How To Choose a Domain Name – An SEO’s Guide
Julie Goodman Jun 11 2018
Deciding to purchase a new domain and choosing a domain name are often decisions that are made by a wide range of stakeholders within a business. Like a first-time home buyer, clients who are faced with the decision to purchase a new domain ask us a myriad of questions:
- Are domain names a ranking factor?
- Should I include keywords in my domain name?
- Does the TLD (or domain extensions) affect SEO?
- Will an older domain get me better rankings?
- Do I need a domain or subdomains or subfolders?
These are all valid questions but, we can start honing in on the issues that matter most by shifting our thinking. In the current search landscape, rankings are a large part of SEO. It’s why SEOs spend countless hours analyzing keyword data, server logs, and technical best practices so that we can move one spot higher in the SERPs. However, rankings are like high school diplomas. The diploma is significant, but it’s more about the journey. Here’s the shift in thinking that we must achieve as SEOs:
“Stop focusing on the rankings. Let’s focus on the experience.”
Now let’s focus on a few general questions and best practices to keep in mind when choosing the right domain name for your business.
Do You Even Need a New Domain?
One of the first questions a business should ask if whether or not the new domain or subdomain is needed? Can the new content or product live within a subfolder on the existing site? If the new product or service like a closely related cousin to the existing business, can it live on a subdomain? Think about the various customers coming to your site would they benefit from seeing this new content on the same site or a different site? Would it create a disjointed experience? All of these questions come down to what is useful for your users. The analysis done to answer these questions should focus on user experience.
From a search engine perspective, building your site’s authority is an important factor in achieving organic success. PageRank is something that is core to Google’s ever-changing ranking algorithm. PageRank has also gone through changes but generally speaking, it is a mathematical equation that helps Google ascertain the quality and quantity of links to a webpage. This evaluation helps determine a relative score of a page’s importance and authority which is one of the many factors that Google considers when they are deciding which pages to rank over another. One way we can help increase PageRank of a site is by consolidating links under 1 domain rather than splitting those links across multiple domains.
Brand + Audience
Choose a domain name that makes sense for the brand and relatable to your main audience/user. When viewing your brand alongside other businesses in the SERPs, what name do you think will pique user interest, gain their trust and click through? Some brands focus on names that are playful or gimmicky and easy to remember. Other brands focus on names that are relatable and jibe with your products or services. Cards sorts and the analysis you did to understand your audience and user personas is extremely valuable here in providing insights to what domain name will resonate with your user base.
For example, if you had a local baby boutique (selling clothes, toys, and gear) and some of your user analysis showed that your customers were interested in:
- Supporting local mom and pop shops
- High quality, handmade toys
- Organic, natural, non-toxic products
- Unique non-big-box baby items
Some domain names you may consider are:
The problem with the first name is that it’s too generic, extremely long and also includes a special character like the hyphen.
The second domain name is catchy and fun to say. Who doesn’t like speaking Yiddish? The problem is that it’s pretty tricky to type.
And like Goldilocks, we finally find some satisfaction with final option. The name is easy to read and satisfies many of your users’ interests. Now we just need to make sure that no family of bears already owns the appleblossom.com domain.
Friendly + Descriptive URL Structures
Ultimately, what will matter more to search engines than your domain name is creating URL structures are friendly and easy to identify.
Meaning, do this ==> https://www.example.com/ovarian-cancer-research/
Do not do this ==> https://www.example.com/research/ovarian/204ka9083d54h7309asfaa257243lkd
“Friendly,” easy to understand and descriptive URLs are not only good for search engines but good or click-through rates. More users are likely to click because they understand what the page is about.
HTTPs vs. HTTP
Make sure the site is HTTPs. Even though your site may not be an e-commerce site or collect personal information via forms, https is a standard that more users are starting to expect and trust.
Make sure the new domain isn’t similar to a product that is already popular. Is your new domain name a popular brand in another country? From a “common keywords” and “search competition” perspective you will have to compete with an established brand. If possible, choose a brand/domain name that is a blank slate. From a user experience standpoint, if your brand name is already commonly known, it’s better to come up with a unique name to avoid confusion. Do your due diligence and figure out if the name of your domain is the same or sounds similar to something else that is already out there. You may also find out that the domain name you are considering is also known for something that is not in line with your brand identity.
For example, we had a client who had a small e-commerce business selling clasps that hold baby pacifiers, bibs, and toys. They were considering naming their brand and domain, Claspers. Through the power of the internet, we discovered:
Male shark appendages are NOT quite the image you want your clients to think of when they are searching for a baby product.
Domain Extensions (TLDs)
Back in the day, the internet was pretty simple. Our choices were .com, .org, edu, .net, and .gov. Today, thanks to ICANN’s approval of hundreds of new TLDs, we have so many choices. Theoretically, whether your site is a .com or one of the new gTLDs, in the eyes of Google it should be equal. However, make sure the domain extension you are considering makes sense from a branding perspective and is relatable to your users. If your domain extension is not relatable to your users, you will send negative user signals to search engines.
Past Penalties & Domain Age
Another thing to consider before purchasing a domain is its history. Was it used as a parked site? Was it an active site with content that was impacted by one of Google’s quality algorithm penalties like Panda? Was the domain scraped by a malicious 3rd party site? What kind of backlinks does it currently have? Does it have backlinks from low-quality, spam, or adult-content sites?
Keywords in the Domain
In the past webmasters sought domain names that closely matched their business or service offering. They derived some benefit in organic performance, however, too many folks exploited this tactic to throw up spammy, low-quality content sites. Google launched the Exact Match Domain algorithm to penalize thin or low-quality content sites with exact match domain names. So rather than worrying about search engines when choosing a domain name, pick something that is relatable to your users and gains their trust. Find a name that will help people to choose your content in the SERPs and click through to your site.
There is so much to consider when choosing a domain name. We answered almost every question through the lens of user experience. It is good to have a firm grasp of SEO best practices when selecting a domain name but your customers’ experience and trust matter more than the analysis of “what is or is not a ranking signal.”
There are certainly more elements you could, and should, consider from a branding standpoint as you choose a domain. But if you’re looking for just a little more walkthrough on the SEO side, Rand Fishkin did a great Whiteboard Friday on How to Choose a Domain Name back in 2016 that’s still on-point.
Good luck, and hit us with any ponderous questions about this in the comments!
Julie has 9 years of experience in organic search, growth acquisition, and digital product management. She has spent most of her career in-house with start-ups as well as established publicly traded companies. She is dedicated to helping businesses make strategic decisions aimed at growth and optimizing conversions, using insights from data, analytics, technical audits and search best practices. Simply put, she loves building websites that make both users and search engines happy. Read More