How does your domain name affect your SEO? There is no definitive answer, as Google is typically cryptic about the way its algorithms work, but, looking into stats, research, patents, press releases, and other little things let us read between the lines and piece together these guidelines on some of the ways domain names and search engine optimization are connected.
1. Your domain age affects your Google placement
If Google thinks your website is doing something suspicious, it puts it in a “Sandbox”. Sandboxed websites have search engine rankings severely degraded, and behaving nicely helps this punishment wear off with time.
Stats show that Google is sandboxing all the new websites, hurting the SEO ranking of a new domain name. Just like a bank refusing to approve a loan to a company that was formed by unknown people just yesterday, Google wants a website to be around for some time before giving it an equal treatment. There is little insight into how long it takes for the sandboxing effect to wear off, and our best guess comes from this statement by Matt Cutts:
“The difference between a domain that’s six months old versus one year old is really not that big at all.”
Forget about fishing or family time – reading between Matt Cutts’ lines was the favourite hobby of SEO experts for years. If it wasn’t coming from Google (through their spokesperson for publisher and webmaster issues at the time) this sentence wouldn’t mean much, but this way it is as valuable of an insight as it gets – and almost certainly means two things:
- There is a difference between a domain name that’s six months old and one that is a year old in Google’s eyes.
- Most of the effect probably wears off in the first six months.
There isn’t much you can do to escape the sandbox at the beginning of your website. You can, and should, use this time to create quality content, build quality links, and do SEO work on your domain.
Some experts try to buy an aged domain on websites like GoDaddy auctions to buy an aged domain (advanced search lets you search by age) to escape the sandbox quickly, but this practice adds new SEO challenges and requires careful research and work in order to make it pay out.
2. Domain name history matters for your SEO
There are reports of Google using WHOIS history in order to detect a domain name changing hands, and treating some of those domains as completely new domains. If you are using a domain name with a history to build something completely unrelated to what was already there – be ready to be treated as a brand new website.
Make sure you are not inheriting penalties with your new domain name. Start with researching domain name’s history on the Internet Wayback Machine in order to avoid buying a domain name with bad SEO reputation (stick with looking for a domain name that was an address to a website similar to what you want to build on it), and make sure you use the Search Console to find the URLs of the missing pages and either build valuable content on them, or properly redirect them.
3. SEO and your domain name’s WHOIS
Google looks into your website’s WHOIS, and keeps track of it. It connects websites with WHOIS information pointing to the same person in order to detect shady practices.
As a registrant, you have to provide accurate information and update them for your website (or plural, websites) in case there are some changes. Be aware of the fact that, if you manage several different websites and act spammy on one of them – your behavior might affect the reputation of all of your sites.
There has been some debate in terms of what’s better for SEO – keeping WHOIS data public or private.
In 2007, Matt Cutts has said it’s not recommended to keep WHOIS information private as this could signal Google you have something to hide. However, this is a bit of an outdated piece of advice.
With the GDPR, all WHOIS data now accounts as personal data. Domain registrars are obligated to disclose this data only in case of a law order (for instance, if there is a cybercrime investigation). Given the fact Google has a reputation of advocating user rights and online security, we believe setting your WHOIS information private won’t affect your rankings. On the other hand, spreading malware or spamming will.
- Make sure your WHOIS data is correct and up-to-date, for all of your websites.
- Keep in mind that shady practices on one of your websites might affect all of your websites.
- If possible, turn your WHOIS privacy protection off, and make your WHOIS data public.
To quote Matt Cutts again:
“…When I checked the whois on [domain names with something to hide], they all had “whois privacy protection service” on them. That’s relatively unusual. …Having whois privacy turned on isn’t automatically bad, but once you get several of these factors all together, you’re often talking about a very different type of webmaster than the fellow who just has a single site or so.”
4. The length of a domain registration might have an effect on your SEO
There is a patent submitted by Google that says:
Certain signals may be used to distinguish between illegitimate and legitimate domains. … Valuable (legitimate) domains are often paid for several years in advance, while doorway (illegitimate) domains rarely are used for more than a year. Therefore, the date when a domain expires in the future can be used as a factor in predicting the legitimacy of a domain and, thus, the documents associated therewith.
This may mean that registering your domain name for several years in advance might help it escape the sandbox more quickly.
5. Domain name patriotism – if you are targeting only German customers, you should take .DE
A CCTLD (Country Code Top Level Domain) of a certain country might help you place better for that country, but hurt your global placement. If you are targeting specifically Canada, you should consider .CA domain name (and .DE for Germany, .SE for Sweden, .UK for the UK), but this might make your website get worse placement for the rest of the world.
Some CCTLDs, including .ME, are treated as global names (just like .COM, .NET and .ORG), and bring no patriotic bias with them. If you are not targeting a specific country, try making your primary domain one of those.
6. Keywords in your domain name are recommended, but too good of a match might hurt low-quality websites
Having a keyword in a domain name is a strong (if not as important as it was before) relevancy signal. Having it at the beginning of your domain name is even better, and having a domain name actually be the keyword used to be the strongest of the relevancy signals.
As with most things SEO, things got more complicated in recent years. Some website owners used to exploit these facts and create many thin, low-quality websites with domain names exact-matching the important keywords, so they can grab placements more easily. With the EMD update from 2012, Google has started marking such websites as spammy, and giving priority to content-rich, quality websites for those queries. Make sure your website features quality content, relevant for the keywords you want to place for.
If you are more interested in the subject, make sure to download and read out our eBook “The Secrets of Better Rankings: SEO and Domains”. It’s free.
I hope this article has helped you understand the connection between domain names and SEO. As Google’s algorithms are advancing toward helping people find helpful and relevant content in a more natural way, the only truly future-proof strategy for getting good placements on search engines is building rich, relevant, and valuable content. All of the techniques described above should be used not to trick Google into considering irrelevant content as relevant, but to help it better understand what your quality content is really all about. Only with that in mind, you will avoid headaches with each subsequent algorithm update.