What’s In a Domain Name?

Everything begins with a domain name and the decisions you make about it can affect your business for years to come. Making the right decision can be difficult.

A great new idea that takes off can be helped or hindered by  a good domain name but what defines ‘good’ is complicated. As the web industry matures, less and less good domain names become available and can be traded for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Anatomy of a Domain Name

First of all, know what the 3 constituent parts are:

1. Top Level Domain e.g. .com, .net, .org

2. The Domain e.g. your business name

3. Sub Domain e.g. http://www., blog., mail., maps.

All these combined and you have your ‘Domain Name’. The top level domain and sub domain typically are www and .com for most commercial sites but the reason these vary is because of the industry the site is part of and the option to channel visitors intent more intuitively.

Let me explain.

If you have a blog, you may choose to create  sub-domain blog.yourbusiness.com. This brands your blog, so it’s clearer what it is for visitors. If you are an educational institution or government organization, then a top level domain of .edu or .gov provides more authority for visitors and search engines. There are SEO implications to all this, which presents a few questions I will try to answer below.

Choosing a Domain name

Firstly, ask yourself what the goal of your website is. Is it to be an extension of an existing brand, to perform for a particular search term or create a new venture. Whichever it is, this should guide your decision making. Unfortunately, there are only finite amount of names out there and possibly high competition for those names. Also remember, that once you invest in it and build up your brand and search engine authority, you’re committed to it. So choose wisely. A good place to check is http://www.godaddy.com or have some fun with the cheekily-titled http://www.domainhole.com

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Be Memorable!

A big factor here is memorability, much like a business name. If you are doing off-line marketing, then the easy it is to remember your domain name after seeing an advert or flyer, the better off you are. So keep it short, lower case, no numbers, hyphens or dashes and buy up variations to re-direct to your primary domain. This will help with mis-spellings or instances when a visitor almost remembered what the domain was.

Once in a while, high value domain names come up for auction and if you are in the right place at the right time, you can scoop up something that you could sell or which was what you wanted all along. For instance tomcull.com was taken but tomjcull.com was not, so I bought that. Close enough. You can see when domains expire by visiting http://www.whois.com.

Most of the time, you will choose the .com version since this is the most common people associate with domains. However, the landscape is shifting once more, so read on.

The SEO Value of a Domain

A gin and tonic

1 part sub-domain

As I mentioned, choosing the top level and sub domain has SEO implications. For search engines, a non-commercial top level domain carries more authority since only trusted organizations can have these such as .gov and .edu This is often why in link building, attracting a link from one of these top level domains helps your site authority. Links are not created equal.

The sub-domain question is tricky and a popular debate in SEO is whether to have sub-domains vs. a folder one level from your root folder (domain name). Think of a sub-domain as the tonic to the Gin. It is not as strong as the main domain. However, the branding of the blog and intention aspect could be enough to not worry about this, since it helps promote the content a little better even though they do not inherit as much ranking benefit as a folder. The other benefit to using a sub-domain is if you have a keyword rich domain and it helps with branding once more.

Another popular (and huge) question I receive, is whether a keyword-rich domain name has more value?

What you give with one hand you take with another and so a non-branded name will help searches find relevance e.g. http://www.golfshoes.com but not indicate the brand, placing more pressure to use up valuable Meta Title and Description characters. Therefore, this depends on the existing strength of your brand and whether it really matters if people know who you are at the search result level. Your keyword will also be bolded in a search result so this adds more relevancy. If you have a trusted brand then it’s smart keeping this in the URL so people recognize it.

This tactic started to get a little too spammy for Google and so their Panda/Penguin updates addressed this with less emphasis on keyword-rich domains. Just ask Matt Cutts to learn more.

Changing Your Domain Name

This is another important aspect to understanding how domains work and is another common question for many clients. Domain names change for all kinds of reasons including company takeovers, lapsed domain expiration or a re-positioning of a brand. Here are some things to keep in mind for SEO if you have the luxury to make the decision yourself:

1. If you have built up organic SEO and switch to a new domain, your rankings will be suppressed for a while as you build this up. Setting up 301 re-directs is mandatory to maintain traction.

2. Update your most important back links where possible to help search engines and reduce confusion for visitors

3. Submit an xml sitemap to the major search engines to help facilitate crawling quickly. There is a limited amount of time search engines have to crawl the site, so help them out.

4. Be aggressive with content. If your site is going to take a hit, make it better. Get more content onto the site and make it a better site and more content rich than it was before.

5. Get set up with Google’s Webmaster tools and check for errors (404 code). This will help you map 301 re-directs, check your xml sitemap submission and generally be a great tool in understanding how search engines crawl, index and rank your site.

Google Webmaster Tools

Google’s Webmaster Tools Dashboard

New Adventures in Top Level Domains

There has been some significant domain news in the last few months to report. ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has opened up the field for top-level domains e.g. .com, .org, .edu to essentially allow companies and people to have brands or generic terms e.g. .cars, .tennis

Right now this is by application and the application window is closed for this first batch. They’re going through the requests and the existing ones will go live in 2013. This looks to be an interesting time for domains and subsequently how search engines handle this new shift.

The .com version will still be the most desirable TLD for most businesses, but I can see more personalized TLDs becoming popular.

Good luck on your domain hunt and stick around if you have any comments, questions or counter points!

Further reading on this can be found here: