Do you remember the beginnings of the internet?
You could spend all day chatting with your friends on AOL messenger while playing solitaire on Yahoo games. And then your mom picked up the phone to call and you got kicked off the internet. Good times.
If you made a few purchases back then, there was a good chance you were doing so on a website with an exact match domain (EMD). For example, if you need a dog collar, you’ll probably end up on a website with an address like www.buydogcollars.com.
In those primitive days of search engine optimization, it was common for companies to put their exact target keyword phrase directly into their domain URL.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how you feel about EMDs), scammers and bad actors took advantage of this, snatching up many of these domains and linking them to low-quality websites.
So what is true today? Does your domain name affect search results?
Let’s take a closer look at the debate.
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The claim: Is the domain name a ranking factor?
It used to be a big deal to have an exact match domain.
In 2010, CarInsurance.com sold for $49.7 million, still the most expensive domain name purchase of all time. So someone clearly valued domains with that keyword.
It was (and sometimes still is) common for people in the SEO industry to champion EMDs. The claims around them are usually that they instantly generate credibility and generate a competitive advantage.
But remember those bad actors we talked about in the last section? Eventually, Google recognized their keyword stuffing URLs and changed their algorithm to discount them. That doesn’t mean your website’s domain name doesn’t affect SEO, though.
The Proof: The Impact of Domain Names on SEO
There is a lot of mixed information out there about domain names and how they affect rankings.
There is no question that domain names once played a role in rankings.
In a webmaster hangout in 2011, Matt Cutts, a software engineer in Google’s Search Quality group, acknowledged the role EMDs play in the tech giant’s search algorithm.
However, he also stated:
“So we thought about tweaking that mix a bit and turning the slider down within the algorithm so that with two different domains, having one domain with a bunch of keywords in it wouldn’t necessarily help you.”
And just a year later, in 2012, Cutts tweeted that inferior exact-match domains would be less visible in search results.
Finally, in 2020, Google Webmaster Trends analyst John Mueller revealed that keywords in domain names no longer play a role in determining search engine results rankings.
When asked if keywords in domain names affect ranking, he replied in an Ask Google Webmasters video: “In short, no. You don’t get such a special bonus if you have a keyword in your top-level domain.”
But that doesn’t mean that domain names are unimportant. They’re just not direct ranking factors.
learn more about Google Ranking Factors in our 2nd edition ebook.
Our conclusion: Your domain name is not a ranking factor, but it is still important
Now that we’ve established that domain names are NOT part of your overall search engine rankings, SEO pros can just forget about them, right?
Your choice of a domain name can be an important aspect of your UX and public image. Your domain name should usually be the most recognizable aspect of your business. Sometimes that’s not your company name, but a specific brand or trademark.
You may want to consider subdomains or even separate domains for different properties. Selling products that resellers carry can help your customers find you more easily.
Using keywords in your domain doesn’t help in terms of search ranking; If not done right, it can actually harm your SEO.
However, if your branding is heavily focused on a specific service or product, including a keyword in the domain can help users understand what you’re about at a glance. A well-placed keyword can also help attract high-converting audiences.
Don’t be afraid to use a keyword if it’s highly relevant or part of your branding.
So, here’s the TL;DR: Your domain name doesn’t directly affect your Google ranking, but it does offer savvy web marketers opportunities to reflect their brand values and create more positive user experiences.
For more help choosing a domain name, see Roger Montti’s advice.
Featured image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal