What is a Domain Name?
A domain name (also referred as a URL or Uniform Resource Locator) is the unique, readable internet address used to identify a website. It is what visitors see in your address bar when they arrive at your website. For example, in the URL http://www.microsoft.com/index.html, the domain name is microsoft.com.
Choosing the right domain name for your online business is critically important. There’s a lot more to choosing the right domain name than finding something that sounds cool or is related to your business and easy to remember. What you choose will have a significant effect on your Internet traffic and the overall effectiveness of your online campaign. If you choose the wrong domain name, you may be sabotaging your website before you’ve even started trading as an online business.
Types of Domain Names
Domain names consist of two parts. For example, in ”microsoft.com” the “.com” represents what is known as the top level domain (TLD). “Microsoft” represents the second level domain and is the actual domain name. The same name, which can be up to 63 characters long, can be used with different TLDs, such as .biz, .org and .net. There are also country-specific top level domains, such as .co.uk for the UK, .fr for France and .ca for Canada.
If you get a .com, .net .org, etc., Google will allow you to choose the country you wish to target. If you choose a country-specific top level domain like .co.uk, you will have to choose the UK as a primary audience . This will also limit the ability of the site to rank globally.
Domain name holders can set up a website with that address and also use it for their email addresses. You get to decide what is in front of the @-sign in the email address.
The Google Sandbox Effect
It used to be the case that if your domain name is less than two years old, Google’s ranking algorithms will minimize the impact of everything SEO-related that you perform on the site. This was known as the Google sandbox effect (also known as aging delay), and it was a filter created by the Google search quality team to help fight spam. It referred to the situation where a relatively new (less than two years old), but well optimized site is nowhere to be found on Google’s front page. This was so, even with great content and abundant editorial links from authoritative and contextually relevant sites. Furthermore, the same site might be ranking high on other search engines such as Yahoo and Bing.
Although there’s never been any official confirmation from Google as to the existence of a sandbox, it is believed the sandbox was designed to prevent fly-by-night businesses from dominating Google’s top ranking pages.
In effect, the Google Sandbox reduces the impact of any optimization, link building, content marketing and other SEO efforts for relatively new domains. This ultimately affects the visibility of that domain on the Google search engine results page (SERP). In reality, this is what tends to happen in the world of business, for example. People tend to trust a business that has been around for a long time over one that is brand new. It’s really no different for the online world.
Nobody except those within Google know how Google works. Everything is speculation. Some people believe the Google Sandbox still exists, and maybe it still does in some industries. However, we have seen brand new domains rank for competitive terms within their first year. In any case, there are ways around the Sandbox effect even if it does still exist.
There are two key ways to avoid the Google Sandbox effect:
- You can wait until your domain has aged for two or more years; or
- You can purchase an expired, aged domain from an auction site or domain seller directly.
An aged domain is a domain name that has been indexed by Google over two years ago. Google gives preference to older domain names, as it sees them as being more “trusted” than a new domain name. More than just overcoming the sandbox, if the aged domain has been able to establish trust and domain authority, it will save you a lot of resources, since has already been indexed by Google.
It is important to note that an aged domain name is not considered aged based on the date of the initial registration of the domain itself (located in the WHOIS database). It is based on the initial date that Google actually indexed the domain. This means that no matter how long ago you bought the domain name, if it was never actually indexed by Google, it’s not considered an aged domain.
For example, if a domain name was first registered in 2000 but wasn’t first indexed by Google until this year, it means it never became a website and unfortunately, isn’t an aged domain. However, if the domain was registered in 2006 and was first indexed by Google in 2006, then all things being equal you may be the owner of a well-aged domain name.
Types of Domain Names
There are four main types of domain names:
- Exact match domains (EMDs)
- Branded domains.
- Partial-match domains.
- Keyword based domains
Exact Match Domains
Exact match domains (EMDs) are keyword-rich domain names that describe the services you offer and precisely match the keyword phrase you want to rank for. For example, if you offer article writing services, then articlewriter.com or best-article-writer.com would be potential EMDs for your website. For years, webmasters recognized the value of registering EMDs and used them quite effectively as a shortcut to higher rankings. Since the Google algorithm was keyword-driven, EMDs were able to get high rankings pretty quickly even without developing backlinks. Furthermore, a lot of sites were able to use the domain name as the link anchor text, which was highly effective.
Essentially, EMDs exposed a massive loophole that was often exploited by spammers and led to a proliferation of useless, keyword-rich webpages on Google’s front page. To make matters worse, legitimate, high-value websites without EMDs were often outranked by these spammy websites. In September 2012, Google released the EMD algorithm update, which was designed to negate the ranking boost provided by EMDs for low quality websites.
Purpose of the EMD Update
According to Google, the purpose of this update was to devalue “low quality websites” that used only their domain names to rank in the search results. The EMD loophole has now been firmly shut, and even though some industry experts still suggest registering EMDs, it just makes no sense as a long-term SEO tactic because of its traditional association with spammy sites. Knowing how Google works, they will continue to restrict their ability to rank, especially in competitive verticals. Furthermore, EMDs have been trending downwards over time in terms of their ability to rank in the search results, and chances are they will continue to do.
Today, even if you have a high quality site with an abundance of original content, using an EMD is not recommended because they do not confer the same value they did in the past. This is because Google prefers to rank “brands”. Google needs to see users searching for your brand so it understands your importance and popularity.
