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How to SEO your domain name

Have you got the right domain name? Could changing your domain name bring SEO benefits? If your domain name was exactly the same as a keyword phrase you want to rank for would you dominate the search results? Is an old domain better than a new one? That's what we'll cover here.

The limited effect a domain name has on your rankings

Long gone are the days when, if you wanted to rank for 'Keyword X' you purchased the domain and it gave you a huge leg up. These were known as exact match domains and Google was first in starting to ignore them.

But what about the domains that do rank #1 with an exact match domain? What about with ranks top for the search 'diy'. The domain name is a red herring. It ranks well because it has:

  • Authority - a large number of links from DIY themed sites and pages (genuine sites and pages!).
  • DIY and other words related to that theme dominate the website.
  • Users behave positively when they see the website in the search results after searhing 'diy'

The domain name is a factor, but much, much smaller than it once was. Some of my clients have names which bear no connection to the phrases for which they now dominate the search results.

Basically don't think that buying a domain name that is a phrase you want to rank for means you will instantly rank. People do make a living trying to sell those domain names but it will be your money down the drain.

Keywords in the domain name

A domain name that contains one or more of your core keywords or phrases can still be an advantage:

  • When people link to you they are also using one of your keywords or phrases - e.g. "I got these images from the Fun Photos website" is better than "I got these photos from the Getty website" if you are trying to rank for 'fun photos' but the actual text used in the link and its ranking affect is weakening all the time do don't sweath this.
  • It can be easier for people to remember a phrase than a brand name or at least a brand name that is associated with a theme ... like Fun Photos.
  • Search engines give some weight to a domain whose name is similar to it's contents.

On the flip side though search engines like Google recognise brand mentions around the Internet as a ranking factor. If, as in the earlier example, our brand name was Fun Photos, it would find it harder to know if someone was mentioning you as a brand or not so its all a bit of a double edged sword.

Personally I prefer brand names, that's why my SEO and Online Marketing agency is called link2light but I started the back in the day when having a phrase in the domain did count and I've never got round to changing it.

A happy middle ground might be a domain name that contains keywords but in a way that they are never used together except when mentioning your brand. Like Sports Direct.

The domain name trap

If you do decide to put a keyword in your domain name beware of the limitations it might cause in the future. Say your website did really wall and you decided to include not just hotels in Malaga but restaurants as well. Or you wanted to include Valencia as another location.

Your domain name doesn't stop you doing this but it will always undermine your efforts. Big names have fallen victim to this like Moz who were once SEOMoz but really wanted to expand what they did beyond search engine optimization. It was a costly change!

Domain name age and SEO

Broadly the longer a domain has been around the more respectable it is provided it is in use and the theme of the website remains the same. So if you owned for five years as an ecommerce site but decided to change it into a review website for smart phones you're OKish. If you decide to change it into a gambling site the age of your domain won't carry so much weight. Search engines can see the topic has changed and when it changed so its really like starting from a clean slate.

Again you'll find some people making a huge issue of old domains - what they call 'aged domains' - but these are usually people who are trying to sell them. I've never had an issue getting a brand new domain ranked and never really found aged domains helped much. Search engines can see when a domain becomes active so you're not going to fool them this way.

Buying second hand domains

If you really want to buy a pre-resgistered domain then proceed with extreme caution. You've got to know the history of the domain to ensure a Google penalty isn't waiting for it just around the corner.

There are also scams where people try to tell you a domain they have for sale has a Page Rank or Moz Authority score of this or that. Until you know exactly where the links are coming from that give the domain that authority don't reach for the credit card. sometimes the seller controls the links and pulls them straight after the purchase in order to point them at the next domain they are selling....

Sometimes the links were purchased in a black hat scheme where Google will spot the pattern only too soon and dole out a penalty.

Even if the links are completely genuine, if you intend to change the core subject theme of the site then all those backlinks will suddenly come from unrelated pages and be worth a lot less.

Change of domain ownership and SEO

No, domains that have changed ownership several times aren't going to be hit with lower rankings. Businesses change hands all the time. All a search engine wants to see is that the theme of the website remains consistant over time.

It is new ownership coupled by substantial changes to the website's content that can lead to ranking changes.

Domain Renewal Periods and SEO

Thousands of domains are registered every day and thousands more time out. Many of these will have been purchased for the minimal period allowed (1 year) and used for spamming and scamming. The owners know the domain will be blacklisted quickly so they don't want it for long.

Register your domain for 3 years or more and you send a signal that you are looking to invest long term in it. It's a small signal but not a great cost when you consider your overall budget so do it and add something positive to your SEO pot.

How to change your domain name safely

If you already have a domain with an extablished website that's getting traffic and you're starting to think "Maybe I chose the wrong one..." you can change it without damaging your SEO so long as you do so with care.

Using an .htaccess file with 301 redirect rules carefully will allow you to inform search engines your domain (and pages) has changed. Any visitors who had you bookmarked and anyone who follows links to the old domain will be forwarded seamlessly to your new one. Any link juice you have from current backlinks will also be passed straight on through.

But you have to 301 redirect every single page individually so make sure you get the right help or you could crash out of the search results.

Summing Up

Buying because you want to rank for 'Keyword X' is not going to work. Sure, consider a domain name which has one of your main keywords in it but also make sure it is the kind of wording that, when people mention you around the Internet, Google is going to know its you ... and that's going to count.

Domain age doesn't really count if the domain has never had any content on it or if you intend to change the content substantially so don't buy older domains if this is your plan. 'Aged domains' aren't going to help just because their old.

Domain age does count if the content has been stable.

Buy your domain for at least the next three years to show Google your serious about sticking around. It counts for a bit so why not.

Only change your domain name if you know exactly what you are doing, disaster and horror stories from people who didn't litter the web.

And finally if you're thinking about buying second hand, then just like with a used car, tread with extreme caution and remember that if your plan is to repurpose it any trust Google has in the domain will probably be lost until it gets to know the quality and popularity of your new content.

Tim Hill SEO

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimization and Online Marketing specialist. I created this site to help others understand that SEO is not a mysterious black art!.

If your a newbie try the Getting Started in SEO page, otherwise feel free to dig around and learn more.

If you need help simply get in touch.

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