What’s the best name for your business website? Business owners endlessly struggle with this question because they know that something as simple as a name can ultimately dictate the success or failure of the organization. This is true for every company in every industry – your company name is how clients find and remember you, so it better be good.
Behind every domain name is an inherent value in that site’s worth. There is a psychological and technological force that attracts users to the best-named sites on the Internet. Website names have psychological power if they are creative and unique, giving users an experience that is backed by a memorable brand name. At the same time, domains names have technological power if search engines recognize them as relevant to a user’s search.
Creating a powerful domain name is no simple endeavor, and to boost your site’s long-term SEO plans, it needs nothing short of the perfect match. I designed this to guide business owners and SEO professionals pick a domain name that will maximize the value of their sites.
The SEO Power
Outside my office, there are two Chinese restaurants that sit right next door to each other. One has a rather generic name, “The Wok,” while the other went for something more adventurous, “Cozy Yum Bites.” Both serve nearly identical food at nearly identical prices, yet everyday I see more customers dining at “The Wok.” Why is that?
The answer is obvious: a business name is a first impression. Even though I think food is better at “Cozy Yum Bites,” most customers have no idea what kind of cuisine they serve.
Sure, my example might seem a bit far-fetched, but search engines work in a surprisingly similar manner. Using domain names like the signs that hang outside of restaurants, search engines like Google utilize domain names as a key metric for assessing the relevance of your site to a given search query.
Just how important are domain names in Google’s processing of search results? Well let’s take a look with a few examples.
First, let’s type in a search query for “atlanta roof” and see what happens. In the image below, you can see that the top two results have a domain that includes at least our full search term.
When I open up my SEO toolbar, I find another surprising detail: the third result on our list (“Dr. Roof”) actually has a higher PageRank, more inbound links, and greater social media following than both the sites that outrank it. This is an important piece of information because it reveals that a site with relatively poor SEO performance can still be found at the top of the food chain as long as it has a solid domain name.
To use another example, let’s imagine we’re locked out of our apartment in Austin, Texas and need to call a locksmith. We hop on Google and type in the search query “austin tx locksmith” to find these results:
Of the six top search results that are included in this image, two of them contain the words “Austin” and “locksmith” in the site’s root domain (Results 3 and 4) and two more results contain those keywords in the URL’s extended path (Results 2 and 5). In fact, only one result didn’t have any of our keywords in the site URL (Result 6).
Exact Match Domains
For generic searches like “cars” or “shoes” or “hats,” one of the first results that appear on the page is almost always going to be an Exact Match Domain (EMD). This means that cars.com, shoes.com, and hats.com are invariably going to show up at the top of the SERP for their respective search queries.
The downside: premium EMD’s from services like BuyDomains or Sedo can be expensive. A one-word, highly competitive domain name is going to cost a good chunk of change. Try a domain like vacationrentals.com, which sold for $35 million in 2007. Unless your business has this kind of capital lying around, you’re going to need to get creative to find a domain name that works.
A large proportion of SEO clients are local small businesses that don’t necessarily need to compete for premium, one-word domains like we described above. But finding an EMD that’s perfect for your business is still possible, even if you’re limited by geography or niche.
Businesses should never be afraid to purchase a domain name that is different from their registered company name. After all, many businesses purchase high-power domains just for the extra SEO boost, despite any dissimilarity between the domain and company name.
Take for instance, a hypothetical company called “Chuck’s Super Auto Guys.” The domain “chuckssuperautoguys.com” is available for purchase, but much like the Chinese food example earlier, the domain offers little explanation about the actual content of the site. So, our friend Chuck does some digging to see if there’s a domain that might work better, using Google Trends to see what kind of search terms are popular for the Atlanta area:
Our business owner (or SEO consultant) finds that “auto body” is a fairly popular search term for the local industry and recommends that the business website use a domain with those keywords. Hence, Chuck finally settles on the keyword-rich domain name: “atlantaautobody.com” (which, at the time of this writing, is still available). The goal is that hundreds of users type in the specific search query “atlanta auto body,” and our new site will have an easier chance of popping up first in search engines.
Time to Change the Domain Name?
So far, the information above has revealed an often overlooked aspect of SEO – could the client’s domain name be influencing its ranking ability? The answer is a resounding yes, but unless your client is willing to change their online name, then it’s going to be difficult to find ways around this.
Some sites are unfortunately doomed by crappy domain names. No matter how many inbound links you create or how meticulously you craft page titles and meta descriptions, sometimes it might be the root domain that’s causing problems.
In this case, finding a new domain might be the only option that’s right for your client. Of course, this might wipe away years of valuable SEO effort, but if the site is simply not experiencing any positive growth, then it might be time to start over with a new domain.
The Branding Power of a Domain
A domain name has an intense role in how users view a site. Originality and relevance are two of the biggest factors that influence the likeability of your domain name. When I refer to “likeability,” I’m talking about how real human users view your domain, not search engine algorithms (even though they are becoming more human-like). As you probably know, Google has emphasized that the best SEO strategy is to create an appealing user experience.
A powerful domain offers more than just SEO results; it provides an intangible sense of industry authority. But finding that domain can be tricky, especially considering that online real estate is expensive and competitive. For example, every 3-letter combination of English characters is already taken under the .com domain. In addition, every 4-letter English word that appears in the Oxford Dictionary is already registered.
