The DomainRoundTable Conference hosted Matt Cutts of Google and a panel of SEOs, to discuss search marketing and domaining. One topic of conversation afterwards was the value of keyword domains. Is a domain “better for SEO” if it contains exact match keywords?
Matt said yes, keywords in the URL can help rankings, but you don’t need that in order to rank. I would like to expand on that, as I understand it. Since I blogged about Matt’s comments, I have seen several SEO discussions online that I think demonstrate a lack of understanding of what matters with domain names (as relates to SEO) including Matt’s comments. Please comment if you have more to add, or can help me better understand your own knowledge or experience.
Consider the search user. If the searcher asks Google “where can I find books for sale online” by entering the Google search query “buying books online“, Google will serve up a set of results it believes will be useful to that searcher, and which will engage that searcher. Google considers various factors in making that results set, but when it displays that results set to the user as a SERP, the destination URL is displayed prominantly as the name of the listing. That name is the only authoritative identity guaranteed to be present in the SERP for that particular web page.
When the user scans the result set, that user has an expectation, which we assume is aligned with the query “buying books online”. When Google’s customer sees the URL contains the keywords they are searching, that keywordy URL reinforces their hope that the results set provides that which they seek. But it is more complicated than that. The substance of that noticed match must also convey a sense of safety and possibly authority, or opportunity.
There are various facets of user action motivation, but for now let’s just accept that Google anticipates that Google’s customer will trust “OnlineBookStore.com” more than they will trust “buy-books-here-discount-reduced.info” for the query “buying books online”, all other things being equal.
And so Google will give an advantage to OnLineBookStore.com in this case. Keywords in the domain, yes, but more importantly, authority and trustworthiness expressed in the domain name. The keywords added authority (via relevance).
What if the domain is books.com? That is a very expensive domain. Simply because it is expensive, I believe, Google gives it more trust (all other factors being euqal.. such as content and reputation). So in theory, everything else being equal, is books.com is better for seo than onlinebooks.com, for the search “buying books online”?
I don’t think so. Due to the keyword match of both “online” and “books”, I would give the edge to OnlineBooks.com. I don’t think the added value Google might give Books.com is adequate to overcome the value of the easy to remember and well matched OnlineBooks.com URL. That is my opinion, limited to this example.
What about “BuyingBooksOnline.com”, you ask? That’s an exact match to the query. Yes, it is, and that is good. But…. Google is focused on Google’s customer. Books.com is easy to remember, easy to recognize, and authoritative. The user will appreciate it differently than BuyingBooksOnline.com. It is up to Google to decide whether or not users will appreciate BuyingBooksOnline.com as a destination for the query “buying books online”. I would assume there is benefit from the exact match, and benefit from the user experience associated with soley that domain name displayed in the SERP, and that the combination helps Google rank the results set. I would place OnlineBooks.com ahead of BuyingBooksOnline.com, all other factors being equal for this one query, because I think it is a but more accepted by the user… I think they would view BuyingBooksOnline.com as more of an information site than a book store.
So what about OnlineBookstore.com, you ask? Again, all other factors being equal (trust and reputation, backlinks and content, etc), I have to consider the cultural aspects of the Google customer. In what context does the Google customer refer to “bookstore” as compared to the context for the use of “books” in our language? College students refer to “the book store” quite frequently. Gift givers look for books more than they look for book stores. OnlineBooks may refer to PDF files you can download instead of books you hold in our hand. And store is often a synonym for shopping cart or ecommerce web site. That’s right… I am suggesing that Google incorporates cultural sensitivities into the ranking algorithms. if for no other reason than because the corpus of information Google uses to determine relevance comes out of our culture: the index of documents studied by Google. We, like Google, have to consider the context of our question “buying books online” when sorting through available web pages and compiling a set of search results.
Based on my perspective, I’d give the edge to OnlineBookStore.com over OnlineBooks.com, except in the context of college life I’d definietly go with OnlineBookstore.com. That’s an opinion… I don’t have Google’s resources. But I think it demonstrates my thought process, and maybe you can see how it would be applied to other search queries where you and I may have significant insight into the vernacular of our customers. Google wants the search results to be good for the user experience, and if the URL adds to the user experience (or detracts), Google wants to consider that in the ranking/scoring algorithm.
But does Google do that? Theoretical discussion are great for academics, but does this really matter? Does Google count it? Yes, Matt Cutts tells us that when the domain adds to the user experience, there is an advantage (all other factors being equal). And he said so in the context of a question addressing whether or not keyword domains are better for SEO.
Matt won’t tell us if Google discriminates between OnlineBooks.com and OnlineBookstore.com, but our example of assuming “everything else being equal” is a tough constraint anyway for our practical world. Small differences in back link quality or quantity or content quality are probably more important than the difference between OnlineBooks.com and OnlineBookstore.com. And that’s an important point!
Maps.com is a great domain name. But MapWorld.com may be better, because it contains the second keyword “world” which matches queries that contain “world”. It also suggests a content theme “world” which is semantically associated with many search keywords commonly paired with the word “map” (such as “maps of the world” and “maps of north america” because of the semantic association of “North America” with “world”). Think about that search index.. when Google tries to guess searcher intent for a query, it looks at word associations based on the indexed documents and their relationships.
Again… there is so much more being considered by Google for ranking web pages, but the domain name “MapWorld.com” contributed significantly to user experience and semantic meaning in the context associated with a large number of search queries. That adds value. For a global map business do you need maps.com or can you do it just as well on MapWorld.com for a much lower initial price for a domain?
I know this is complicated and somewhat subjective. That’s part of the point. It’s not all about the domain name, but domain names that carry meaning for the searcher do have more value, within a specific context. Think user experience… user experience… user experience, all other factors being equal, and then make sure all other factors are not equal, in order to compete.