So you want to build a website. Or maybe you already have a website and you’re looking to expand it or transform it, or give it a better chance of success.
At some point, you’ll need to acquire a domain name for your website—essentially, the string of characters visitors will type into their browser or see in search engine results pages (SERPs). Your domain may initially seem like an arbitrary choice; after all, the content of your site is what should matter. But your domain will actually play a major role in the eventual success of your website.
For starters, your domain will often be responsible for forming a first impression with new users. It will be the first fragment of your brand identity that visitors will encounter, and the most important piece of information for them to remember. If it’s catchy, memorable, unique, and appropriate, it could substantially benefit your business.
Beyond that, your domain has a massive impact on how your site ranks in online searches through Google and other search engines. Choosing a strong, relevant domain name can substantially aid your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy, and in more ways than one.
In this guide (like all our other SEO ultimate guides), you’ll learn how domain names function, how they impact SEO, and most importantly, how to acquire a domain name with SEO—and the future success of your business—in mind.
Let’s start by clarifying some of the terminology related to domains. Domains are basically a system meant to simplify the organization of the internet, with a clear hierarchy of information that can be easily parsed by humans and machines alike.
Within this system, there are multiple distinct domain levels you’ll need to know:
There are also two broad categories of top-level domains:
Because the full URL of a website contains multiple components, and those components can be referred to with different names, the terminology can get confusing.
The full string of characters required to access a webpage is called a URL. The http:// portion of the URL is referred to as the “protocol,” but this isn’t worth much consideration. Most people ignore this component of the URL altogether, and it only affects SEO in one way; if you have an SSL certificate, you’ll be given an “s” at the end of the protocol, and you may earn a slight ranking benefit. SSL certificates are recommended for all sites (and not just for the SEO benefit).
The term “domain” typically refers to your domain name, the custom string of characters that function as your SLD. However, you may also hear references to a “root domain,” which refers to the combination of your domain name (SLD) and top-level domain (TLD). Every page of your website will share the same root domain, though subdomains and URL extensions may vary. No two websites can share the same root domain, but may share a domain name; for example, yourdomainhere.com and yourdomainhere.net may function as different websites.
You’ll also have the option to add various subdomains to your site. These subdomains are variable strings of characters that preside before your SLD, separated by a dot, and they can be used for a variety of purposes. For example, you might have store.yourdomainhere.com to host your online store, or blog.yourdomainhere.com to host your blog. Oftentimes, subdomains are used to distinguish a variant of your main site, like a test version of the site.
If you’re confused, the best way to learn the differences is with a clear example.
Now let’s dig into why domain names, subdomains, and extensions are so important. How do they affect SEO?
The influence of your domain can be separated into direct influences and indirect influences. But to better understand these, you need to know how SEO works on a high level. In case you aren’t familiar, the main goal of SEO is increasing the likelihood that your website (including all the pages associated with it) will rank highly in searches that are relevant for your organization. You can do this by optimizing the relevance your website, which will make sure that Google and other search engines understand the purpose of the site, or optimizing the authority of your website, by making it more trustworthy. Your choice in domain can have an influence on both relevance and authority; this is what we mean by “direct” influence.
The words you include in your domain will bear significant influence on how your domain is understood; it’s one of several context indicators that search engines use to categorize your site. For example, if your domain contains the phrase “electronics-store,” your pages will be more likely to rank for terms related to shopping for electronics. Your choices can also affect the perceived authority and trustworthiness of your site overall; for example, if you have a domain like “freemoneyifyousignupnow.net”, Google may predict that this site is meant as spam or trickery.
Domains also have an indirect effect on improving SEO. Your domain will play a role in the recognizability, memorability, and clickability of your site. Most users will see and evaluate it when browsing through search engine results pages (SERPs). They’ll need to remember or bookmark your domain if they want to visit your site in the future, so catchier, more memorable domains will result in more visits from users in the future. Getting a higher click-through rate and more onsite user engagements will play a secondary role in boosting your search engine visibility, so think of these as added bonuses.
These effects all apply to your subdomains as well, but your domain will always take priority.
Your choice in domain extensions will generally not aid your search rankings, with a few exceptions. For example, having a country-specific extension can obviously help you rank in that specific country, and having a .edu site can help you rank for educationally relevant searches.