Deciding on a domain name for your business requires a careful blending of originality and relevance. Taken together, these two factors create the one thing that businesses crave: memorability. We want a domain that is easy for users to remember, visit often, and tell their friends about. These attributes will help form a brand that resonates with visitors.
A powerful brand domain does not have to be generic. The power can come from the name itself if the product is well-received. Many successful brands have been launched using word creation. Think of the names of popular search engines – they are all created names (Google, Yahoo, Bing). In the ideal case, the brand name becomes the generic name over time. “Google it,” comes to mind.
Instagram is a word that was collectively obsolete from our vocabulary only a decade ago. Now this invented word can be used as both a verb and a noun. Creating a catchy, yet imaginative name for your domain could translate to instant memorability.
Location-specific domains impart both SEO and brand power to a more finely targeted audience. Adding the target city, locale, or customer base you’re trying to reach could be the perfect way to find a domain name that’s highly relevant to your local users. You’ll find fewer national competitors in the game as a big fish in a small local pond.
Yet big cities can be extremely competitive with local domain names. Think of “New York” plus any financial, medical or home services keyword. Small towns are easier names to find domains for that will perform in search.
There are thousands of examples of small businesses that use a geo-targeted domain names, but chances are you’ve never heard of them unless you need their specific services. From roofing contractors (as mentioned earlier) to hardware stores, companies are making their sites easier to find by adding their location into the domain name. In this case, “hardwareatlanta.com” becomes a great fit.
There is an intangible sense of authority that some websites have and most lack. Clearly, there is a psychological draw behind the success of a name like “Amazon” or “Wikipedia” – they have a certain oomph that’s hard to put your finger on.
Fortunately, most of these sites are using the same phonetic and semantic tricks to help their websites appear powerful and unique. As a business owner, you can piggyback off the ideas:
One-word domains: These are often going to be expensive for highly searched keywords, but there are certainly catchy one-word domains that still exist that are also relevant to your industry. A one-word domain says, “we got here first,” which might sound sophomoric, but individuals tend to trust companies that convey a sense of longevity and decisiveness.
“The _______”: If a popular domain is already taken, using the word “the” might solve your problems. This simple word provides a sense of authority to users because it isn’t simply a company – it is the company you should trust. Some popular examples that come to mind include theguardian.co.uk, theverge.com, and thefreedictionary.com.
Action words: Using a verb somewhere in your domain provides a sense of urgency and interaction. A simple word like “go” or “click” could generate interest in your site. In the SEO world, we refer to these as “calls to action” and they’re a popular way to get immediate, kneejerk site visits. If your site is designed well enough, then an impulse click can lead to a long-term user. Examples might include: eatthis.com or any number of semi-legal streaming websites like watch-series-tv.to (just as a disclaimer, we do not endorse this site, but are simply commenting on its domain name).
Word Combination: The oldest trick in the book – every company’s basic business model can be summed up in two words. That’s right, every single company should have a 2-word combination that gives users a pretty good idea of what your company does. Users do not like wasting time and can appreciate the efficiency of a short domain that tells them exactly what to expect. Here, we think of sites like photobucket.com, salesforce.com, and rapgenius.com.
Geographical names: Still struggling to find a unique name? The solution might be as easy as opening up a map. Seriously, you would be amazed how many companies pluck their names from creatively-named geographical formations. This plays into a strong psychological force, because every time we hear the word out of context, we also associate it with the brand name. For example, we all heard of Patagonia (a mountainous region of South America) long before we heard of Patagonia, the US apparel company. The same thing goes for online retail giant Amazon.
Trendy: Especially if you’re addressing a young audience, there is a strong psychological force behind drafting a domain name that is in touch with contemporary social trends. Everyone likes a trendy company name because it says that your organization is not out of touch with the current generation, so names like Flickr and Tumblr aren’t simple misspellings, but modern interpretations of common words. If you look through the app store on your mobile device, it’s easy to see that companies are using trendy spelling shortcuts to make their companies sound young and hip.
gTLD combinations: There are thousands of generic top-level domains to make your website appealing and unique. A great example is the online science magazine Nautilus that spells its domain: nautil.us. These domains are boiling with individuality because they reveal that your company is willing to venture from the beaten .com path. Get creative with gTLD’s like .tv, .ly, .it, io, .center, or .how. There are hundreds to choose from and these are gaining popularity by the day.
- Domain name choice is a key early strategic decision.
- Using keywords in domains still contribute to SEO performance.
- Consider all aspects, brand, psychological, local, not just SEO.
- The domain name plays a role in your long-term SEO strategy.
- Some domains are so poorly named that switching to a new one may be the only way to recover.
- A catchy brand domain name without keywords can endear users over time.
- If your market is local, geo words should be a strong consideration.
- Consider using words in a domain that evoke popular trends and emotional cues.
Clearly, domain names should be far more than an afterthought in your business and SEO plan. A domain name can make or break your website, so it’s important that you fall into the former category. It is not only Google that decides if you have a good domain name, but innate psychological cues that help us, real users, determine if a website is worth our time.
Users see your domain name in search results before they even click through and visit. Every click on your site is a first impression, so you better make the most of it. It all starts with a powerful domain name.
Published 09/21/15, Edited 05/21/17.
About Michael Nozick
Michael is pre-law student at the University of Georgia. In his spare time, he works as a link building consultant and online writer for local Atlanta, GA businesses. He loves reading up on international and technology news, especially new developments in SEO. See more of Michael's work here.