Domain names can be fiendishly tricky. Your brand is your business’ identity, but having a descriptive domain is both helpful for would-be customers and SEO-friendly. Then, of course, there is the myriad of different top-level domain extensions to choose from.
So is there a “right choice”? And if so, what is it?
A domain name is simply a website’s online address. www.exposureninja.com is the Exposure Ninja domain name.
A descriptive domain name is exactly what it sounds like, a domain name that describes what the website is about. Websites like hotels.com and hostelworld.com are both examples of this — no prizes for guessing what you’ll find on either.
Descriptive domain names are particularly useful in business, as it helps your customers know what you are selling before they have even visited your website.
Descriptive domain names have a clear SEO benefit. If you search for “hotels in Tokyo” or “hostels in Tokyo” then sooner or later you’ll run into either hotels.com or hostelworld.com. The real question is this: how big is the SEO benefit of choosing a descriptive domain? And does this SEO benefit outweigh the potential costs of choosing a descriptive domain name?
Many of the world’s most successful businesses do not have descriptive domain names. Tesco.com and asda.com are both domain names that do not tell us anything at all about what searchers can expect to find on either website. Instead, tesco.com and asda.com can be considered brand-heavy domain names. Tesco and Asda can get away with this because most consumers know that these are the names of huge supermarket chains. When you are starting your own small business your brand will be unrecognisable, at least at first.
And so, every business is forced to make a choice. Dot what? An SEO-friendly domain or a brand-heavy domain? Which is best for your business? Well, that also depends.
Why Businesses Choose Brand Domains
Quick — what is the world’s biggest football boot retailer? Chances are, you probably thought of Nike or Adidas. Both of these sites use brand domains, and it’s easy to see why. An often cited statistic is that 97% of Americans recognise the Nike logo. The Nike brand is a powerful thing, so it makes perfect sense that their domain name should be their brand name. The same is true of Adidas.
This is the same story for most clothing brands. If your industry is fashion and you want to build a reputation, then a brand domain is probably the best way to go. It’s a gamble. However, when it comes to clothes, often the product is the brand itself. Now, the average holidaymaker probably doesn’t care which site they booked their flight through, so long as it’s the best deal. However, someone who wants to buy Dolce and Gabbana shoes definitely cares whether or not those shoes are Dolce and Gabbana, so the website has to be very explicit in its branding.
When it comes to truly successful companies, the brand is the search term. Gucci’s potential customers are more likely to search for “Gucci belts” than they are “designer belts”. Brands like this are in an ideal situation, where the keywords they want to rank for all contain the name of their company. In other words, Gucci wants to be the top search result for all things Gucci.
Brand names apply to clothes, but they can also apply to people. Famous people usually just use their own name as a domain. This logic adds up. Much like with Gucci, potential buyers of Kanye West’s new album are more likely to search for “Kanye West’s new album” than they are to search for “controversial hip-hop artist’s new album”. Similarly, the site we designed for Dragon’s Den star Sarah Willingham is called, you guessed it, sarahwillingham.com.
So, I hear you asking, “should my company use a brand domain?” That depends on if you want to build a brand. You might imagine that this would surely be the aim of every business, but that’s not necessarily true. Some businesses are happy to let their brand idea play second fiddle to an SEO-friendly domain. A quick search for “car buyers UK” pulls up carbuyer.co.uk. It’s not the catchiest of brand names, but it’s undoubtedly a great domain name for their business.
Still, none of this means that a company who chooses a brand domain over an SEO-friendly domain is giving up on SEO altogether. We represent many great companies with fantastic SEO who are all intent on building a brand. Life is all about choices and weighing up the costs and benefits of those choices. For some businesses, the brand name is more important than the boost you might get from an SEO-friendly domain. There are many other great ways you can optimise your website for search engines without using an SEO-friendly domain such as page titles, meta descriptions, and keywords, as well as creating a Ninja blog for your site with the right mix of keywords and long and short form content.
Are Descriptive, SEO-Friendly Domains Better For Small Businesses?
For most small businesses, an SEO-friendly domain is the best way to ensure that people know exactly what your company does. Some successful brands backwards engineer the whole process and pick a company name that is descriptive and SEO-friendly. TripAdvisor is a perfect example of this.
A descriptive domain name has a higher click-through rate for the same reason a descriptive headline grabs more attention. People want to know what they’re clicking on before they click, and a domain with their exact search terms in it tells them they’ve come to the right place. If an internet user has to take longer than a glance to know what you’re selling, then they’ll probably go elsewhere.
