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Choosing an SEO Friendly Domain Name

A good domain name needs to be descriptive and memorable, quick and easy to type, and search engine friendly. So where do you start when trying to choose the right one for your business, organisation or event?

No matter how many domain names a website is accessible through, all website owners should take care that search engines only list them under a single, high quality domain name. This post goes through the logic involved in selecting a good quality domain name for the purposes of organic search performance.

For the purposes of demonstration, let’s imagine a fictional restaurant in Sheffield, UK called “The Sombrero Mexican Bar And Grill” and go through the logic behind choosing a domain name for it. The website wants to attract visitors – but quality is also important, or the visitors won’t convert into bookings.

Starting out:

A good place to start is with the full, unabridged name of your business, event, or whatever your website is for and use that exactly.

Since you can’t have spaces in domain names, the first job is to replace them with hyphens. Search engines will treat these just the same as spaces, and for humans, they are more visible (and more attractive) than underscores as well as being easier to type on a standard keyboard.

With the above taken into consideration, the domain name we’d start out with would look like this: “the-sombrero-mexican-bar-and-grill” (We’ll choose a Top Level Domain/TLD later on).

Less is more:

Although more words generally means that text is more descriptive - the longer or more complicated a domain name is, the less likely people are to be able to remember it exactly (or type it correctly) if that is your only name (or the only one they know you by).

If your domain name is overly long or complicated, this could translate into fewer visitors.

A good way to start shortening a long domain name is to look for non-descriptive words and consider removing them entirely. Words such as “the” and “and” would be good candidates in our example, since such words are so common that search engines often ignore them altogether in a normal search. At this point, every other word seems important, so we’ll keep the rest.

Using our example, this would leave us with “sombrero-mexican-bar-grill” which is still related to our restaurant, and is both keyword rich and shorter than the one we started with.

Tip: You can find lists of common “stop words” all over the web which make good candidates for removal. Here's just one: http://www.webconfs.com/stop-words.php.

Introducing SEO – What are people looking for?

Domain names are important for search engine optimisation - words found in URL’s are amongst the most important to describe to a search engine what a web page is about, so the next step is to consider how people use search to find what they want online.

Existing customers or people who know your business already will expect to find it searching by name, so in our example, we’ll need to keep the word “sombrero” ensuring that people searching specifically for the business will have a greater chance of finding the correct website.

But, you want to attract new customers too, right?

There are likely to be a good amount of people that know what type of thing they’re looking for, without knowing a specific business. These could be valuable new customers if they find your website first and like what they see.

When it comes to search, these people are going to use more general terms that answer a series of ever more specific questions - for the purposes of our example, appropriate questions would be:

  1. What do you want to do? (Visit a restaurant)
  2. What type of food do you want to eat? (Mexican)
  3. Where do you want to eat Mexican food? (Sheffield)

The answers to the above questions describe our restaurant, but they also describe every other Mexican restaurant in the area too – and since it’s very likely that a URL containing some or all of these keywords will rank higher than one that doesn’t, it would be a good strategy to ensure they are used.

Tip: Our example uses a fictional Mexican restaurant, if it also served traditional Spanish food or other cuisines, it may be better to leave out the word ‘Mexican’ from the domain name, and use it in the name of a page, or section of the site later. That way, depending on the users search, they will find the relevant pages from your site about the type of food they want to eat.

Step 1 - Keyword analysis:

You can search for the same thing by using any number of different phrases and keyword combinations. So the next logical step is to work out how people interact with search. In our example - do people really search on the term “Bar and Grill” or is “Restaurant” a more popular search term for the same thing?

To answer that question, you can use something like Google’s keyword tool which is part of their AdWords system, to try out some different terms, these are my results for three common terms in the UK (Ideally, you want to think of as many variations as you can and test them out).

Search TermLocal Monthly Searches
Bar and Grill110,000
Restaurant7,480,000
Takeaway823,000

These results show us that for every person searching “Bar and Grill”, there are approximately 68 people searching “Restaurant” in the UK. This suggests that our domain name would perform much better in search if we substituted “bar and grill” with “restaurant”, even if that isn’t strictly faithful to our business name.

