the who, what, where and when of domain names
1.12 WHAT SEARCH ENGINE CONSIDERATIONS ARE THERE WHEN CHOOSING A DOMAIN NAME?
As far as search engines are concerned, domain names impact in two ways: the search algorithm and the search engine results page (SERP), so let's consider each in turn.
The search algorithm
As this book is about domain names and not search engines, I'll not spend too long explaining what a search engine algorithm is and how it works. However, just so you have some idea (if you don't already), here's a very rough guide.
The Algorithm is the set of rules by which a search engine ranks the websites listed in its index in relation to a particular query. No one really knows what they are as they are kept secret by the search engines. Imagine it as a kind of points-allocation system where each web page is assessed against certain criteria and awarded points for each. The web page with the highest points total is the one that is listed at the top of the SERP. However, the points allocation varies from element to element - so some factors earn more points than others. Naturally, all businesses want to be at the top of the SERP if a user searches on a keyword or term that is associated with the product or service they are selling - so optimizing your web pages so that the search engine's criteria are met is an essential part of online marketing. This discipline is known as search engine optimization (SEO). Part of the algorithm (Google's is said to have around 200 different factors) aims to match the term used by the searcher - the keywords - with the use of that term within the web page's content and its programming code. It is a logical conclusion, therefore, that if the website's domain name includes the search term then that would indicate that the website has content on that subject. If you searched on my name (as keywords) you would expect alancharlesworth.eu to have some connection with someone called Alan Charlesworth, for example. Although I have used my name as an illustration, perhaps more pertinent is the use of generic terms in domain names - loans.com being about borrowing money and toys.com about children's play-things, for example. Although the search engine's algorithm is secret, my views on the SEO value of having keywords in the domain name are shared by many experts - a panel of 72 SEO experts who contributed to the 2009 Search Engine Ranking Factors Report rated 'having the keyword in the domain name' as #3 in on-page ranking factors [Many commentators think the August 2009 Google 'caffeine' update gave more SEO weight to having keywords in a domain name.].
Another part of the algorithm is to look at the reputation of the domain on which the content sits. This 'domain strength' includes:
* Registration history, ie multiple or single owners
* Domain age - when was it (a) first registered, and (b) used
* Has it been used continuously since it was registered?
What the search engines are trying to do is establish the validity of the web page to which they are sending their customers (searchers) - the concept being that a domain name that has had only one owner and a website on it for 15 years is more likely to be a reputable site than one sitting on a domain name that was registered only a couple of weeks ago. Think of it as checking on the provenance of an antique that you are thinking of buying.
Although the value of a search term being within a domain name might be open to debate - what is undisputable is the impact of the suffix. Perhaps not fully appreciated by those Americans who have not left their own shores, is that in the rest of the world the major search engines allow users to search 'the web' (ie the world) or 'local' (eg pages from Canada) … and in the latter, local suffixes are given priority. For example, my own website - which is on a .eu suffix - is top of the Google 'global' search for my name - but if I search on 'UK only', the site is on page five or six. This is the reason for my registering alan-charlesworth.co.uk - that web page is high on the 'UK' results [Note that Google have a 'geotargeting' tool that domain owners can use to set their domain's geographic target for users who are using 'local' search, and also that many commentators suspect Google already presents 'local' results higher in SERPs, but this is based on the location of the searcher's IP address.].
DOMAIN NAMES IN PRACTICE :
Still on the subject of search engines and suffixes, some commentators suggest that the .info is not liked by the engines. This may be true, but note that where I recommend a .info as an option for a website it is normally the case that high SERP listings for that site are not a priority.
checking a domain name's past
A 'Whois' look-up might help with registration history, or you could try the 'way back machine' on archive.org. It will show you web pages that have been hosted on domains in years gone by - so you can see if your desired domain name has had a previous life as a XXX porn portal. Note that such checks are advisable not only for purchasing 'second-hand' names, but any registered as 'new' - the name may have been allowed to lapse by its previous owners and have been recycled into the system.
I will conclude this section with a caveat. The search engine companies and their algorithms are a law unto themselves. The factors I have raised represent a consensus of opinion in SEO circles - but these factors may or may not actually be an element of the search engine's algorithm.
Not only do the experts fail to agree on the specific composition of algorithms, but those algorithms change periodically - adding to the uncertainty.
The search engine results page (SERP)
A constant in any aspect of marketing is the importance of customer perceptions. What this means - effectively - is that it doesn't matter what we (the sellers) think of our product, what is important is how customers perceive our product. It is this concept that comes into play with regard to the SERP - the page that comes up when you instigate a search on, for example, Google.
When a user searches on a keyword, the SERP lists the top ten matches, each of which seems to meet the criteria of the searcher. There ends the role of the search engine algorithm - though its last action is to hi-light in bold the search term wherever it appears on the SERP. The searcher must now choose which of the results they wish to click on. Practice suggests that the top one is always favourite, but how can the domain name of the featured sites influence the searcher? Could it be that, faced with 10 site listings that all seem to say the same thing, I might be drawn to click on a website where the domain name reflects the search term (ie my motive for performing the search) - and don't forget it will be bold. For example; I am looking to buy a genuine ex-army parka jacket, so I type "ex-army parka" into Google. Up comes the SERP listing 10 sites that all sell military surplus products - might the site with the domain
ex-armyparkas.com showing in bold appeal to me more than alanscoats.com - even though both may carry the same stock and sell it at the same price?
DOMAIN NAMES IN PRACTICE :
Of course, it is just perception, but - all other things being equal - doesn't the website with the domain name which includes the product I am looking for seem more attractive? And remember, 'online, the competition is only a click away' - and nowhere is that more true than on the search engine results page.
generic domains in SERPs
The first page of the Google search on "fancy dress" returned links to sites including:
But none of these are as good as that of Angels Fancy Dress:
The same company also has fancydress.co.uk (which redirects to the .com) and I would guess that the reason these folk registered the best name in that market is because they have been 'supplying costumes to the entertainment industry for over 165 years' and they saw the potential of the Internet - and so registered the name in the early days of the domain name gold rush. Full marks for that.
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Copyright copyright 2009 Alan Charlesworth. All rights reserved.
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