However, it’s also worth mentioning that businesses need to be realistic when choosing an SEO-friendly domain. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but if you’ve just started up a coffee shop in London then londoncoffeeshop.com is not going to rocket you to the top of the search results for “coffee shops in London”. There’s just too much competition from much wealthier and much more well-established businesses.
To start with, it’s better to set your sights on a more achievable goal. Be specific. Where is your coffee shop in London exactly? What does it specialise in? Do you specialise in certain kinds of coffee? Do you sell food as well? What makes your place different? What does your target audience look like?
Answer these questions honestly and you might find that something like oxfordstreetorganiccafe.com is a more SEO-friendly domain for your business.
Extra Ninja Tip: Exact Match Domains (EMDs)
Some companies go one step further than choosing a descriptive domain name: they choose a domain name that exactly matches the search terms they think users will be using. For example, the dubious watchmoviesonline.com matches the popular internet search “watch movies online” exactly. This is known as an exact match domain or EMD.
EMDs are controversial. In the old, wild days of SEO, setting up an EMD was an almost sure-fire way to catapult your domain to the top of Google. This, however, resulted in a lot of shady websites ranking higher than they really deserved to. Of course, Google caught onto this trick (as they always do) and started very publicly penalising EMDs.
So, will choosing an EMD still attract Google’s wrath? Or might you be able to milk some of that sweet SEO juice? As usual, Google was fairly tight-lipped about the way it set about tackling EMDs, so we can only speculate on what kind of behaviour the search giant will and won’t tolerate.
Our best guess is that EMDs have lost at least some of their influence and having an EMD is no longer the most important factor. If you have a low-quality website, then using an EMD won’t boost your ranking and might even count against you. However, if you have a high-quality website which just happens to be an EMD? Then you might find yourself punching slightly above your weight. It’s a risky move though.
Is It Better For A Website To Be .org, .com, .gov, .net Or Something Else?
Much ink has been spilt over what effect different top-level domain (TLD) extensions (such as .org, .com, .gov, .net, or country specific extensions like .co.uk) have on SEO. It’s an area where Bing and Google differ by quite some margin, but the largest impact different TLD extensions have is on perception, rather than SEO.
For example, the .org TLD is usually used by non-profit organisations such as charities. Customers could (quite justifiably) see you as being dishonest if you tried to leapfrog charities by giving your own business a .org TLD. If you are business attempting to build an online presence, misusing the .org TLD could backfire. The internet can be a cruel and unforgiving place, and misrepresenting yourself online is the quickest way to kill your internet campaign before it’s even begun.
The “com” in .com is short for “commerce” and so businesses are perhaps safest to stick to the .com domain because it means they are being transparent. While “trendy” TLDs like .ly, .abc and .ninja come and go, .com should be your first choice because at this point it looks unlikely to ever go out of fashion. Perhaps the only reason not to choose a safe bet like .com or .co.uk is if the domain name that you desperately want has already been taken. But even then, this could be a risky move.
It’s also worth spending at least some time considering whether you want to be .com or a TLD specific to your country, such as .co.uk. Despite being based in the UK, we opted to go for a .com TLD, but many successful companies make a different call. Data from Google indicates that a country code TLD (ccTLD) does give search engines a slight nudge towards the country that the ccTLD is registered to. Still, as with other TLDs, the main pros and cons of ccTLDs are related to perception, not SEO. Moz broke this down with a survey asking users about their thoughts on different sites based on their use of the .com TLD and different ccTLDs. The takeaway is what you might expect. If you are a business specifically targeting towards customers from a certain country, then a ccTLD gives you a slight edge due to perceptions associated with a ccTLD.
As with brand domains vs. SEO-friendly domains, ccTLD vs .com is about choice. If the country your company is based in is important to your brand, then a ccTLD is probably the way to go. However, if you want your company to have a more international appeal, then you are probably better off with the standard .com TLD.
The other TLD that is worth paying attention to is .ac. The .ac TLD is reserved for academic institutions such as universities. Getting a link from a .ac domain tends to give you a bigger than usual SEO boost because Google sees academic websites as more trustworthy and less likely to be manipulated. So, while you won’t be able to register your new business as .ac, you should jump at the chance if a website like cam.ac.uk (Cambridge) or ox.ac.uk (Oxford) ever offers to link to your business!
Whatever kind of domain you choose, make sure it is for the right reasons. Don’t let pride in your brand stop you from making the right choice when it comes to descriptive domains, and don’t let cheap gains encourage you to go for an EMD or a .org domain just for the sake of it. Instead, ask yourself what kind of product it is that you’re selling. Are you a charitable organisation? Are you the next big brand? Or are you the next hotels.com? That answer will depend on your product, your marketing style, but most of all it depends on you.