How to Choose a Domain Name for SEO

I’ve been thinking about names a lot lately. My wife and I are running through the process of generating and narrowing down a list of names for our oncoming baby. We didn’t do ourselves any favors by not discovering the gender prior to birth. I like to think this is a good way to remove any bias from the experiment. ;p

What’s in a (domain) name?

Picking a domain name is similar to naming a kid. We, humans, like to label things and we love to assign a lot of meaning to those labels. (whether that meaning is valid or not.) If you’ve ever read Freakanomics, you’ll remember their evidence of the correlation between names and things like career prospects. Without diving into the ethical discussion here, you can’t help but recognize the weighty and enduring effect of a name.

When it comes to SEO, naming affects two major levers: relevance and trust. From a ranking algorithm perspective, a domain name is certainly less important than things like content, geolocation, language, links, and domain age (though there are some benefits that I’ll discuss below!)  On the other hand, from a search engine results page (SERP) perspective, a domain name can have a lot of influence on click-through-rates. 

Consider relevance. When we lived in Hong Kong, we lived near a pet shop called “Bob’s Paradise.” And while we eventually realized that it was a pet store named after the lazy french bulldog that greeted you with a snort when you walked in, this name proved highly irrelevant in search results. Whenever anyone searches for “dog food,” they are likely to skip over that listing and select something that seems more relevant to their query—like, for example, “Pet Line.”

The local pack in the SERP, it looks like they finally got wise to this and updated their Google My Business listing…

Relevant domain names on the SERP

Now let’s consider trust. We’ll continue with the Hong Kong-related anecdotes. Many Hongkongers are given a traditionally Cantonese name at birth, then given a chance to choose their English name when they are a kid. In theory, I love this idea. I probably would have named myself Firetruck Fox. But this childhood choice might have a tendency to initiate an uphill battle as one tries to establish authority in a workplace. GI Joe and Pussy are two names that come to mind.

Extending this anecdote, you’re probably unlikely to choose “pussydental.com” over gentledental.com in a search for a new dentist. I’m guessing… 

Relevance Signals and Exact Match Domains

There’s a lot of debate over whether exact match domains affect how a domain ranks for the term that they are matching. I’m not convinced anybody has proven things one way or another but there are some tangible factors to consider that have less to do with the domain name itself: backlink anchor text, page title templates, topical relevance.

Branded anchor text = Keyword anchor text

Consider an experimental site that I created: googleappscripting.com. Yeah, it’s an exact match domain for the main topic of the site: Google Apps Scripting

As you can see, I linked to it with its branding (which also happens to be the exact search terms it’s targeting.) By virtue of a cleverly selected domain name, it becomes much easier to get highly targeted anchor text links. 

Exact match domain keywords targeting

Keywords in Page Title Templates

Also, consider the home page title, Google Apps Script Tutorials and Examples • Making Google Apps Script Accessible to Everybody and post tag templates: {{post_title}} | Google Apps Script Tutorials and Examples. (Ok, I’ll admit they’re too long but loosen up!)

This way, every page on your site will have important keywords in the page title template. This is a commonly used tactic among affiliate sites. I know this because I recently had to research baby monitors. I found several sites like bestbabymonitors.com, babymonitorlist.com, and babymonitorguide.com. All these sites will have important primary keywords and relevant modifiers as part of every page title.  Most of the articles on these sites are just narrowly keyword-targeted listicles about baby monitors, so their page titles end up looking something like this:

{{keyword targeted list}} | Baby Monitor List

or…

10 Best Baby Monitors for Security | Baby Monitor List

Keywords Everywhere in title

It’s a cheap, but effective strategy

Exact Match Names and Topical Correlation is Not Ranking Causation

Finally, it bugs me how often plain old topical relevance is considered causal and not correlative when it comes to why exact match domains affect SEO. When you name your domain after the topic you’re going to cover, there is just that plain old topical relevance. Google is going to rank your site for that topic. There’s an obvious correlation between your target topic, your content, and relevant search queries! 

It’s just like slapping an “Eggs” label on an egg carton. It’s not the label that signals that it’s a carton full of eggs; it’s the fact that it’s an egg carton. Everybody would understand what it is whether it was labeled or not. You cannot suggest that it’s because you labeled the egg carton with “Eggs” that people understand it as such. It’s a correlation. No way to prove causality here. 

There probably was a time that you could trick Google into thinking that searchers were looking for your brand name (think bestbabymonitors.com here) rather than a generic search term (best baby monitors). I’d argue, at this point, Google is sophisticated enough, thanks to the Knowledge Graph, to be able to differentiate between common search terms and brand names that were created to match the search terms.

How to signal trust in a domain name

On the SERP, you only have a fraction of a second to convey that your site is trustworthy. First impressions are everything in this situation, so you don’t want to leave anything to chance!

Obviously brand is a HUGE factor here. Consider the domains, Moz.com, or Yelp.com. Both of these brands have established a reputation by developing content and products that are trustworthy. (But if we’re just starting out with an SEO project, we’re not that lucky.)

One way to build trust is to choose a domain name that conveys that your site specializes in, or covers a topic comprehensively.  That is the rationale behind two projects that I’m launching in tandem with this series: techdefs.com and staticinsights.com. These names convey what you’re going to get: definitions for technical terminology, and some insight about static (site generators). More on those to come. =] 

Given the choice between a jaredsblog.com and staticinsights.com, I’d assert that most people are going to choose staticinsights.com for the query “pelican vs jekyll” because this site seems to focus on this topic specifically, whereas, well‚ who knows about Jared!? (We’ll find out if this is true  soon!)

And how to lose it…

If you’re starting from scratch, there’s more to lose than to gain when picking a domain name. Here are a couple of things to avoid when choosing a domain name.

The first is probably obvious: crazy top-level-domains (TLDs). Don’t think too hard on this. Choose a .com domain name as much as you can. Other TLD’s like .org or .net might be appropriate but if you can’t find the right .com name, you might consider re-exploring the .com possibilities before choosing an unusual TLD. 

Some TLDs like .io and .co are gaining acceptance in certain spaces but it will be a long time before the majority of internet searchers trust .xyz and .guru domain names.

This is a little like the Freakanomics name example from the beginning of this post. Humans have become comfortable with .com, .org, and .net TLDs. There isn’t necessarily anything rational about people’s bias toward these TLD’s but you might as well lean into it and avoid the uphill battle. 

Another obliquely related concept is the TLS protocol, aka HTTPS. This isn’t part of the domain name per se but in the eyes of the savvy internet user, that ”s” on the end of https is a real signal, (in fact a sign!) of safety. Launch your site with SSL from the start. 

We’ll dive into HTTPS a bunch more in the next post in this series covering how to give your Cloudfront distribution a proper domain name with Route 53 (and how to make it secure with HTTPS).

For now, I hope this gave you some things to consider in choosing your domain name.  Take the time to do this right the first time. NOBODY likes domain migrations.

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