Monday, March 28, 2011
Search Engine Optimization: The SEO value (or lack thereof) of domain name keywords
Search engines rank websites by attempting to determine their relevancy to the searched keyword phrase. It makes sense for a search engine to consider the keywords in a domain name as part of the equation to determine relevancy.
That said, the search engines place less weight on internal factors that can be influenced by the webmaster, and more weight on external factors such as links, authority, etc. So, while having the keyword present in the domain name is helpful, it is just one piece of the puzzle and there are many other elements to search engine optimization (SEO).
What $5 million buys you
Case in point, SEO.com. This website provides professional SEO services to clients and also contains lots of original content on the topic of SEO and other Internet marketing practices. According to Yahoo Site Explorer, it has more than 42,500 indexed pages and nearly 26,000 back links (excluding those from SEO.com).
The website is certainly topic specific to the keyword “SEO,” yet it isn’t the first result for the keyword “SEO” on Google or Binghoo (Bing/Yahoo). The websites ranking above it don’t have “SEO” anywhere in the URL.
Granted the websites that are ranked higher are Wikipedia and Google, but nonetheless, it helps illustrate an important point. While domain keywords may be helpful in outranking an otherwise equal website, they are not enough to place you at the top of the search results if your website is not otherwise considered more relevant.
Ranking third in Google for a keyword as broad and competitive as “SEO” is certainly nothing to be shy about and I have no doubt that the domain name is aiding them in this. However, keep in mind that SEO.com was not originally registered by the current owners; it was purchased at considerable expense, $5,000,000 to be exact (ref – Dotsauce.com). I do not know whether the potential SEO benefit was a consideration in this purchase price, but it is certainly something my company looks at with all domain acquisitions.
In the SEO.com example, the domain represents a single keyword phrase, “SEO,” but multiple keyword phrases can work just as well. That said, we see this make the most impact when the domain name matches the entire keyword phrase and does not contain connecting words or characters such as “The,” “A,” or dashes.
How much assistance does the domain name provide?
The SEO.com example helps illustrate that keywords in a domain can influence rankings. However, it does not help us understand how strong the influence is and how closely the search engines look at this.
In a recent analysis of several websites we own, I noticed something interesting with one of our old websites. The site, CellPhoneSearch.com, is currently the first result in Google for the keyword phrase “cell phone search.” Rankings for this search phrase are not nearly as contested as “SEO,” none-the-less, I can see that the phrase receives roughly 40,000 local monthly searches according to Google’s keyword tool (note: this was using the “broad” match-type option. “Phrase” and “exact” match-types showed less monthly searches).
The interesting discovery with this ranking is we have done very little to optimize this website for this keyword phrase. In fact, the phrase is not present in our title tag, meta description or even the primary content of the page. The only two places where this phrase could even be found were in the meta keywords, which are not used by Google in their ranking algorithm and the logo which runs across the entire site.
This certainly indicates that the domain may have a very strong impact on the rankings, but I can’t dismiss that there are other elements at work. For instance, this site has lots of unique content and, while it may not use the exact phrase “cell phone search,” the content is very relevant to those who are searching for this phrase. The back links are also very relevant, another factor search engines pay very close attention to. Given this, I cannot determine if a site with identical content and links but a different domain name would achieve the same ranking.
Quality content and relevant back links are still key in SEO. That said, a keyword specific domain can assist your rankings, and if you don’t own the domains of your strongest keywords, perhaps now is the time to look into acquiring them, before your competitors do.
Aaron Rosenthal, President, ThoughtProjects, is the former Director of Channels Research for MarketingExperiments, MarketingSherpa’s sister company.