Estimated reading time: around 18 minutes
Whether we’re talking about developing your company’s online presence or building your own personal brand, implementing even the most basic SEO techniques can boost your visibility and help you reach success quicker.
Despite the fact there are quite a few search engines out there (e.g. Bing, Yahoo, Ask), most businesses and organizations focus on optimizing their websites according to Google and its algorithm. This is fairly logical if you take in mind that Google holds up the majority of market share (almost 75%) and generates around 3.5 billion search queries per day; businesswise, you certainly want to have the biggest piece of the cake.
Now, here’s a funny truth: no one really knows exactly how Google works to sort out the most relevant results. We do know that the algorithm takes in mind over 200 ranking factors, of which not all are equally significant.
Domain ranking factors are not a widely discussed topic and their importance is often underestimated. However, equipped with a more detailed understanding of the way your domain influences your rankings, you can work on improving your website’s position on SERP for relevant queries. In addition, the choice of your domain and your wholesome online behavior may leave a mark on the way Google perceives and values your website.
In this post, we’ll share everything you need to know about SEO and domains, A to Z. We tried our best to organize the structure in the clearest way there is, so to help you freely navigate through the content.
Choosing an SEO-friendly domain
Before we dive in deep, it’s good to check if we’re on the same page and remind ourselves of what SEO actually is.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is all about implementing a variety of strategic activities, with a goal of increasing the quantity and quality of organic website traffic (i.e. traffic that comes through the search engines). As you probably know, these practices go beyond just cleverly inserting a few keywords.
As if choosing a domain name is not a challenge by itself, there are a few additional things you need to keep in mind in order to ensure it’s SEO-friendly.
Use the four tips below as a checklist before you decide on registering your domain.
1. Make your domain name short and sweet
The length of your domain name is not that relevant in SEO sense, but it is important for user experience, strong brand recall and word-of-mouth recommendations. Pick a name that’s straightforward, short and memorable, and easy to type. Limit the number of characters to 15 and avoid using strange symbols that are likely to cause confusion. Simplicity is the key: the easier it is for humans to read your domain name, the better.
2. Avoid using hyphens
If your domain name consists out of more than one word, it might be tempting to separate them with hyphens. However, this practice is not recommendable given the fact hyphens are associated with domain names of spammy websites. If you must, use only one hyphen. However, it’s always better to stop and reconsider the wholesome name because if you need a hyphen in the first place – then maybe it’s too long. Take your time and avoid domain name fails such as itscrap.com (we salute the decision of the company IT Scrap that smartly renamed to regencytechnologies.com).
3. Skip the numbers, too
Numbers are also to be avoided given the fact they can cause confusion. If someone recommends your website to a friend and your domain name contains numbers, people will be unsure whether they should spell the name of the number (e.g. three) or simply type the number itself (e.g. 3). This isn’t a universal rule: our research has shown that little more than 8% of .ME best performing websites have a number within their domain name. Always remember: your domain name should be uncomplicated and clear. It should enable visitors to access your website effortlessly.
4. Do a radio test
The final test of your domain name is to figure out how it would sound if pronounced on the radio. Say the name out loud a couple of times and see if people would know what to type in. This might be a bit problematic if your domain name contains similar sounds. For instance, “C” sounds just like “sea” or “see”, “U” sounds like “you”, “they’re” sounds like “their” as grammar nazis know too well. Underscores and dashes are also off limits as they further complicate your domain name.
Of course, we also need to mention the usage of keywords in domains and whether or not is this a smart SEO decision. However, the topic of exact match domains (EMD) deserves a little more space and a detailed explanation, which is why we’ll cover it in the following segment, within the section “Keywords in domains and subdomains”.
Domain ranking factors
As we already mentioned, there are many ranking factors Google relies on. They intertwine in a complex way, which makes it nearly impossible to isolate them and attribute a certain positive outcome to one particular SEO practice. All of your efforts add up.
The way you choose and use your domain name is highly dependable on your business goals, a market you’ve decided to target, and the brand image you want to create. But regardless of that, there is a set of universal good practices you can then tailor to your specific case.
Let’s overview the most important domain ranking factors and explain their significance in the SEO puzzle.
1. Domain age
Although it is pretty self-explanatory, domain age refers to the length of time a certain domain name has been registered and the website for which it serves as an online home – has been active. From an SEO point of view, domain age is the length of time that’s passed since the first moment a domain has been indexed by search engines.
So, in case you’ve launched a website but haven’t made it indexable, your domain will not “grow old”. In fact, it’s not even “alive” from the perspective of search engines since they cannot see it nor crawl it. Pretty creepy, we know.
The relevance of domain age as a ranking factor has sparked a bit of debate. Here’s what Matt Cutts, Google’s former employee, has said on the topic:
How important is domain age for website authority? Well, my answer is not to worry that much. The difference between a domain that is 6 months old and 1 year old is really not that big at all. As long as you’ve been around for at least a couple of months, you should be able to make sure you’re able to show up in the search results.
