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?

Published: March 11, 2011

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Comments

March 11, 2011 - 5:34pm

I developed a series of reasonably successful sites for which "keyword in the domain name" was a key strategy. I think it helps, both in getting that coveted #1 spot and in getting traffic early in the development of a site.

Last year I stared a project which involved a three orders-of-magnitude scaling in terms of my content generation technology and linkbuilding and I decided to focus on a brand building strategy, because the primary threat to this project is the possible perception that some people could have that this site isn't 'legitimate' just because I've built an A.I. that cuts back drastically on the amount of human labor that is used to make the site.

I picked a name that sounds like a startup company that might get mentioned on TechCrunch and I've put a lot of effort into quality and into dressing the site up into nice clothes so it makes a good superficial impression. I'm still spending a lot of effort on this because I'm still in a race between "getting noticed" and "getting negative attention".

Although the #1 and #2 ranks for the kind of "short tail" searches I'd like to dominate have keywords in the domain, it's unusual to see keywords in the domain in #3 and below. In all other aspects, it's like they brought a knife to a fight where I brought a machine gun, and they can't touch me at all when the tail goes from medium to long.

March 12, 2011 - 3:26am

About the only thing missing from your project is an angle round where you announce making a one million Dollar investment in yourself. :D

March 12, 2011 - 1:36am

Dear Aaron,

Before actually addressing the issue (PS - english is not my mother-tongue), I will confess that i own since '92 about 1800 EMDs (mostly spanish, french, german and danish), so I might be biased in speaking about it.

Firstly, i think that Matt is just reiterating the old speech about buy-c**-and-via*-online-in-newyork.com, since he is speaking about domains which a bunch of keywords in it, and not necessarily about one word domains, or two word EMDs . At the end of the day, owning mensjackets.com, or even better, jackets.com, can be a huge enabler, because it gives you the ability of growing faster, being more trusted (aka perceived as the market maker), quoted, linked to with relevant anchor, and if used properly it can create a strong overall marketing message. Would you rather use your credit card on creditcards.com or on biccret.cc?

We can look at pkw.de (small cars in german). They had trucks branded with it, cars, car dealer shops, accessories, boxes, basically everything. And they turned it into such a brilliant thing. The small business will never be able to compare with let's say amazon. But with a local EMD, they can build more than a brand, they can get known easier. I do think that Matt's statement will affect the EMD market, but only for the crappy EMDs, like +3 keywords bundled together. The gems, will never get affected by it, simply because they are "brandable" EMDs . I was playing with Blekko the other day. They have something called slashtags. I love that feature, because it exactly how (my) brain works. In niches. Things are broken down in memorable chunks of information. And this is why i also think that Citibank, uses finance.com badly. Because that domain for example, is what i call a gem.

I do not think that the advantage of EMDs is so immense, or at least i can't feel it (besides getting linked to with relevant anchor text). Of course, those who can't afford an EMD will generally speak about the "tremendous ranking advantages" or about the fact that the "game is unfair" - there was also a guy on Seomoz/Youmoz recently (tiny.cc/seomozdude) which was expressing his completely hilarious version on the issue.

At the end of the day consumers remember brands, and clear signals but not in every niche (otherwise life would be all about colgate - nescafe - KFC and Sony. Small players don't afford being a brand. We're not going to reinvent Google, or Stockcharts over night, and that's were the model is flawed.

March 12, 2011 - 3:24am

...with your point that a lot of smaller companies not being able to afford building a brand. But I also agree with CureDream's excellent point that if you desire automation and/or scale you really want to look like a brand or a venture funded start up.

I also agree with the advantage of EMDs being overstated, especially when you consider the disadvantage of being boxed in on a set word and theme...this is doubly true for niche 3-word type EMDs that are hard to later pivot into broader entities. But I don't think Matt is talking about whacking hyphenated multi-word domains and such, simply because those hyphenated names don't really get exact match bonus (at least not in the US market & most major markets, though they are more commonly used in German-speaking markets, so at some point Google could test allowing some weight on those in Germany).