There are several effects and several considerations you’ll need to bear in mind when choosing a domain for SEO. We will explore these individually in the following sections.
First, let’s explore the two main ways the wording of your domain can affect your search engine rankings: branding and keyword relevance. It’s hard to include both of these in a single domain, so you’ll likely want to prioritize one over the other.
Google rewards organizations that have a powerful, recognizable brand, and those that use that brand to create their domain. Google itself is a perfect example; the website is Google.com, not searchengine.com or bestsearchengine.com. This is beneficial because it’s memorable, it’s unique, and it encourages people to become familiar with you and revisit you. If you already have an established brand name, getting a domain for that brand name is a practical must; not only will it help you rank higher and be more memorable, it will also stop potential competitors or poachers for using your branded domain for nefarious purposes. If you’re starting a business with a unique brand name, it’s wise to purchase the domain for that name—even if you don’t plan on making that your primary domain.
Branding-related domains have a weakness, however, especially if your brand is not yet established: they give no indication of what your brand is about. For example, you may be very familiar with Uber as a brand by now, but if you were seeing Uber.com for the first time, would you guess that it was an app-based ridesharing service? Both users and search engines would have difficulty making this connection.
You can also optimize your domain name to include one or more keywords that are relevant to your business. These will make the context of your domain clear to both users and search engines. For example, you might grab a domain name like weddingplanningcolumbus.com, which indicates not just what you do but where you’re located. Location-based keywords are often valuable because they help optimize you for local searches, and face less competition than nationally relevant keywords.
There are some ranking perks associated with keyword-based domains, but these are limited; in fact, Google has recently cracked down on low-quality exact match domains. Basically, if your domain is long and stuffed with keywords for the purpose of increasing your rankings, it may actually work against you. As long as you’re using keywords sparingly, with a natural flow, you shouldn’t run into any issues. We’ll cover exact match domains in more detail in a forthcoming section.
So should you use a branded domain or a keyword-focused domain? That depends on several factors, but these simple rules should guide your decision:
Once you choose a domain, you’ll have significant flexibility when adding and choosing subdomains in the future; there’s no need to claim your subdomains early in the process.
It’s commonly thought that older domains are strictly better for SEO purposes. The prevailing thought is that older domains are inherently more trustworthy, since they’ve had more time to develop. All other factors being equal, two otherwise identical sites would differ in ranking based on their different ages, with the older site outranking the newer site.
Of course, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of relatively new domains climbing to the top or relevant SERPs. This would suggest that if domain age is a ranking factor, it’s not an especially significant one.
Fortunately, we can turn to Google’s own Matt Cutts for an answer here. According to Cutts, “to the best of my knowledge, no search engine has ever confirmed that they use length of registration as a factor in scoring.” He goes on to explain that an active site with high-quality content may grow more trustworthy with age, but, “the difference between a domain that’s six months old and one year old is really not that big at all.”
What does this mean to you? It means that investing in a site long-term and keeping it up for many years will naturally make it more authoritative, and help you climb the ranks in search engines. However, just having a domain registered for a long period of time isn’t going to help you; if you buy a domain that’s 10 years old, but has low-quality content, you probably won’t outrank a much younger site with better content. On your list of priorities for choosing a domain for SEO, age should be low in the hierarchy.
There is one byproduct of domain age that can be of tremendous utility to your SEO link building strategy: the acquisition of new backlinks.
In case you aren’t familiar, backlinks are one of the most important factors in your entire SEO campaign. Remember, Google’s ranking algorithm depends on both the relevance and perceived trustworthiness of the content it crawls to determine how to rank those pages. While there are many independent factors that can increase or decrease that perceived trustworthiness, backlinks are one of the greatest.
It’s all a bit complicated to dissect on an article about domains, but the basic gist is this: the more links you have pointing to your domain, and the more credible those links are, the higher your content (sitewide) is going to rank. Each new link you build or earn is going to pass authority to your site, ultimately resulting in an invisible trustworthiness score for your domain—as well as a trustworthiness score for the individual pages on your domain. These are informally known as “domain authority” and “page authority,” respectively. Even the best SEO companies often build their campaigns around the acquisition of backlinks so they can increase their domain authority and get every internal page ranking higher.
Here’s why that matters for your domain selection. Occasionally, you’ll run across a competitive domain that already has a number of high-quality backlinks pointed toward it—in other words, it already has a high domain authority. If you acquire this domain, you’ll get to preserve that domain authority, and start growing further from that foundation. If you acquire the domain and restructure the content on that site, you’ll necessarily shake up your search rankings, but you’ll still preserve most of the benefits of the inbound links that remain pointed to your domain.
In other words, it may be in your best interest to choose a domain for your site that already has some established authority: established links already pointed to it. You can use a tool like Moz’s Link Explorer to determine how many links are currently pointed to a domain, and what its estimated domain authority is. Just understand that high-authority and backlink-rich domains will be more expensive to acquire than others.
Earlier in this article, we touched on the existence and potential benefits of exact match domains (EMDs) for SEO. These could potentially be beneficial for your SEO strategy, but they come with some important caveats.
An exact match domain is a domain that exactly matches a keyword phrase that you’re trying to target. For example, if you’re trying to rank for the phrase, “shoe store Milwaukee,” an EMD would be shoestoremilwaukee.com.
EMDs used to be one of the best ways to climb the organic search results. In the 2000s and early 2010s, these were premium pieces of online real estate that, when coupled with a decent onsite content and backlinking strategy, could all but guarantee your ranking for the keyword phrase of your choice.
However, things are much more complicated today. Google is well aware that business owners were gobbling up these keyword-dense and aesthetically unappealing domain names for the sole purpose of manipulating rank, so they devalued the effects of domain keyword context on search rankings. Since then, Google has also started using latent semantic indexing, an AI-driven process that helps the search engine better “understand” the content of your internal pages, and therefore the context of your site. In other words, Google “knows” your site is a shoe store in Milwaukee, even if your domain doesn’t include any of those keywords.
Run a few searches for generic keywords and you’ll find mixed results; depending on what you search, you may find SERPs that include some EMDs, no EMDs, or nothing but EMDs. Accordingly, an EMD may help you rank higher for a target keyword phrase, but it definitely shouldn’t be the primary focus of your strategy.
How many characters should your domain have when you’re planning for SEO?
This is a somewhat complicated question, but strictly speaking, the number of characters in your domain name (as an isolated variable) has no measurable relationship with how your content will rank in the future. In other words, the number of characters in your domain won’t help or hurt your ranking potential in SEO.
That said, there are some secondary factors to consider. For example, longer domains tend to be more susceptible to keyword stuffing, which is largely considered a black hat practice. Accordingly, shorter domains are less likely to be penalized, and may be more common among top-ranking sites.
Choosing a shorter domain, with fewer characters, is also advantageous to your business in many respects. Shorter domains are much easier to remember, and are easier for users to type. They’re also easier to market, and have more visibility in print. The flip side is that because more concise domains are more desirable (and because there are fewer variations to consider), they also tend to be more expensive and harder to find. Over time, a shorter domain may end up attracting more click-through traffic and more links, resulting in a small, indirect SEO benefit.
To summarize, the number of characters in your domain won’t have a direct impact on your SEO strategy, but try to keep your domain as short as possible.
By now, you probably have a few ideas for what domains you could potentially acquire for your business. So where to you go to purchase one?
If the domain you want is available, you can use any registrar or auction site you find to finalize your purchase and secure ownership of the domain. The biggest name in the registrar business is GoDaddy; with GoDaddy, you can search for a specific domain or series of keywords, and get a full list of potential domains you could buy (with per-year pricing). You can also purchase a bundle that includes multiple variables of your core domain.
If you’re flexible on domain options, or if you’re looking to build a business around the domain (rather than the other way around), an auction site may be a better option. Auction sites allow you to peruse domains publicly listed by their current owners; they’re a great place to find domains for low, enticing prices. Pool and NameJet are two of the most popular options here.
If the specific domain you want is currently held, you’ll need to find the owner of the domain if you wish to make a private offer. When registering for a domain, domain owners are required to provide information like their name, email address, and other contact information—though they usually have the option to make this information public or private. If public, you can use a WhoIs lookup to search for the owner of a specific domain. From there, you can reach out with an offer, or an invitation to discuss the options. If this information isn’t publicly listed, the domain probably won’t be for sale; you may be able to reach the domain owner through the contact page of your chosen website.