If you’re just getting started and you’re preparing your website for publication, please have in mind the following two things:
- It’s smart to register your domain and put a placeholder that notifies your site visitors about what they can expect. By the time you publish your website, your domain will already be a few months old, which is a savvy way to kickstart your SEO game.
- Some people want to buy previously owned domains, especially if they are old, lead by the logic this might give them some SEO advantage. If you’re planning on doing so, please be careful as you might get the short end of the stick. Google ranks previous ownership, but more on that in the section “Domain history and previous ownership”.
On the other hand, Ahrefs’ study on how long does it take to rank on Google showed that the top results come from pages that are at least 2 years old, while the #1 results is 3 years old on average.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand that domain age and domain authority often go hand by hand. Ahrefs’ study results have a lot to do with the credibility and authority those top performing domains built, and these things take time.
Either way, domain age is not something you can influence, so it’s best not to be obsessed about it. Focus on what you can do, like the quality of your content and backlink portfolio.
2. Domain authority
Simply put, domain authority (DA) indicates how relevant your site is within a particular area or industry. Just like in the offline world, you have to build your credibility and establish yourself as an expert gradually.
Unlike some other domain ranking factors, domain authority is considered to be a very important ranking factor. This metric was developed by Moz and it takes in mind numerous factors (over 40 of them) in order to display a definitive score on a scale 1 – 100. The score predicts how well will a certain website rank in major search engines.
But, what is considered to be a good domain authority score?
There is no single answer here, but maybe the overview of average domain authority values across different industries might help. As you can see, average values go from 58 (wellness industry) to 86 (media and publishing). You should continuously focus on good practices in order to increase your DA. It is an ongoing process. Depending on your resources, it can often be frustratingly slow. But here are some of the things to take in mind:
- Commit to producing high-quality, valuable, and useful content
- Improve your backlink portfolio and make it diverse
- Think about user experience: include interlinks to help users discover other useful pieces of content or get a broader picture of a certain topic
- To a backlink audit to see if there are any spammy websites linking to your domain; disavow them or ask for link removal
If your website is new, you have to be patient. Rome was not built in a day.
3. Domain history and previous ownership
Domain history is an important ranking factor and we’ll explain why in a bit. When you decide to publish your website and start your online journey, you have two options regarding your domain name:
- Start from scratch, with a fresh new domain
- Buy a previously owned domain name
The second choice might be tempting, especially if it’s a really great name that’s up for sale or if the domain in question has great DA, which provides a great SEO foundation you can build upon. However, it’s very similar to buying a used car. You need to check under the hood in order to examine whether or not everything’s in order.
The fact is, when you buy a domain that’s been previously owned, you get all of its baggage, be it good or bad. Google ranks previous ownership. For instance, in case a domain in question has a recorded history of spamming or spreading malware, Google doesn’t care if you, as a new domain holder, might be up to good. It’s not that easy to erase this kind of behavior associated with your domain.
To avoid buying a domain name that’s previously been ruined by spammers, here’s what you can do:
- Investigate the reputation of the domain name in question (do a “site:” Google search – if you’re buying an active website and no content gets displayed in the search results page, you should be worried)
- Go to archive.org and type in the domain name you want to check, and you’ll see all the previous versions of the website; if you notice any spammy content, that’s a clear red alert
- Check the quality of the backlink portfolio (you can use different tools, such as Ahrefs)
- Look into the DA value
- Don’t forget to examine WHOIS data to find out more about previous ownership; if the domain switched owners too often, there’s probably something fishy about it and you should stay away from it
If you do make a mistake and end up with a domain name that seemed awesome but turned out to be spammy, you can do a reconsideration request and ask Google to review your website. Think about the motives that drive you to buy a previously used domain. Is the name really that amazing? What exactly will you gain? Take your time before making a decision.
4. Understanding ccTLDs and gTLDs
Top-level domains (TLDs) are also called domain extensions. They are an integral part of the domain name, located right of the dot (e.g. .COM, .NET, .ME, .ORG, etc.).
Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) are reserved for a specific country or territory defined within a country code. On the other hand, generic top-level domains (gTLDs) are not tied to any geographical area; they were first called generic just to be differentiated from country code top-level domains.
So, what’s better for SEO: ccTLDs or gTLDs?
Well, it all depends on what you want to achieve. If you run a local shop and are interested only in doing business nationwide, you may want to choose a ccTLD. This type of domains is typically used to geotarget a certain website, which makes them valuable in the context of local SEO. Search engines always try their best to bring the most relevant results in front of users; when you use a ccTLD, you are strongly signaling Google that your website is geographically specified.
For instance, if you type in “best cameras uk” as your search query, you are likely to encounter websites that have .UK as their domain extension.