March 12, 2011 - 10:05am

Thanks for the answer Aaron. I might be wrong, but on certain markets, i have indeed the illusion that unlike in US, multi hyphenated domains tend to work better (even if they are really bad from a brandability point of view)

But let's say you own something really big. Like a one word domain, where the one word it's in german, spanish or whatever: bets.cctld, car.cctld or insurance.cctld (or .com/.et). At this level, if you own car.cctld, in the local language, you can build up a highly specialized market reuniting let's say tips, insurance quotes, rental deals and so on. And you can become a hub for that niche.

Each year, i have a very annoying week, dedicated to listening to random calls, made by site visitors. I think it's a cool thing to do, because it enables me in understanding the way (most) customers think. In (most) cases, when an user calls to let's say buy car tyres, he has multiple windows open, with different deals, and (oddly or not), 5 minutes deep in the conversation, he asks again for the URL of the page where he can place an order.

Often, i get amazed by how incredibly dumb certain people are (situations like my email is www.myname@yahoocom). but besides this, there is a recurrent thing in these conversations. If they are trying to buy tyres, and they get directed by the operator to cartyres.cctld, everything is ok. But when they get directed to let's say for the sake of the explanation magicpinktyre.com, things tend to go bad, and a million cascade questions loom. Do you deliver in the X (CCTLD) country? How do you spell pink, is it a pinc?

English is a brilliant language since pretty much anything sounds cool :D. But certain languages, such as let's say italian, have lots of traps. Is that a double P, a double M, and so on...

March 12, 2011 - 12:00pm

... is exactly why the branded route is so appealing. If people search for "Gap" or "Gap jeans" they are already pre-sold on the brand. So not only is the brand more likely to rank well in the search results across a wide variety of keywords, but it also has another organic stream of traffic where users are not stuck between deciding on 5 similar options in different browser tabs.

March 12, 2011 - 1:01pm

I agree. However, the variable here is what we understand through the concept of brand. Don't you think that, for example, given let's say assurance.net (random choice, not mine means insurance in French), you can build a killer concept and brand around it (with a catchy slogan and a link-sexy design) ?

This is my actual dilemma. 95% of all my domains for example are one-word (descriptive and mostly plural), like insurances, books, library, bets, tickets, exchange, apartments, rental, jobs etc. in euro-languages, on .com/.net, .cctld or .eu . When i acquired them, i did not had the EMD concept in mind. I got intensively into SEO years later, after reading your first edition of the Seobook, realizing that the niche is fascinating (it's the simple truth, not some stupid attempt to soft soap you).

I bought most of them for peanuts years back, simply because i liked how they sounded, and i thought that they can be given a nice spin. Now since parked pages are pretty much dead (i think in BE for example, i'm getting an average profit of like 9$/month from a domain representing a keyword with 2.000.000 local searches), i'm thinking in developing them.

And here is the big strategic challenge. Would you develop assurance.net (let's say) and have /homes, /cars, /travel, /whatever, giving it a nice spin and slogan, or start from grassroots something like euroinsurance.com?

March 12, 2011 - 1:07pm

I think it's rather similar to the seobook case. You took a generic, and turned it into a brand. So it can be done.

March 12, 2011 - 6:33pm

Thanks for the first-hand insight Rent a car, cure dream. Really helpful for a small player (local niche markets) like me swimming in generic domains.

Shortcuts (EMD's, keyword domains) only turn negative if you don't strive to progress beyond your initial advantage (ex: Venice beach hot dog stands).

You guys mentioned about the investment in building a brand, fact is majority of us small businesses don't have cash and time to invest in a brand while managing our core offline business. And, most don't have a killer drive (bankaholic guy, aaron wall) as a few do.

So the realistic path to take for a small to mid players, in my opinion is EMD with a strategy of incremental improvement as you gain experience and feedback from your market. Let the investment earn more of your resources (time and cash). But we have to start with something.

I was talking to a local businessman who runs a monthly car auction of repossesed cars. What an advantage for him to cash in on RenoCarAuction.net and post cars a week before auction and send monthly emails he collected from previous bidders.

And if Google does turn the lights off on EMD'S, perhaps those who have done their work won't get a heart attack, because of domain authority (older domains, years worth of content) and perceive relevancy of owning THE market name, will aid the website from totally being wasted.

