The following is an excerpt (with some recent modifications and editorial comments) from our book, WordPress Search Engine Optimization. You can buy the book at Amazon.
SEO Master Class: Choosing a Keyword-Rich Domain Name
Almost all websites will rely on primary keywords on core pages like the front page. If your keyword research teaches you that one phrase or a very small group of related phrases represents your high-volume, high-relevance primary keywords, then you’ll want to consider using those keyphrases in a keyword-rich domain name. For some, this won’t be possible or desirable: perhaps the domain name has already been chosen, or the business’ marketing strategy revolves principally around a customized brand name. But if you have the opportunity to choose a keyword-rich domain name, you’ll benefit from a little extra power in your ranking efforts down the road. You may have noticed that often a competitive search market is populated with websites that have keywords in their domain name. This is no accident: key terms in the domain name is a ranking factor and experienced webmasters know it.
Whatever you do, choose wisely; if you ever need to change your domain name, it’ll take a lot of work and you’ll loose both incoming links and existing customers.
SEO professionals know that you don’t always have—and won’t always need—every SEO element (domain age, keyword-rich domain name, expert title tags, thousands of inbound links, etc.) to rank well. When you consider all the elements together that make a site rank well, you want to make sure you have 80% of the elements present—but don’t fret if a few elements are out of your control.
Domain names are certainly an element that search engines consider as a ranking factor. Remember a search engine’s core purpose: to deliver relevant search results to a user entering a query. Certainly a domain name that includes a few of the searcher’s query terms would tend to be relevant for that query. The weight afforded by search engines to keywords in the domain names is moderate. In competitive markets, a keyword-rich domain name can provide some extra push to pass tough competitors. This can be frustrating in a market where every conceivable variant of a domain name has been snatched up.
Also keep in mind that keyword prominence applies to keywords in domain names. This means that the first words in a domain name are afforded greater weight by the search engines than the last words in a domain name. You will also want to mirror the word order of popular search phrases whenever possible and keep your important terms first in the domain name.
To craft a domain name, begin with your primary keywords. We’ll use some real keyword data and search volume surrounding the keyphrase “Denver homes” as an example.
|Keyword||Monthly Search Volume|
|Denver homes for sale||1000|
|Denver homes for rent||280|
|new homes Denver||280|
The preceding table demonstrates a few important points:
- “Denver” is the first word in both of the highest volume key phrases.
- “Denver” appears in all four of the keyword variations.
- “Homes” appears in all four of the keyword variations.
In this example, the terms “new” and “for rent” aren’t the valuable terms—unless of course your website is concerned with rental homes and apartments in Denver, in which case the “Denver homes for rent” keyphrase is the only relevant one on which to base your domain name. With “Denver” in the first position for the majority of searches, you will want to maintain that word order.
You should also consider keyword overlap in crafting domain names. Keyword overlap exists when one key phrase or keyword is incorporated either partially or fully within another—and you can use it to your benefit. In our example, “Denver homes” has full overlap with “Denver homes for sale.” When you see overlap like that with robust search volume for both phrases, the longer key phrase becomes even more attractive as a primary keyword for your domain name. “New homes Denver” has only a partial overlap, and even that’s a stretch because the word order is reversed.
And so, in our example, the path is clear: “Denver homes for sale” is a highly desirable high-volume phrase to use as the basis for a domain name. But what to do if “denverhomesforsale.com” is already taken? You have two options: buy an existing or dropped domain, play with hyphens, or create a clever variation with extra words.
Buying/Acquiring Domain Names
You can always buy a domain name from its owner or wait for an existing domain to expire (so-called “dropped” domains). For dropped domains, there are a host of online services that, for a fee, will help you navigate the increasingly complex world of expired domains. This approach will yield some some inevitable frustrations: the system is dominated by experts that have mastered its subtleties. As a newcomer, you’ll likely have to endure a learning curve. Also, an owner of an expired domain is entitled to a redemption period during which you’ll have to wait if you want to snatch up a choice domain. For most SEO pros, the extra time and risk isn’t worth it—especially when you can overcome a less-than-perfect domain name with sound on-page optimization and some extra linking power.
You can also buy a domain in the aftermarket from an existing domain owner. Dangers to watch our for with this approach are that some domain owners make it impossible to be found, and when you do find them, they have a completely deluded sense of the domain’s value. Services like sedo.com and domainbrokers.com maintain ostensibly active listings of domains for sale. Domain registrars like godaddy.com offer domain “buying services” where you select a desired domain name and they attempt to secure it for you.
In the domain resale market, asking prices for domains are typically astronomical. Overall, the domain resale market is riddled with complexities, dead ends, and punitive pricing. If you do undertake to purchase a domain, either by resale or following expiration, be prepared for a hunt. Smart SEO professionals don’t overpay for domains, and they certainly don’t endure unreasonable delays to launch their next project.
Hyphens and Extra Characters in Domain Names
It’s true: all the easy domain names are taken. But you still have an opportunity to fashion a keyword-rich domain name with a little creativity. All domain names must follow these technical rules:
- Domains can include letters (x, y, z).
- Domains can include numbers (1, 2, 3).
- Domains can include dashes/hyphens, and can be repeated in sequence (-, –, —).
- Domains cannot include spaces.
- Capital letters are ignored.
- Domains can’t begin or end with a dash.
Hyphens present a good opportunity. In our example, we might consider checking for the availability of denver-homes-for-sale.com. This domain keeps the keywords in order, maintains keyword prominence, and the hyphens have two benefits: they certainly make the domain easier for humans to read and can help search engines distinguish the words (i.e., “kitchens pot,” vs. “kitchen spot”). The drawback of hyphens—and it is worth consideration—is that hyphenated domains are awkward and unmemorable and can appear trashy. Visitors are unlikely to remember your specific combination of words and hyphens. It can also be inconvenient to express your email address repeatedly as “Peter at Denver homes for sale , dot com, with hyphens between all four words.” That said, in a pure search environment, where you are going solely for keyword-based traffic, you can worry less about memorability. You’ll be getting your visitors solely from search and not requiring repeat visitors.
Hyphenated domains have a fairly-deserved reputation as being a bit trashy; many link farms and thin content sites employ hyphens in their domain names.
A helpful variant of this technique is to simply apply a suffix to the domain, such as denverhomesforsalenow.com or denverhomesforsale303.com (303 is an area code in Denver). Get creative: think of a term that adds to your domain. The terms “express” and “pros” have positive connotations. “Express” suggests speedy, high-value service. “Pros” suggests someone licensed with experience. Find an appropriate suffix for your domain and you will have a keyword-rich domain without the hassle and expense of purchasing in the domain aftermarket.
As a final word on domains, make sure you use a reputable domain registrar. Some disreputable registrars may make it difficult for you to transfer you domain away later.
Don’t park your domains, put up content! Domain registrars like GoDaddy offer domain parking “service.” This isn’t a service at all—it’s a way for GoDaddy to squeeze a few pennies in pay-per-click ads out of your domain. The better approach is to put up even just a few paragraphs on your domain just to get the search engines indexing the page and building up some site age. Parked domains don’t earn site age.