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Domain name and hosting in SEO

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 their website.
  • Users behaving positively when they see the website in the search results after searhing 'diy'

The domain name is a factor, but 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.

How to choose an effective domain name

But 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"
  • It can be easier for people to remember a phrase than a brand name
  • Search engines give some weight to a domain whose name is similar to it's contents.

So when you are choosing a domain name consider if you have the budget to build a brand (like Getty) or you want to use keywords instead.

Other domain name factors in SEO

How old the domain is, when the last change of ownership was and when it will come up for renewal are all available to see by anyone and factors that search engines take into account.

Domain name age

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 OK. 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.

Change of ownership

A change of ownership can often mean a change of topic. Many people buy older domains hoping they will get some kudos from it. But if that aged domain contained content that will not be related to yours don't count on it - today's search engines are not daft.

Similarly 'parked domains' (domains that have no website attached to them) are recognised by search engines for what they are. If a domain was registered in 2004 but only suddenly started holding content in 2014 the first ten years are not going to be taken into account.

Renewal Periods

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 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 you can inform search engines your domain (and pages) have 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.

Buying second hand domains

Google is suspicous of brand new domains and this lead to a market for second hand domain names. You could buy a domain off me that I had owned for ten years and avoid a grumpy Google.

Better still you could buy a domain off me that had lots of good links, change it over for your content and get a flying start in the rankings.

No more.

Google understands domains which have been parked (purchased but not used) are the same as domains which never existed. It can also quickly see if a website has been repurposed. If I sold you my very popular website about cycling, with lots of great links from other cycling related websites, and you changed it into a gambling page search engines would pick that up in no time.

It is then very easy for the to say "This is no longer the same site so those links are no longer relevant". Besides links from cycling related websites to gambling related websites would automatically decrease in value since the topics are not related.

Second hand domains are like used cars - it can be hard to see if they may have been heavily abused by spammers and you will be buying this history.

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. Often the seller controls the links and pulls them straight after the purchase in order to point them at the next domain they are selling....

Host your site on a respectable server

Perhaps more important than the domain name itself if the hosting server where the website content will be. Investing here may cost a little more but in SEO it pays off handsomely for two reasons:

  • Reliability - search engines don't like to rank websites that are often offline or crashing, it's bad user experience.
  • Good neighbours - in many cases you will what is known as an IP address with other websites. If those IP neighbours are scamming and spamming you may end up going down with them as IP addresses are blacklisted.

Established providers such as GoDaddy or KnownHost invest resources in stopping spammers and scammers setting up shop on their servers. If you're not sure what the score is with your host provider, or the host you are considering, try a few searches such as "[host name] reviews" to get the low down.

Personally I've tracked down three Virtual Private Server hosts I'm happy with and detailed the process on my blog - Finding the best managed VPS hosting company in 2016

Why server location counts

If your website is all about dating in the United Kingdom but you have tried to save a few pennies by registering your domain and buying your server space in Pakistan this might be a false saving.

The search engines know exactly where your site is hosted and a UK dating service hosted in Pakistan - well that's just odd, perhaps even suspicious. All things being equal the sites hosted within the UK will take priority.

Your site will also be slower to load if all those UK visitors are waiting for a server half way round the globe to send your pages thousands of kilometers and as we'll discusss later, page loading speeds matter.

I'm Tim Hill, a Search Engine Optimisation 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.

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