March 14, 2011 - 9:16am

What gets me down sometimes is the services that Google offers up on certain keywords. I am not sure what the solution is above a person actually analysing the business model of websites. If you look at a relatively competitive keyword in the UK; '_____' and look at the results that Google serves up.

So if someone looking for '_______' we can make a fair guess that they are looking at different gas suppliers for their business (energy is deregulated in the UK) to try an get a better deal. What does Google serve up? Typically British ___ as no1 PPC ________.co.uk EMD as number 1 natural result (this is an affiliate which sends all its customers straight to ______) natural number 2 result: ______.
So most of the traffic going straight to BG based on an exact match domain ranking and PPC. There are numerous examples of EMDs dominating the results in this area of business.

March 14, 2011 - 10:29pm

Hey Aaron - do you think that if and when this change is ever made to the algo that it would only be on the TLD side? I would have to think it is still going to be good practice for URL's to be SEO friendly. I can see not rewarding someone for a domain name, but using the URL properly I think could / should still count for something. Lots of companies are spending a lot of money to make URLs more friendly. It would stink if we then turned to them and said, hey, all that URL stuff we were preaching... not so much a big deal anymore. :)

March 14, 2011 - 11:36pm

Are you asking if the domain name might lose weight in some cases? Sure it might.

Are you asking if the domain name might still retain some of its weight? Sure it will in most cases it currently carries any (which is not all cases, of course).

Relevant filenames are still quite valuable because it makes it easier for people to re-find your content & it makes it easier for you to look at your raw analytics data and make sense of it. Further if people use the full URL with filenames to link at your pages then using relevant filenames is going to yield you more relevant anchor text.

March 14, 2011 - 11:30pm

You know twice late last year, I said that Google would do this, if they were not already. There is no real reason to give preference to keyword related domains. They are actually worse than paid links, because they cost less in a lot of cases, and can have no authority.

March 14, 2011 - 11:38pm

And that in and of itself can be a signal of some baseline level of quality. If a person spams on a 99 cent .info domain then they don't care if it gets torched. If a person drops $30,000 on a domain name then they are generally going to plan on having at least an average quality user experience in most cases. The upfront cost is non-trivial when compared against say renting a bunch of $5 and $10 links.

March 15, 2011 - 6:43pm

In my mind Google is always trying to make their search engine promote websites that humans will value. Good SEO is putting people first, not Google. People value keywords in a websites URL. A domain with the key word in it seems more authoritative then just a company name. Unless you have heard of the company. Also putting the keyword in your website URL commits a company to the topic so people can assume that there should be related content on their website because it is in the URL. Google may have been overrating keywords in the URL, but they should definitely play a part in Google's algorithm!

March 16, 2011 - 1:06pm

?

March 16, 2011 - 11:03pm

Lots of markets are locked up with a lead player owning numerous sites. In a 12-month timeframe Quinstreet bought insure.com, insurance.com, and carinsurance.com. And that is on top of owning other players in the niche. Similarly Bankrate markets credit cards on Bankrate.com, international versions of Bankrate, Interest.com, CreditCardsGuide.com, CreditCardSearchEngine.com, CreditCards.com, Bankaholic.com, and likely many more. In addition they own Nationwide Card Services (a credit card affiliate network).

March 25, 2011 - 5:59pm

We have to remember that what Google chooses to share isn't always the way it is...