When looking for available domains, you may find a range of suitable options—but they may not be at a favorable price point. Rare, memorable, and keyword-dense domains tend to be very valuable, but that sometimes means they’re listed at a price that isn’t worth paying.
So how can you tell what’s “worth it” for a domain?
It’s a complex question, and one that doesn’t have a firm answer. You can, however, get a ballpark for the value and price of your domain by looking at the prices of other domains. At the low end of the spectrum, you can usually find long, ugly, and impractical domains for just a few dollars, but these are rarely worth your while.
At the high end, in 2019, the record for the most expensive domain name was broken by Voice.com, which sold in a cash deal for a staggering $30 million. Note that this is a very short, keyword-dense domain, factoring into its sale price. Other domains with high sale prices include 360.com for $17 million in 2015, Insure.com for $16 million in 2009, and Sex.com for $13 million in 2010.
But even these pale in comparison to the estimated value of even stronger, better-established domains. Though not available for sale, the SEC estimated the value of Cars.com at $872 million.
Obviously, you won’t be paying $872 million for your domain, and it’s unlikely you’ll find a worthwhile domain for less than $20. So what “should” you be paying?
You could start by entering a domain you’re considering into estibot, a free domain appraisal research tool. estibot will use an automated algorithm to study factors like the domain extension, average search volume, domain length, and previous sale prices to estimate how valuable the domain is. You could compare it to real estate websites that estimate the fair price of a house based on its previous sales, neighborhood values, and current condition.
If you’re attempting to choose a domain based on keyword relevance, you could also use Google’s free Keyword Planner tool to estimate the value of those keywords. You’ll get to see not only the search volume for keywords related to your domain, but also how competitive they are—and how much you’ll pay per click when placing an ad.
It’s also important to realize that while some domains do have inherent value, much of the lifetime value of your domain will depend on what you do with the domain; even relatively weak domains can be built into impressively powerful pieces of online real estate. Try to get a domain for less than you think it’s truly worth; if auction prices are climbing beyond your budget, start looking at alternatives. It may be better for you to choose a less-than-perfect domain at an attractive price than a perfect domain at an exorbitant one.
If you’re interested in getting a running start for your SEO campaign, one of your best strategies is acquiring a domain name that already has existing backlinks. Remember, the quality and quantity of backlinks pointing to a domain will have a substantial impact on the ranking potential of every page on that site. In other words, if you purchase a domain with lots of existing links—and therefore a high domain authority—you could easily cut your initial work in half.
Some domains will obviously have established authority; if they’ve been well cared for over the years, with good content and high search rankings, you can bet they’ll have plenty of inbound links. ExpiredDomains.net is a solid resource for this; you’ll be able to search for newly expired and upcoming expired domains using this tool.
You can also perform a backlink audit on any existing domain to learn precisely what its backlink status is.
Regardless of your goals an intentions, it’s important to perform what’s known as a “backlink audit” on your potential acquisition. The idea here is to scout the number and quality of backlinks pointing to your domain, and evaluate its domain authority. A high DA domain with lots of backlinks is going to be inherently more valuable; this is also a good opportunity to check for low-authority and spam links, which could hurt your domain’s potential.
One of the best tools for backlink auditing is Moz’s Link Explorer or Ahrefs, which we mentioned earlier. Enter any URL, and you’ll see a breakdown of that domain’s domain authority, number of links, authority of links, broken links, and the spam score of each inbound link, including secondary links. Be sure to review all these variables independently and factor the existing SEO strength of your chosen domain into your appraisal.
Acquiring domains conventionally, through an auction or a registrar website, is fairly uncontroversial. However, there are some domain acquisition tactics that can be considered “black hat,” and have a questionable ethical basis.
Namely, there’s a strategy known as domain drop catching—also pejoratively known as domain sniping. Domains are registered to a domain owner for a fixed period of time, usually in intervals of years. When the domain is approaching expiration, the domain registrar usually makes several attempts to contact the domain owner, giving them multiple chances to renew. There’s also a legal “Redemption Grace Period (RGP)” in place, which allows domain owners a grace period to reclaim ownership of a domain past its initial expiration—usually this period is somewhere between 30 and 90 days.
Domain drop catching is the process of monitoring domain expirations, and capitalizing on the fresh expiration of a valuable domain. In this process, you can sometimes get a strong domain for a ridiculously low price. Some websites, like Pool, NameJet and DropCatch, allow you specifically to monitor and peruse expired domains.
