Choosing your domain name can be one of the most important decisions you can make when it comes to your online presence. It can also be the most frustrating. All the good ones are taken, right? What makes a domain name “good” anyway? What’s the best strategy for search engine placement? In this post, I hope to make things a little easier for you.
Before I go on to the best strategies, let’s quickly explain what a domain name is, and its purpose:
Every web site is hosted on a computer somewhere. This is where the files that make up your site are stored, and served to the browser when a request is made. However, these servers aren’t addressed by names. The have numbers, called IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, which look like this: 126.96.36.199 (that’s an IP address for Google, incidentally).
Now, computers are very good at dealing with numbers such as this, while us humans are much better at dealing with words. We can remember the word: “Google” much easier than we could remember: 188.8.131.52, for instance! Clearly, there’s a disconnect there. What we need is a mechanism for translating a name that we can easily remember into the numbers that computers prefer. This is a job for the DNS system. DNS is an acronym for Domain Name System, and its sole purpose is to do the translation between the two.
In practise, the system consists of many computers spread across the globe, which all contain a link between domain names and IP addresses. When you type a domain name into your browser’s address bar, the first thing that happens is that your computer reaches out to one of these DNS servers, passing the domain name that you just typed into the address bar. The DNS server looks into its database, and returns the IP address corresponding to that domain name. This is called Domain Name Resolution. Armed with this new information, your browser then connects to the correct machine via the newly acquired IP address. Simple really!
So, having got that out of the way, what are the important things you should consider?
In the earlier days of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), the standard advice was much simpler. You stuffed as many of your keywords (the words or phrases with which your customers may search for you) into your domain name as possible. This led to domains such as: “HowToMakeMoneyFastOnline.com”. I have no idea if that domain actually exists, but you get the idea. Bada-bing! You got great search engine placement. Domain names like this are called Exact Match Domains (DMTs). Those days are all but gone.
You see, there’s a constant struggle between the opposing needs of search engines to return quality results, and people wishing to get the highest rank possible in the easiest manner. Google, for instance, simply wants its results to return the most relevant, most useful, high-value content to the user. What they don’t want is low-quality sites, which offer little to the reader, using techniques such as this to “game the system”. These techniques may work for a while, but guess who wins in the end?
In 2012 Google announced an update to their algorithm which was specifically aimed at reducing the ranking of sites (mis)using Exact Match Domains.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use domains which contain your search term(s), but it won’t help as much as some people still think, and—if your site is of low quality—it could actually harm your standing in the search engines.
A better strategy, in my opinion, is to concentrate on branding. Your business has a name. If EMDs are of less use nowadays, why not concentrate on building your brand recognition? After all, Apple has “apple.com”. They don’t have “whichisthebestphonetoget.com”!
If your ideal domain name is taken, consider adding verbs like: “get” or “try” to it, and still use your brand. This is what the company “Pocket” did when they found their ideal domain was taken. They instead registerd “getpocket.com”.
Likewise, Tesla, the electric car manufacturer originally found that “tesla.com” was taken, so they used “teslamotors.com for some time (they have since acquired “tesla.com”). If you go this route, I would recommend adding something short and relevant.
This is one is simple: as short as possible! Fifteen characters or less is ideal. It should be remembered that domain names are there for humans. Short names are easier for us to remember.
This is a tricky one. They have their place, and if your ideal domain name is already taken, then it may be your only option. However, they have their downsides. They can easily look “spammy”. Think of all those sites that you see at in the search results which lead to inevitably useless sites. How many have hyphens in their names?
And, at the risk of repeating myself, domain names are for us humans, not machines. How much more difficult is it to tell someone your domain name if it contains hyphens (“Acme, dash, cleaners dot com”)?
As I say, use them if there is little alternative, but be aware that you’ll have extra problems telling people your site address, and there’s a very high likelyhood that they’ll try the one without the hyphens, and end up at your competitor’s site! If you do use a hyphen, I would definitely try to limit it to one.
TLDs are the extensions at the end of your domain name: .com, .co.uk, .net, .tv, etc. Here, .com still reigns supreme. I would advise always searching for the .com version of your domain name first. Of course, if you are specifically targeting people in your country, it makes sense to use that extension (.co.uk, if you live in the United Kingdom, for example).
It may be tempting to use an alternative TLD if your ideal .com is already taken (such as using .net because the .com version is already taken), but I don’t think this is a wise strategy. The fact remains that for the average Internet user, the .com extension carries the most trust. Also, just like settling on a version of domain with hyphens, you’re very likely to be sending people to your competitors, because people will instinctively add the .com extension.
There is one trick, which has been used to good effect, called domain hacking. This is where the extension is used to interplay with the domain name. Some notable examples of this are: inter.net, del.icio.us, and youtu.be. These are mostly created using Country Code Top Level Domains, or ccTLDs. It may be worth your while looking into the possibilities of a quirky domain name using this technique. A quick Internet search revealed at least one site which claims to help with finding domain hacks such as this.
Nowadays, having your own web site on the Internet is only part of the equation. Few entities get by without engaging with social media. For this reason, it’s worth checking whether your domain name or your brand is available on the larger social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.
If your service targets a specific area, and that is not going to change in the future, this could be a good practise,and will certainly make finding an available domain name easier. If you’re a builder who lives in a town called: “Springfield”, it would make sense to use the domain name: “springfieldbuilders.com”. This will also help the search engines “home in” on your site when people are searching in your area.
However, there is a more important thing to consider when your business is local: Google Places.
Google Places is a service which allows you to be listed on Google Maps. Business owners who are listed with Google, can find their listing, claim ownership of the business, and manage the listed information, such as location, services and business hours. This one action will help your visibility immensely. For more information about listing your business locally, click here.