Google on Ranking Power of Keyword Domains


Google on Ranking Power of Keyword Domains
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Google’s John Mueller settled a long running debate as to whether keywords in the domain name matter. He also provided four insights about choosing domain names and ranking.

History of Keyword versus Branded Domains

A keyword domain is a domain name with keywords in it (example, BuyWidgets.com). A branded domain is a domain name without the keywords in it (example, Amazon.com).

There was a time when Internet users typed the name of a product or service they wanted. This was called Direct Navigation. This earned ad revenues to those who owned those domains and “parked” them. Parking the domain was setting it up so that the domain names showed ads and only ads.

The search engines helped the keyword domain industry by ranking those parked domain names in the search results.  Then in 2011 Google removed parked domains from the search results.  The parked domain industry suffered after Google updated its algorithm to remove parked domains.  More on this in section 3 below.

Google Offers Four Insights on Keyword Domains

In the course of answering a question in a recent Webmaster Hangout, Google’s John Mueller offered four insights in the ranking power of keyword domain names.

Four Insights into Keyword Domains and Ranking

  1. Keywords domains don’t have a time advantage
  2. Keyword domains don’t rank better
  3. Keywords lost ranking influence years ago
  4. Keyword domains ranked the same as branded domains

1. Keyword Domains Don’t Have a Time Advantage

There is a belief that keyword domains are able to rank better faster than branded domains. But according to Google’s John Mueller, this is not the case.

There is a perceived advantage with obtaining keywords in links through the anchor text. This is something that’s been discussed for years. An argument can be made for and against.

Unfortunately, John Mueller’s statement didn’t address this perceived advantage.

Here’s what John Mueller confirmed:

“…it takes time like any other new website. …Obviously there are lots of websites out there that do rank for the keywords in their domain name. But they worked on this maybe for years and years…”

2. Keywords in Domains Don’t Rank Better

John Mueller was quite firm in asserting that keyword domains do not rank better than branded domains.

“…just because keywords are in a domain name doesn’t mean that it’ll automatically rank for those keywords.”

There is so much that goes into ranking, like content, user intent for that content as well as links. All of that likely takes significant precedence toward something like keywords in the domain.

While John Mueller didn’t specifically say keywords in the domain name are not a ranking signal, he did affirm that there is no dramatic benefit from having the keywords in the domain name. And that’s an important insight.

3. Keyword Domains Lost Influence Years Ago

John Mueller asserted that keyword domains lost influence years ago.

Here is what John Mueller stated:

“…just because keywords are in a domain name doesn’t mean that it’ll automatically rank for those keywords. And that’s something that’s been the case for a really, really long time.”

This may be a reference to an algorithm update from 2011 (official Google announcement here). In late 2011 Google updated their algorithm to introduced a classifier to remove parked domains from the search results.

A quote from Google’s algorithm update announcement:

“This is a new algorithm for automatically detecting parked domains. Parked domains are placeholder sites with little unique content for our users and are often filled only with ads. In most cases, we prefer not to show them.”

Nevertheless, the idea that keyword domains were better than brand domains continued in the search industry, even though Google was no longer giving a boost to parked keyword domains.

An argument can be made that there is a minimal signal. But there is nothing to lend support to that theory. It’s been a long time since any search engine has published research that included keywords in domains as any kind of signal.

We’re living in a time when keywords in headings (H1, H2) have diminished ranking weight. Current algorithms no longer give extra weight to title tags. This we know, and it calls in to question the idea that Google continues to give a direct ranking bonus to a keyword in a domain name.

4. Keyword Domains Ranked the Same as Branded Domains

This is another statement that contradicts the idea that keywords in a domain name have a ranking benefit. John Mueller points out that the keywords in a domain are unrelated to their current ranking:

John Mueller’s statement on keywords in domains:

“…it’s kind of normal that they would rank for those keywords and that they happen to have them in their domain name is kind of unrelated to their current ranking.”

He does hedge his statement with the phrase “kind of.” In my opinion, he may be alluding to the fact that the keyword in the domain might influence a searcher to choose that site to click to because of the perception that the site specializes in a topic. So in that sense, the keywords may influence the rankings, especially if users show evidence that they are satisfied with that website.

Unfortunately, John Mueller didn’t elaborate on this point.

Expert Opinion on Choosing a Domain Name

Research the Domain

I asked Jenny Halasz of JLH Marketing on her thoughts. She offered that it was prudent to make sure that whatever domain is chosen, that it’s past history be thoroughly vetted.

“When you’re acquiring a new domain it’s very important to check its history… You don’t want one that spammed Google with bad content or bad links.

Use Archive.org and a backlink analysis tool like Majestic to find historical information. Keyword specific domains seem to have more problems with this.”

SEO Advantage of Keyword Domains

Jeremy L. Knauff of Spartan Media offered this about the SEO advantages of keywords in domains:

“From an SEO perspective, a keyword in a domain has very little direct impact today, but it does play a tremendous role in the anchor text of the links a website earns. In that regard, it can provide an SEO advantage.

Another, and perhaps more important factor, however,is its role in branding. A unique and memorable domain is good, but a unique and memorable domain that also tells people what the website is about is infinitely better.”

Stand Out with Your Domain

Finally, I asked Ted Ives, a Rhode Island search marketer from CoconutHeadphones for his opinion on keyword domains and he offered this interesting feedback.

“Choosing a domain name really has to do with your brand strategy. Do a search for your most important industry term…do you see a bunch of companies that all have the keyword in their domain name?

If so, a non-generic brand name has the opportunity to really stand out among a lot of players that look alike.

If the competition are small brand names and they don’t seem to be doing much SEO, go opposite and go with the generic term. “

Ted Ives’ encouragement to choose a domain name that stands out is similar to what former Googler Matt Cutts recommended back in a webmaster help video in 2011. In the video he used the example of sites about Android all having the word Android in the domain name.

Matt Cutts’ suggestion was that having the keyword in the domain would make it harder to stand out:

“For example, if you have 15 sites about Android and they all have Android, Android, Android, Android, it’s going to be a little hard to remember, to rise above the noise, to rise above the din.

Whereas if you have something that’s a little more brandable, then people are going to remember that. They’re going to be able to come back to it. Even sites like TechCrunch, nothing in there says tech news.”

Takeaway on Domain Names

The consensus seems to be that it’s helpful if a domain name stands out. Also, don’t be swayed by a domain name without first researching it to make sure that it’s not hiding a latent penalty. And finally, that a keyword domain name has to fight just as hard to rank as a branded domain.

Watch the Google Webmaster Hangout here

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