important when trying to convince directory owners to link to you with addition keywords.

For a lot more information on domain naming strategies, check out Aaron's domain naming lesson in the members section.

Barack Obama Earns the 2009 Domainer of the Year Award

Jan 25th

It is no secret that Obama is great at public speaking, building a fan base, working the press, and leveraging new distribution channels, but one of his most overlooked marketing achievements is...domain name selection. Anyone who has watched Idiocracy should appreciate the domain names that government programs are now launched under.

Before Obama was sworn in, he launched Change.gov under The Office of The President-elect. Change is an easy concept to grasp after 8 years of crony capitalism and fraudulent wars built on lies from international war criminals. But "change" in and of itself is a tool, not a destination...where is it going?

While launching a plan to increase government spending by nearly a trillion dollars to "create" millions of jobs, upgrade infrastructure, and computerize the national health care system (what hidden costs might come to individuals from that "change"?), Barack announced that his plan to spend this money will be tracked under Recovery.gov.

Part of Obama's spending plan is to "expanding broadband access to millions of Americans so businesses can compete on a level playing field, wherever they are located." But the playing field has never been level (just look at how the bankers rewrote the consumer bankruptcy laws to shaft consumers a few years before the banks were begging the government for trillions of dollars of handouts).

Investments in the web will increase the value of web assets, but the increased competition will make it harder to gain attention and exposure unless you have capital to invest, and invest it wisely. Just this week a corporation worth $10's of billions put one of our core keywords in the page title of their home page! We still outrank them, but for how long?

I thought it would be at least a decade before the United States government started domaining. Many large corporations are sure to catch on soon, increasing domain prices and closing off a great investment opportunity for smaller players. I have been busy over at BuyDomains looking for good names to hoard and build, picking up another 3 yesterday. SEO Book members have access to a coupon code to get 15% off BuyDomains domain names on our member discounts & coupons page.

Is JupiterMedia a Cheap Domain Play?

Dec 8th

Years ago JupiterMedia owned Search Engine Watch and Search Engine Strategies, but sold them off (along with ClickZ) for $43 million to raise funds to binge on buying stock image companies. Why? According to Alan Meckler, JupiterMedia's CEO:

Why the sale? The simple reason is that Jupitermedia has evolved from being a media company with images into an Image company with media. A good part of the evolution came from the acquisition of 7 image companies since June 2003. Over a 25 month period we have spent close to $200 million making the above referenced acquisitions along with dozens of photo library collections. Most of these deals were done with cash. The cash came from our treasury and from bank borrowings. We plan to make more acquisitions and we plan to continue using cash. So how do we get more cash? Simple, we either go to the public market and offer our stock for cash or we sell assets such as the Search Engine trade shows and ClickZ network in order to raise more funds for acquisitions.

Recently I would have been prone to go to the public market and sell equity to raise cash. But even with our stock closing price yesterday of $22.80, I think Jupitermedia was undervalued based on what I believe the company will be worth over the coming years. So I chose asset sales and additional borrowing based on the fact that I think Jupitermedia should be more valuable tomorrow.

After spending a couple hundred million dollars buying image companies, JupiterMedia built up too much debt to service in this credit crisis and was forced to sell off their images division to Getty for $96 million - up to $40 to $45 million less than they were offered in August.

That image sale should allow JupiterMedia to pay off all their debts, but the company is off about 99% from when they were "under-priced." They are trading at 27 cents a share, and have a market value under $10 million. They own a ton of great domains like Internet.com, InternetNews.com, Javascript.com, Developer.com, WebDeveloper.com, Jumbo.com, MediaBistro.com, and dozens of other valuable domain names and websites.

Will they start selling themselves off in chunks? Will a private equity investor try to take them private? Or will they go to $0?

* As a disclaimer, I bought a few thousand shares recently...though it was a bet more than an investment with conviction.

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