Some companies that have narrowed their markets choose to create a couple of business websites under different ccTLDs, in order to increase their online visibility within each of the specified countries. However, you have to know that you need to build your DA and backlink portfolio for each individual website, as Google perceives them as separate entities. SEO-wise, it doesn’t matter these sites exist under the same brand.
Where does that put .ME? You may be familiar with the fact that .ME is a country code top-level domain for Montenegro. However, due to incredible branding opportunities (especially in means of personal branding and creating clever domain hacks), it gained global popularity. When it comes to ranking, Google always follows user behavior, which is why it has started treating .ME as a gTLD. This makes .ME somewhat a hybrid. Pretty cool, right?
When it comes to gTLDs, you can also set geotargeting within the Country tab (in the International Targeting report).
5. Privacy of WHOIS
WHOIS queries offer all information about a particular domain and its holder. As you can probably guess from the name, WHOIS reveals the identity of the domain holder. As a registrant, you are obliged to provide accurate information and update them in case there are some changes.
In the past, WHOIS was a valuable source of information for security professionals and investigators because the database served as a great starting point for sorting out cyber crimes. Domain name registrars were required to publish these data or disclose them if the law orders them to do so. Some of them offered private WHOIS at a special price, which enabled domain holders to keep their information out of the public eye.
From an SEO perspective, keeping WHOIS records private is not very advisable, at least Matt Cutts said so in 2007. Not sharing your WHOIS info might signal Google you have something to hide. A bit of an outdated tip? Perhaps. Other sources suggest whether you keep WHOIS data public or private will not affect your rankings at all. But, if you hold dozens of different domains and all of them have private WHOIS, you might cause suspicion.
With the GDPR, things have severely changed. All of the WHOIS data now accounts as personal data, and given the fact Google fully respects user rights, we believe the privacy settings you choose won’t mean much difference in the context of SEO.
6. Exact match domains (EDM)
Of course, when talking about SEO and domains, we must mention the debate on exact match domains (EMD) and whether or not including keywords in domains and subdomains can result in a ranking boost.
In the past, having a keyword-rich domain could indeed help you grab a better position on the SERP. However, in 2012, Google has introduced the EMD algorithm update after realizing there is a strong correlation between exact match domains and spammy websites which rely on black-hat SEO techniques. In an attempt to reduce the number of low-quality websites in the search results, Google has decided to weaken this ranking signal.
Of course, this does not mean you’ll instantly get lower rankings if you do have an exact match domain. If you do everything else right, commit to producing quality content, and nurture great domain authority score – you’ll be just fine.
In 2014, Google’s employee John Mueller has also spoken on the topic, favorizing quality content over including keywords in the domain name:
You don’t need your keywords in your domain name. Websites without them in there rank just fine. Instead of focusing on that specific keyword, I’d recommend spending the time to make your site the absolute best of its kind. If you’re looking for a specific domain name, don’t forget that all kinds of new TLDs are now available, so you might have more luck there. You definitely don’t need to get a .com domain for being able to show up in Google’s search.
From another perspective, by using exact match domains, you are actually missing out on an important chance to create a unique brand for yourself online. Is that the compromise you are really willing to take?
Matt Cutts, former Google’s employee thinks brandable domain names are better in the long run; you should never sacrifice your brand for the sake of mere possibility of getting few more clicks on your domain name when it appears in the search results. It’s simply not worth it.
If you’re just stuffing keywords, it won’t take you anywhere. As a matter of fact, you might be perceived as someone who’s just trying to climb up the Google ladder faster, by using a shortcut.
Microsoft’s research on the topic of “domain bias” has proven users have a tendency of clicking on a search page result if it comes from a domain that’s well known to them, i.e. that the one they consider credible. Alternatively, they might click on a keyword-rich domain.
But you have to have this in mind: user behavior changes through time. In the end, crafting high-quality and useful content, optimizing it and promoting it well, remains the best strategy for reaching better ranking positions. Instead of focusing on short-term wins, you should look further in the future and work on establishing a trustworthy brand.
Over to You
The SEO industry is a fast-paced one and as such – it requires creativity, agility, and keeping up with new trends and changes. We hope this guide has helped you learn more about the importance of domain ranking factors and inspired you to revise your current SEO techniques or, in case you’re just getting started – helped you tick everything from the list when choosing the perfect domain name for your website.
For further readings on the topic of SEO and domains, please take a look at our other resources:
- Ultimate Guide to Domain Safety
- What Are Subdomains and How do They Affect Search Engine Optimization
- What is an SSL Certificate and Why is it Important?
- Step by Step Domain Migration Guide
- The Secrets of Better Rankings: SEO and Domains (free eBook for download)
If you have any additional questions and dilemmas, or you want us to cover a different domain-related topic, feel free to contact us.