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Choosing a domain name that will rank: brand or keywords (or both)?

Gareth By    |    September 10, 2012 Back to Posts

We’ve been having a little debate here at CLD. Do brands or keyword-rich domain names rank best? And the answer that we’ve come up with is: brands should outrank keyword-rich domain names, but sometimes they don’t. In fact, it’s sometimes good to have both.

Let’s make up an example, shall we? We’re going to set up a company that sells sheds, as well as all associated products such as summer houses, plastic sheds, greenhouses, play houses for kids and what the hell, gardening equipment too. 

That’s a lot of stuff that we sell. Now what do we call ourselves?

Option 1: Choose a brand name

Let’s call our shed company “Cartmans”. Yes, it’s a bit of an ego trip, but Mr Wickes set up Wickes, and Mr Jewson set up Jewson, so Mr Cartman can set up Cartmans.

I want people to say “I’ve got a Cartman” instead of “I’ve got a shed”. I want people to say “My Cartman has lots of space” and “I’m thinking of getting two Cartmen”. I’m not too sure about the plural yet, but we’ll work on that later.

The problem with a brand name is that it doesn’t tell Google what you do. Looking at the top 10 results for “buy sheds”, it’s clear that Google’s looking for clues in domain names with Buy Sheds Direct, Garden Buildings Direct and ShedStore dominating the rankings. They have an initial head start when it comes to selling sheds because their ‘brand name’ is based on keywords.

Clearly, having a brand name is going to be hard work because we have to work on the other signals that tell Google what we do. The other sites have an advantage here. So, we’d have to work extra hard on:

  • getting keywords into URL, page title, headers, text, alt text for images
  • getting relevant links from gardening and shed-related sites
  • building internal links from a blog that say “sheds”
  • becoming popular with the shed-building and gardening communities

A brand has to work extra hard to tell Google what they do because it isn’t immediately obvious. With Buy Sheds Direct, you know exactly what you’re going to get. With Cartmans, it could be anything. It could be yoghurt.

However, the advantage in having a brand is twofold. Firstly, you aren’t restricted by your “one-stop-shop” URL name. Cartmans sells sheds, but we also sell summerhouses and gardening equipment. We could later extend into providing products for the civil engineering industry, if we wanted to.

Secondly, by strengthening that brand, we strengthen everything else. A strong brand, such as Wickes or Waltons, can use its brand equity to boost everything across the board. Therefore, if Google notices ‘brand chatter’ around the web, that strong brand supports everything else happening on the site. Someone like Buy Sheds Direct can only really strengthen the sheds aspect, if using the brand to strengthen the whole site, because it is always talking about sheds.

Option 2: Choose a keyword-rich domain name

The advantage of a keyword-rich domain name is that it effectively tells Google “we do what we say we do”. We could call it “Cartman Sheds”, so that we work the word “sheds” into the domain name, or we could just be blunt about it and say “buyshedsonline.com” (I’m sure it’s taken).

For all Google’s talk that it’s giving less weight to keyword domains, it’s just talk. Keyword-rich domains can outrank older, more authoritative domains simply by dint of having keywords that say “this is what we do”. Remember a couple of blog posts ago when I said no links were better than bad links? I’ve got a keyword-rich URL ranking no.2 for its target keyword with no inbound links and next to no content, and it’s just 5 months old. Even I think this is ridiculous.

So, from an SEO viewpoint, it works. But as I said before, it’s limiting and ultimately, potentially self-defeating. What if we want to branch out into summerhouses and garden equipment? Not only may it prove counter-productive to optimise for such terms on a restricted keyword domain, but it may reduce conversion rates because it’s clearly not your speciality.

Would you buy a lawnmower from buyshedsonline.com? Or would you buy a lawnmower from lawnmowersdirect.com?

Alternatively, would you buy a lawnmower from Cartmans.co.uk? I suspect you might, if you liked the brand.

My suspicion is that traffic & conversions would increase with lawnmowersdirect.com. However, I seriously suspect that Cartmans.co.uk would convert even better thanks to the trust that comes with a brand, as opposed to a “made for SEO” domain name.

Option 3: Get all the domain names

OK, we can’t all be Tesco. We can’t launch a brand and pour all of our money into it in the hope that one day, we’ll catch up with everyone. We need to be clever.

So here’s a strategy that helps you build a brand while quickly generating business.

  1. Launch your brand website, and optimise it for all keyword groups, with a sensible navigation and structure.
  2. Launch at least one keyword-rich-domain website, with one single focus, and label it as part of your ‘brand’ network. This helps you build a bit of brand recognition, while getting up the rankings quickly.
  3. Focus more on the brand than the keyword domain – at least 80/20 in favour of the brand. Use social, build up a network, and build that brand.
  4. The brand will eventually catch up with the keyword-rich-domain website.
  5. As you branch out into other keywords, use keyword-rich-domain websites for quick gains and let the brand play catch-up.

So long as Google favours keyword-rich domains, brands will have to work extra hard in order to get the attention they deserve from search engines. But there’s nothing to stop you from using keyword-rich domains in the interim, for specific verticals within your business.

Next – how Google might favour brands

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