March 27, 2011 - 4:39am

Arron its been awhile. I always wonder as I listen to Mr. Cutts talk in the name of a better user experience if 80% is a slow creep towards catering to only the well known well funded brands. I think Google calls it PPC today. Will it end up being affiliate or profit sharing tomorrow? That kinda paints a picture of search not being what I love about it today. I think like a consumer but act like a producer I can drive my scooter or my vanquish thanks to longtails to Target or Old Navy anytime and buy flip flops. I don't want them dominating clothing and accessories because they have a name my 6 yr old knows. When I search I don't want to find them for everything clothing next to Macy's and Wal-Mart. I have enough amazon already in the middle of all my searches. All that said I don't think or maybe understand how it could be done anyway? I know Matt is not saying he is turning off 4 word domains from ranking, but why should any big or small business with catchy 7-9 letter names all get a bump in rankings? That now has crossed the line to catering to XYZ name brand isn't it? I have never heard google say they cater to 4 word domains. Double standard IMO and google can't change without basically saying we are now going to raise creative names and brands higher in rankings. The English language has seeped into google not just for SEO spam, but because commerce is too big for a few memorable biz names. Ignoring keywords in the domain is not the answer. What are you going to do now Matt help Pfizer rank number #1 for blue pill because they have a huge brand a spend more in NASCAR and google needs some of that cash? I wonder if we are really thinking about what it would look like to have all banded names in search engines? I wouldn't remember a name any better than I do today, and moreover is the content and the solution going to be better than what an SEO genius provides to me today? Good SEO with best practices checkout sells me fine today no matter how long their URL is. Frankly I am glad they are better at being #1 because they solve my blu-ray 3d problems better than Samsung. They know me as a customer and have perfected the art of BH or SEO or whatever. I DON'T CARE. Bottom line if they are better I want them to stay #1. Don't tell me now because they bought a domain with too many keywords your thinking about "dialing down the algo". Kinda goes against what google says they are and so back to my first statement. Google is going after more paying advertisers period. Nice they found keywords to blame it on. Time to go back to billboards and print. JK but time for another search engine to figure it out. Where is the competition? 97% of mobile is google WTF someone better compete or good by small internet business hello the good ol days of TV. Don't tell me Facebook has it covered either. Give me a search that kills spam, but lets me go toe to toe with other marketers for position. Or just tell the truth.... You don't want to give away free space anymore to SEO!

March 27, 2011 - 6:06am

We had a thread in the forums somewhat similar to that about 18 months ago. I am not sure where I first heard this quote, but this is what I thought of (when thinking why Google's current approach will lead to failure): "we are most common in some of our repulsive behaviors but are most refined where we are unique."

Google is making the bland choice easy to find, but is that a sustainable point of differentiation? If the search results are just a list of brands why even bother with Google? Why not just go straight to Amazon.com or such?

June 17, 2011 - 6:42pm

I feel that this discussion of URL names is missing something that I have not been able to find on the site. Do the additional pieces of a URL come into play in SEO? In Cutt's example will a URL called drugs.com/cheap-mail-order-Viagra drive users seeking cheap mail order viagra to that page?

June 18, 2011 - 10:18am

The domain name can be an expensive investment that is also hard to change...so for those reasons there is limited risk in putting significant weight on a domain name. Whereas anyone can make their filename anything & it can quickly + easily be changed. So the file name may count for something, but isn't as strong of a discriminating factor as the domain name.

July 16, 2012 - 1:39am

Ok, I know I'm a bit tardy to this post, but I'm also a newcomer :-) Anyway, here is my take on domain names purely from the point of view of a consumer.

So, pardon my heresy, but few things strike me as more stupid than this mania (from which Google, according to Cutts in the video above, seems to be dissociating itself to some degree) for keyword rich domains. If I want valuable information on any topic, I care about the content and "user-experience" in that site. I couldn't care less what its domain is, since that is a fact which doesn't benefit me in the slightest. What it seems to benefit is the bot and the registrar organizations. Moreover, niche domain names are not infinite in number: as time goes on it is harder to get a so-called "good" domain name. This favors not the newcomers who may have superior knowledge and content, but simply the older and possibly inferior site, and for no good reason at all other than the domain name! It is senseless.

Let's assume I am looking for a dentist in Seattle. Does the fact that dentist X is has a domain with "Seattle dentist.com" ipso facto make him a better dentist than the one with the domain "Happy smiles.com--or for that matter, .dot biz, dot info, or dot anything whatsoever." What I want is a competent dentist with great reviews and feedback, and his domain name is a matter of complete indifference to me. It is of interest only to geeks, and I wonder if the average consumer is even aware of the fact that a site is .com or .info and whether he takes it into account even slightly. If he does, he is foolish, because what you want is a good dentist, not a good--or "lucky"--domain picker!

