Domain names can be terribly complicated. Your brand is the identity of your company, but having a descriptive domain is useful for potential customers and is optimized for SEO. So of course there is a myriad of different top-level domain extensions to choose from.
So is there a “right choice”? And if so, what is it?
A descriptive domain name is exactly what it sounds like, a domain name that describes what the site is about. Sites like hotels.com and hostelworld.com are examples of this – there are no prizes for guessing what you’ll find on them.
Descriptive domain names are particularly useful in business, as they help your customers know what you are selling before they even visit your site.
Descriptive domain names have a clear SEO benefit. If you search for “hotels in Tokyo” or “hostels in Tokyo”, sooner or later you will find 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 most successful companies in the world do not have descriptive domain names. Tesco.com and asda.com are domain names that tell us absolutely nothing about what users can expect to find on either site.
Instead, tesco.com and asda.com can be considered heavy brand domain names. Tesco and Asda can get away with it because most consumers know that these are the names of the major supermarket chains. When you start your own small business, your brand will be unrecognizable, at least at first.
And so all companies are forced to make a decision. Point out what? An SEO optimized domain or a heavy brand domain? Which one is best for your business? Well, that also depends.
Why Businesses Choose Brand Domains
Quick: what is the world’s largest boot retailer? You probably thought of Nike or Adidas. Both sites use brand domains and it is easy to understand why. A frequently cited statistic is that 97% of Americans recognize the Nike logo. The Nike brand is a powerful thing, so it makes perfect sense for your domain name to be your brand. The same applies to Adidas.
This is the same story for most clothing brands. If your industry is fashion and you want to build a reputation, a brand domain is probably the best way to go. It’s a bet. However, when it comes to clothing, the product is usually the brand itself.
Now, the average tourist probably doesn’t care where they booked their flight, as long as it’s the best deal. However, anyone looking to buy Dolce and Gabbana shoes definitely cares if these shoes are Dolce and Gabbana or not, so the website needs to be very explicit about their branding.
When it comes to truly successful companies, brand is the search term. Potential Gucci customers are more likely to search for “Gucci belts” than “designer belts.” Brands like this are in an ideal situation, where all the keywords they want to rank for contain the name of their companies. In other words, Gucci wants to be the top search result for everything Gucci-related.
Brand names apply to clothing, but also to people. Famous people generally use only their own names as the domain. That logic adds up. As with Gucci, potential buyers of Kanye West’s new album are more likely to seek out the “new Kanye West album” than the “new album by a controversial hip-hop artist.”
Are Descriptive, SEO-Friendly Domains Better For Small Businesses?
For most small businesses, and SEO-friendly domain is the best way to make sure people know exactly what your business does. Some successful brands retroactively design the entire process and choose a business 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 that a descriptive title attracts more attention. People want to know what they are clicking on before they click, and a domain with their exact search terms indicates that they have come to the right place. If an Internet user takes more than one look to find out what you are selling, they will probably go elsewhere.
However, it’s also worth mentioning that businesses need to be realistic when choosing an SEO-friendly domain. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but if you’ve just opened a coffee shop in London, londoncoffeeshop.com won’t place you at the top of the search results for “coffee shops in London”. There is a lot of competition from much richer and well established companies.
For starters, it’s best to focus on a more achievable goal. Be specific. Where exactly is your coffee shop in London? What are you specialized in? Do you specialize in certain types of coffee? Do you also sell food? What makes your place different? What is your target audience like?
Answer these questions honestly and you will find that something like oxfordstreetorganiccafe.com is a more SEO friendly domain for your business.
Tip: Exact Match Domains (EMDs)
Some companies go beyond choosing a descriptive domain name – they choose a domain name that exactly matches the search terms they think users will use. For example, the dubious watchmoviesonline.com corresponds exactly to the popular Internet search for “watch movies online.” This is known as an exact match domain or EMD.
EMDs are controversial. In the wild old days of SEO, setting up an EMD was an almost certain way to catapult your domain to the top of Google. However, this has resulted in many shady sites being rated higher than they actually deserved. Of course, Google took this trick (as it always does) and began publicly penalizing EMDs.
In the wild old days of SEO, setting up an EMD was an almost certain way to catapult your domain to the top of Google.
So will choosing an EMD continue to attract Google’s ire? Or maybe you can extract some of that sweet SEO juice? As usual, Google was very discreet about how it started dealing with EMDs, so we can only speculate what kind of behavior the search giant will and will not 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 poor quality website, using an EMD will not increase your ranking and may even count against you. However, what if you have a high-quality website that turns out to be an EMD? So you may find yourself hitting a bit above your weight. However, it is a risky move.
Is It Better For A Website To Be .org, .com, .gov, .net Or Something Else?
A lot of ink has been spilled on the effect that different top-level domain (TLD) extensions (like .org, .com, .gov, .net, or country-specific extensions like .co.uk) have on SEO. It’s an area where Bing and Google differ by some margin, but the biggest impact different TLD extensions have is on perception, not SEO.
For example, the .org TLD is generally used by non-profit organizations, such as charities. Customers could (rightly) consider you dishonest if you tried to outbid charities by giving your own business a .org TLD. If your business is trying to build an online presence, misuse of the .org TLD can backfire. The internet can be a cruel and unforgiving place, and misrepresenting yourself online is the fastest way to end your internet campaign before it even begins.
The “com” in .com is short for “commerce” and therefore companies can be more secure in maintaining the .com domain because that means they are being transparent. Although “trendy” TLDs like .ly, .abc, and .ninja come and go, .com should be your first choice, because at this point it seems unlikely to go out of style.
Perhaps the only reason not to choose a safe bet, like .com or .co.uk, is if the domain name you desperately want is already in use. But still, this can be a risky move.
It’s also worth spending at least some time considering whether you want to be a .com or a country-specific TLD, like .co.uk. Despite being based in the UK, we opted for a .com TLD, but many successful companies make a different decision.
Google data indicates that a country code TLD (ccTLD) gives search engines a slight nudge relative to the country in which the ccTLD is registered. Still, as with other TLDs, the main pros and cons of ccTLDs are related to perception, not SEO.
Moz broke this with a survey that asked users about their opinions on different sites based on the use of the .com TLD and different ccTLDs. The lesson is what to expect. If you are a company specifically geared towards customers from a particular country, a ccTLD offers a small advantage due to the perceptions associated with a ccTLD.
As with brand domains versus brand domains. SEO, ccTLD vs .com friendly domains is a matter of choice. If the country your business is located in is important to your brand, a ccTLD is probably the way to go. However, if you want your business to have a more international appeal, it is probably best to use the standard .com TLD.
The other TLD 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 higher-than-normal SEO boost, because Google finds academic sites to be more trustworthy and less likely to be tampered with.
Therefore, although it is not possible to register your new company as .ac, you should take a risk if a site like cam.ac.uk (Cambridge) or ox.ac.uk (Oxford) offers a link to your company.
Regardless of the domain type you choose, make sure it’s for the right reasons. Don’t let your brand pride keep you from making the right choice when it comes to descriptive domains, and don’t let cheap profits encourage you to choose an EMD or .org domain just for that.
Instead, ask yourself what type of product you are selling. Are you a charity? Are you the next big brand? Or are you the next hotels.com? That answer will depend on your product, your marketing style, but above all, it depends on you.