Having done a little keyword analysis, our example domain is now “sombrero-restaurant”, which remains just as descriptive as before, and even shorter and simpler that before.

Tip: Don’t use a domain name that doesn’t represent what you do. If our restaurant doesn’t offer takeaway food, then it should not use the word ‘takeaway’ in the domain name. While a popular keyword may help to attract visitors, they won’t be of a high quality – because they found your site by looking for something you don’t actually provide!

Step 2 – Where are you? And does it matter?

Continuing our example, imagine that a person located in or around Sheffield is looking for a place to get some Mexican food.

Searching online, they are most likely going to look for “The Sombrero Restaurant in Sheffield” (if they know the business) or “A Mexican Restaurant in Sheffield” (If they don’t). As you can see, whether they know you or not - location is important, so it would make good sense to include the locality into our domain name.

If you’re an online business or a brand, or you operate from multiple locations (or don’t rely on customers visiting you at all) then the opposite applies. Location is unimportant and it would make the most sense to exclude it.

The domain name for our example restaurant now looks something like “sombrero-mexican-restaurant-sheffield”. This also differentiates the website in search from any other Mexican restaurants that happen to be called “Sombrero” elsewhere.

Step 3 – Top Level Domain (TLD) selection.

Are you a .co.uk or a .com? If you can, you’ll probably want to register the domain with your country’s local TLD as well as the more ‘international’ .com variants of your chosen name – but you need to decide which is your ‘main’ site, and use the other(s) as aliases so that you don’t incur a duplicate content penalty.

If you’re targeting an international audience, then without doubt a .com is the way to go. Likewise, if you’re local, then using your countries TLD may push you slightly higher in the rankings when people from your own country make a search (but lower in other countries).

If you’re a local business with an international audience (such as a hotel which takes bookings from visitors at home or abroad) then you could reasonably choose between the two on personal preference, or another way to choose would be to consider whether most of your custom is expected from international visitors or local ones.

If you’re serious about protecting your brand, you should try and acquire all of the major TLDs for your domain - .net, .biz, .org, etc. Even if you don’t use them, it can stop confusion between similar names or even malicious ‘cyber-squatting’ later on. Domain names are fairly inexpensive if they’re not registered at all, but can be more costly if you need to buy one that is owned by someone else later (although highly specific domain names are less likely to be bought by anyone else).

The final sanity check

Having come up with a few potential domain names where words have been removed or changed, an important step is to write them down and then look at them to ensure they make sense (and that they don’t appear to mean something else entirely).

Another good exercise is to imagine you were going to search for your own company on Google and think what you would type. It’s helpful to ask colleagues and friends to go through the same process to build up a more detailed picture, the more people you ask - the more valuable the information.

Aliases

You’re not limited to having one domain lead to your website, but you should take care that only one domain name is indexed in search engines. If you are indexed under multiple domain names, you’ll likely incur a ‘duplicate content’ penalty. This is a search engines way of pushing clutter down the listings, allowing good quality, unique content to rise to the top.

Tip: Other, short domain names are great for other forms of marketing. For instance “the-sombrero.com” would be great for word-of-mouth or printed flyers. If you restricted its use to those things, you could also gain a valuable insight into how successful these forms of offline marketing were at driving traffic to your website. Similarly, you may even register a third domain name just to display on the premises – so that you could track that too.

Conclusion

Hopefully by the end of this process, you should have arrived at a list of domain names in preference order – so when it actually comes to registering your domain, you have options just in case the one you really wanted happens to have already been taken.

So to recap how to turn your business or organisation name into a great domain name:

  • Start with your full business / organisation / event name.
  • Remove non-descriptive or “stop words” to shorten it and make it easier to remember.
  • Replace less common keywords with more frequently searched words.
  • Add or remove your geographic area depending on your business type
  • Choose a primary domain / TLD
  • Check with as many people as you can ask. Check for spelling and hidden meaning!
  • Buy some domain names!
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