As for "aged domains," who cares? If Google really cares about the content and user experience, the mere age of a domain tells you very little concerning the real value of a site's content and the real quality of the user's experience in the site. There is plenty--plenty--of ages garbage on the net. It is of value only to the extent that the Google-machine cannot directly inspect and assess the value of a site, but must surmise its value as a function of age, which I suspect is often very doubtful, at least in plenty of niches where, on the contrary, you want up-to-date information, not information that has been disproved or otherwise devalued over the course of time.

July 17, 2012 - 3:49pm

here is my take on domain names purely from the point of view of a consumer.

You do realize that when people search their eyes scan quickly for shapes of words & that having a relevant domain name bolded in the search results helps it stand out & generate more search clicks. So, from the perspective of a consumer, people care about the perceived relevancy, at least insofar as they click at a higher rate. Sites that they have visited frequently in the past & know well (like Amazon.com or eBay) also see some lift.

So, pardon my heresy, but few things strike me as more stupid than this mania (from which Google, according to Cutts in the video above, seems to be dissociating itself to some degree) for keyword rich domains.

It is not an ignorant mania if it follows consumer behavior. Now that doesn't mean prices reflect value...sometimes they are high and sometimes they are low...but there is at least some baseline in reality in the general theory, as per the above mentioned CTR lift.

If I want valuable information on any topic, I care about the content and "user-experience" in that site. I couldn't care less what its domain is, since that is a fact which doesn't benefit me in the slightest. What it seems to benefit is the bot and the registrar organizations.

I don't think anyone is suggesting to lead with a crappy user experience. Rather that a relevant domain name can be at least al competitive advantage in some markets (like those markets that are too small to justify aggressive investment in brand building).

Moreover, niche domain names are not infinite in number: as time goes on it is harder to get a so-called "good" domain name. This favors not the newcomers who may have superior knowledge and content, but simply the older and possibly inferior site, and for no good reason at all other than the domain name! It is senseless.

I think you have that backward. The scarcity is what creates the value.

  • Just yesterday I was reading a PPC blog writing about how the displacement of organic search results by more ads is great for consumers because the willingness and ability to invest is in itself a signal of quality.
  • Those who got there first are either likely experts with a long history of experience (when I bought SEOBook.com it was only $8), or speculators who can ask a premium for the domain name.
  • Google does generally trust older websites more & puts a bit of a barrier in front of many new sites (in terms of ability to rank for competitive keywords).

Let's assume I am looking for a dentist in Seattle. Does the fact that dentist X is has a domain with "Seattle dentist.com" ipso facto make him a better dentist than the one with the domain "Happy smiles.com--or for that matter, .dot biz, dot info, or dot anything whatsoever." What I want is a competent dentist with great reviews and feedback, and his domain name is a matter of complete indifference to me.

This may be mostly true for marketers and webmasters, however it is not reflective of general consumer behavior...see my first point at the top of this reply.

It is of interest only to geeks, and I wonder if the average consumer is even aware of the fact that a site is .com or .info and whether he takes it into account even slightly. If he does, he is foolish, because what you want is a good dentist, not a good--or "lucky"--domain picker!

Users generally trust that which Google ranks. Marketers who understand the mechanisms driving ranking might be less likely to trust certain profiles they believe to be associated with limited investment. But you are correct in presuming that most people are ignorant about SEO. Then again, if people were more aware of how search worked then Google ads would probably get a way lower CTR than they currently do.

As for "aged domains," who cares? If Google really cares about the content and user experience, the mere age of a domain tells you very little concerning the real value of a site's content and the real quality of the user's experience in the site. There is plenty--plenty--of ages garbage on the net. It is of value only to the extent that the Google-machine cannot directly inspect and assess the value of a site, but must surmise its value as a function of age, which I suspect is often very doubtful, at least in plenty of niches where, on the contrary, you want up-to-date information, not information that has been disproved or otherwise devalued over the course of time.

Google has publicly stated that it can take a while for them to fully trust & appropriately rank a new website.

They have a bias away from trusting new websites simply because to them most new websites are viewed as ether being some form of spam or unneeded duplication in the marketplace.

Keep in mind that I don't think domain names are always a great investment & I have even highlighted how Google went to great lengths to devalue them. But that does not mean they have no value at all. The relative value really depends on the market & the surrounding strategy.

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