If the domain is voluntarily allowed to expired and you purchase it legally, there is no legal breach and no real moral or ethical breach. However, some people attempt to practice domain drop catching so they can get a cheap domain, then exploit the original owner by forcing them to pay an egregiously high sum to regain control of the domain. This is certainly unethical, and may qualify as extortion, depending on the tactics you use.
If you choose to survey freshly expired domains, which can be a lucrative strategy, try to keep your ethical standards high, and exercise these tactics with caution.
It’s also important to consider the pay-per-click (PPC) advertising potential of your domain name, as PPC marketing remains one of the best online marketing and advertising strategies available.
In case you aren’t familiar, PPC advertising is the practice of purchasing advertising space on a major online platform (e.g., Google) on a per-click basis. Rather than paying for the number of impressions you get, you’ll only pay for the people who actually click on your ads. With Google Ads, you’ll engage in an auction-style bidding process, so highly competitive keywords cost more per click than keywords that nobody seems to care about. The key to mastering PPC advertising is finding a balance between keywords that are relevant and commonly searched and keywords that are cheap enough to afford.
This is where your domain comes into play. If you’re planning to build a domain around a keyword or phrase, it’s important for you to understand the value of those keywords for advertising purposes. For example, if you’re trying to acquire an EMD like YourCityPizzaRestaurant.com, you’ll want to head to Google’s Keyword Planner and see the expected cost per click (CPC) of keyword phrases like “YourCity Pizza Restaurant” and “YourCity Pizza.” You’ll have a better chance to rank organically for these keyword phrases, but paying for advertising could help you attract even more traffic.
Keep in mind you may also need to engage in PPC advertising defensively. For example, if you have a unique brand name, your competitors could pay for ads that include your brand name in an attempt to outrank you. Let’s say you’re launching a project management app called “QZX.” QZX is a short, unique name that could lend itself to a concise, original domain—so you’re good there. And once you launch and start developing an SEO strategy, you should have no trouble organically ranking for branded keywords like “QZX” itself.
But a rival project management company could pay for advertising related to “QZX” keywords, somewhat usurping your position and forcing you to buy ads for your own brand keywords. In anticipation of this scenario, it’s wise to investigate the CPC of your most important branded keywords as well.
No matter what kind of domain you choose, you’ll need to invest in SEO support if you want your pages to have a chance to rank. Even a domain with the highest possible ranking potential is going to require ongoing support with tactics like:
If you’re interested in SEO services for your new domain and you’re not sure where to start, or if you’ve tried to manage an SEO campaign on your own but you’re struggling, contact us at SEO.co today! We’ll provide you with a free consultation, and an analysis of your current domain. From there, we can provide you all the services you’ll need to make sure your domain ranks for the relevant keywords and phrases.
This post is packed with information about domains, including how your choice in domain can impact your SEO and PPC strategy, how to find a domain to acquire, and what to do with your domain once you have it. If you’re new to the world of SEO or the world of domain acquisition, it’s natural to be intimidated.
That’s why we offer assistance for business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs looking to acquire a domain for their next venture. Talk to one of our consultants today, and learn how we can help you choose (and support) the perfect domain. We offer discreet domain name acquisition services to startups and established brands looking to acquire a portfolio of exact match domains (EMDs) to “own” their market. We have acquired hundreds of such domains by direct negotiation with sellers and monitoring drop & expiration lists. Alternatively, if you are looking to acquire a web-based company with a larger profile, we encourage you to visit MergersandAcquisitions.net
Overall, your choice in domains does have a significant impact on your SEO strategy, but it’s not the only factor that matters. Even the best domain can’t support your SEO progress on its own, and even the worst domain won’t completely sabotage your SEO efforts.
If you can, choose a domain with a unique brand and a powerful keyword combination, keep it concise, and try to gravitate to domains with an existing backlink profile. Be sure to appraise the domain in full before committing your purchase, research its PPC potential, and if possible, find a way to make a compelling offer at less than the true expected value of the asset.
There’s much to consider here, but remember, domains are still a relatively small component of a successful comprehensive SEO campaign. As long as you’ve acquired the best domain possible, a professional suite of our SEO service can give you the support you need to improve your rankings.