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What role does SEO play in domain selection?

A website’s backlink profile, content quality, and usability are just three of the many Google ranking factors that decide which websites rank at the top of the results list - and which don’t. A good ranking is crucial for every commercial web project, since the majority of potential customers get to your site through search engines. The flagship of every website is an appropriate domain name. The domain’s owner decides whether this is made up of the company’s name, relevant keywords, or other word combinations. Whether the choice of name has a direct impact on Google’s rankings or not has always been a much debated topic, so we have summarized all the important facts on SEO domain names below.

Google ranking factors: no strict rules

When it comes to Google ranking factors, there is no list of guidelines that you can tick off one by one. There are more than 200 different factors that play a part in determining the order of displayed search results. Some of the factors are already known and have been officially confirmed, but other are deliberately kept secret. This is so that the search engine giant can prevent a targeted manipulation of their search results. By listening to interviews with Google employees, their experiences, studies, and other indicators, SEO experts have collected their theories and ideas on what factors into Google’s rankings. There are various theories on the ideal SEO domain name, but how much of an influence could the domain name itself, its TLD (country ending e.g. “.com”), and its period of existence have on the ranking? We discuss the possibilities in the following points.

Keyword domains

Up until a few years ago, it was thought that domains containing a relevant keyword had an edge over Google rankings over those that didn’t. The reasoning was that having matching keywords in domain names enabled users to establish a link between the search term and the website. This should have a positive effect on the click-through rate (CTR), which encourages a higher Google ranking. In 2012 there was an algorithm update: ever since then, Google has checked 'exact match domains' for their relevance. As a result, they tend to favor sites that offer value and relevant content. This means that fewer keyword domains are appearing in the search results, and that the overall role of keyword domains is becoming less important.

Brand domains

If you use your brand name as a domain name, the user will realize what awaits them. This in turn leads to a low bounce rate and longer retention times, which are important for SEO. Using the brand name in your domain is not only relevant for SEO, but is also especially important for your brand image: if you convey a memorable brand name in your web presence’s domain name, you strengthen the sentimental value and, ultimately, your corporate identity.

Domain extension

A question on the minds of many website operators is whether new domain endings are SEO relevant. In the past few years, more and more new top-level domains (TLDs) have been introduced in order to expand the market of traditional domain endings such as .com. According to official Google statements, the new generic TLDs are treated exactly the same as the more established ones such as .com and .org. Following this, it’s irrelevant for the ranking as to whether the TLD contains a keyword or not. An exception is country-specific TLDs, which aren’t treated the same. For example, a .co.uk domain could rank quite highly in the UK, but it will have a tough time trying to position at the top of the search results in the US. New regional domains are treated like .com domains, according to Google.

Regardless of official Google statements, experts often rely on their own experience. The selection of TLDs will affect the click-through rate and then the position on the search engine indirectly. For instance, websites with the .info TLD would receive a higher click-through rate, since they offer information.

Owner and age of the domain

Whether a domain owner has a clean slate in Google’s records is important in the context of domain name SEO. If many of their domains were penalized or identified as spam in the past, this reputation follows them to future domain registrations. To combat this, experts recommend making public domain info available. There is the possibility of creating a privacy protection for Whois queries, but that could arouse suspicion. This means that it’s best to lay all your cards on the table from the beginning.

Another factor that can directly influence your SEO profile is the age of the domain. It’s easy to find out when the domain was registered. The Netcraft tool shows, for example, when the domain was first identified by the Google crawler. Established domains that have been delivering quality for a long time are seen as trustworthy and are therefore ranked highly. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that a newly-registered domain inevitably loses in the battle for a good position in the rankings. 'The older the domain, the better the ranking' is not 100% true in this context – the period of time that the site has had a good quality level  plays a role, which can affect the ranking in both a positive and negative way.

Domains for users, not for search engines

Choosing the right domain is an important step if you want your web project to be successful in the long run. You should choose the domain name for the user, rather than for SEO reasons. A short, memorable domain name with thematic relevance and recognition is essential here. It depends on the company’s strategic direction as to whether the brand name, a relevant keyword, or a combination of both is the right choice. It also depends on whether your desired name and TLD is available.

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