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Why Keyword Domains Are Better for SEO

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.

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6 Responses to “Why Keyword Domains Are Better for SEO”

  1. Troy Duncan Says:

    When I start a keyword campaign I’m looking for any advantage I can capitalize on. Part of my keyword research is to determine if a keyword domain is available. Not only does Google love them, but visitors identify with them.

    If Matt says that you get “credit” for keywords in the domain, then I’m going with it. I don’t have the time or money to build the brand of a non-keyword domain name. But I do have the resources to secure keyword domains.

  2. John Honeck Says:

    Beyond any bump Google may give a site for keywords in the domain, there is also the anchor text advantage. Links to amazon.com and onlinebookstore.com on the same page using the domain as the anchor text will pass the same link value, but only onlinebookstore.com is getting anchor text credit for ‘online book store’ assuming Google separates the words effectively which they normally do.

    My perception is that linking is changing from where it was when Google started. Long link pages with the domain names used as the anchor text are becoming less frequent and contextual links within the article, (i.e. SERP above) are more prevalent. Now if your link building strategy revolves around submitting to 1000 directories which will use the domain name as the link, you may see more of a bump from such links to keyworded domains. However if your links are more natural from sources that are discussing what is on the domain rather than the domain itself, the links will naturally contain better anchor text and be less dependent on the domain name.

    Searching for an [online auction] brings interesting results as well. With ebay bouncing around the top 10 somewhere, even though they probably have the most links of any site in the top 10, onlineauction.com is always as #1. If that is from keywords in the domain, the anchor text, or on-page factors, I’ll never know for sure, but makes for a good study.

    Assuming no brand awareness at all (tough to do, but imagine we’ve got a Martian using Google today for the first time) onlineauction.com may be the one he’d choose before ebay.com even though onlineauction.com doesn’t even bother to have a snippet, the domain itself screams that it’s relevant to the query, though in reality ebay is a much bigger brand and site for the query.

    For me personally I don’t have any “run 10 super-bowl ads” kind of budgets to deal with so branding of domains isn’t going to be as easy and will almost always choose the keyworded domain if I can get it, to the limit that online-auctions-that-sell-books-cheap135.info looks like junk and will never go anywhere.

  3. Peter Davis Says:

    The simplest and cleanest way for keyword domains to help in organic search would be in ranking for the exact keyword. So, onlinebookstore.com would gain an advantage for ranking for the term “online bookstore” but not “buy books online”. Seems that you’re saying that the advantage isn’t limited to the exact match? Is that what Matt said?

    @peter: yes, that is what I am saying, and I say that not justbased on what matt said but personal experience. Of course only Google knows what is truly happening… but matt did say the domain name value was partly based in the contributionof the domain name to the user experience, not just the fact that there was exact match. 

  4. john andrews Says:

    My blog elicits emails from readers more than public comments for some reason. But sometimes those email topics would have encouraged more discussion and participation. So, while I won’t go into details, I will say that some of the offline discussion points include:

    • We need to separate domains from URLs, so we can better discuss the impact of keywords in the URL (such as http://www.johnon.com/seattle/seo-in-seattle.html) from domain (www.johnon.com vs. http://www.seattleseo.com)
    • “user experience” is a nice, friendly descriptor, but it is ill-defined and relies on Google’s interpretation. In the past Google has said that pages which rank well and deliver very strong return for advertisers are actually spam (e.g. when they have little content of their own). Rather than accept Google’s pronouncement of the user experience as valuable, we need to get Google to describe what exactly is meant by the user experience.
    • If I (john andrews) say that keyword SEO works differently in different markets, and under different levels of competition, then suggesting that keywords in the domain name is helpful because it supports a positive user experience must also be market dependent, no? My Answer is yes, that is correct. BUT, we don’t know if Google’s handling of keyword domains is that sophisticated. For example, if a word has multiple meanings depending on context, does Google consider context or just presence of word? My vote is Google falls back to the predetermined contxtual relevance used for the content, when considering the domain name. But I say that simply because it is easier to do that than analyze the domain name for its market niche… something Google can add later when it is worthwhile to do that extra work.Does this answer the question for long-term domain speculators? Nope… which means consider that in your risk reward planning.
  5. Marios Alexandrou Says:

    I’ve always wanted to test out the effect of stop words in domains. Are they ignored so that the domain (thebookstore.com) is equivalent to the domain without them (bookstore.com)? If I were a typical user, I’d probably consider both equivalent. Is this a cheap workaround to getting a keyword rich domain?

  6. Steve Shearer Says:

    Tonight I was searching for “multiple domains for better serp” as my SERP dropped dramatically this summer, and this page came up in the top 10. Then I notice that you’re in Seattle, & I live in Tacoma. Guess I need to bookmark this site and return often.

    BTW: Great post – I’m self-learning SEO & this helped me a lot!!

    @steve: Best of luck with your web design and SEO business. I’d expect you could take that background of yours and combine it with your SEO learnin’ and generate some decent returns as a web entrepreneur.