If you’ve registered your site using an EMD, there’s no way for Google to know whether people are actually searching for your brand or for the search term. So, even if the words you have used for your domain name is frequently searched for, your webpages will not appear at the top of Google search results whenever a user searches for those precise terms. This was not the case before the EMD update.
A Branded domain name is a non-keyword name that has no specific meaning. Examples of Branded domain names are Zyite, Yahoo, Moz, Gizmodo and Amazon. Using a branded domain name is more about creating something memorable that can become an identity in or of itself.
Partial match domain names are branded domain names that also incorporate keywords. Examples include seoqueen.net, writingbees.com, webuyanycar.com, engadget.com and problogger.com.
For SEO and economic reasons, it might make sense to use a keyword-based domain name. Having a keyword in the domain means people can guess what you do from the domain name. Even though keyword based domains appear to have lost some of the influence they once had, Google tends to rank them higher than Branded domains. In fact studies show that keyword domains tend to rank 11% higher than Branded domains.
Studies have also shown that CTR is higher in the SERPs with keyword-based domains than branded domains. Consider the following studies:
- A study published by Memorable Domains discovered that “ads featuring a generic domain name with an exact match to the product (ElectricBicycles.co.uk) performed significantly better than identical ads featuring an alternative generic (YourBikes.co.uk) or non-generic (InAHurry.co.uk) domain.”
- A study titled “How generic domain names impact SEM campaigns” which was based on 34 clicks shows that ads with the display URL DivorceLawyer.com achieved a 298% higher CTR than ads with the display URL VladimirLaw.com. Some have argued that the data is in this study is not enough data to accurately and conclusively measure the performance difference.
Domain Name TLDs
An expired domain is a domain name that has been released to the open market because the registered owner has chosen not to renew it. Expired domains still have links pointing to them and a good name will have built some authority in Google. You can purchase an expiring domain at domain auctions.
There are many sites that list expired or about-to-expire domains that you buy. Network Solutions has custom email alerts where you can put in a keyword and get an email when domains matching your criteria are expiring. If you want a domain that’s at least 9 years old and has a listing in DMOZ, you can check out a site like Domain Tools.
You can also try FreshDrop which allows users to accurately identify profit opportunities in the purchase of expired domain names. Not only do they provide expired domain names available by auction, but they also house domain names on the auction site that have recently expired. Snap Names is also good, as is Drop Day.
Vetting Expired Domains
If you are considering setting up a website for your business, the ideal scenario would be to buy an aged domain and use that as your domain name. However, this is not always possible. If you are in this situation, you can still purchase an aged domain in a similar niche, and then link it with your new domain using a 301 permanent redirect. Your new domain will then inherit around 99% of the aged domain’s PageRank as well as any backlinks associated with the aged domain.
The Wayback Machine
The Wayback Machine houses an archive of the Internet and all of its web pages dating back to 1996. It takes screenshots of the site throughout its history and provides not only an indicator of when it was indexed, but also the type of content it was indexed for. Cross-referencing the domain data will help determine whether or not this is an actual aged domain name that has been indexed in the past, or simply an old domain that sat dormant and never became a website.
It is crucial that you use a domain that is in a similar category or niche as the site you intend to associate with it. E.g. if you will be hosting a site that sells children’s toys, a domain name that was originally indexed to sell beauty products won’t work. Google may penalize the site for the discrepancy, and you may find yourself not ranking on the first page no matter what you do. Although it is possible to repurpose a domain name, this can be a long and expensive process. So, be sure to use the Wayback Machine to ascertain what used to be hosted on an aged domain before you buy it.
If you’re buying a new or expired domain name, it is critically important to find out everything about its prior history before you invest in the domain name. This is one massive mistake made by new online business owners. By the time they approach SEOs for help optimizing their site, their business is already in serious trouble with no chance of ever ranking high on Google. This happens quite a lot.
Unfortunately, domain registrars do not provide any historical information about domain names before you buy. But once you buy the domain, its prior history carries over. This means that if the domain name you buy has already been penalized by Google in the past, the penalties carry over to your brand new site.
For example, if you do a search at GoDaddy for a great business-related domain name, you may find a great sounding domain name that has expired and been released back into the pool of available domain names. However, if you conduct some research into the name, you may find that it has been banned from participating in Google’s AdSense program. This means the business has been penalized by Google for unscrupulous business practices. If you buy that domain name, your online business is already on the backfoot through no fault of your own.
If you register that domain name, not only will you be unable to participate in Google AdSense, your site will never rank on Google, no matter what you do. At the very least, you will have to successfully petition Google by submitting a reconsideration request which typically takes 6 – 8 weeks. And even if your request is successful, the site still will never get a top organic search ranking no matter what you do. As you may already be aware, Google is unforgiving, especially when it comes to penaltized domain names.
Here’s how to research a domain name before investing in it:
If you are lucky enough, you may be able to find an expired domain name with a strong backlink profile. It is critically important to analyse the backlinks to see if the profile is full of spam. You can do this by checking out the Spam Score using Moz’s Open Site Explorer. Spam score is a powerful metric developed by Moz that evaluates the risk of a domain name being penalized by Google. If the previous owner was part of a link farm or network, it will have a high spam score. You can also use a tool like Link Research Tools to run a backlink report on the domain.
Expired domains won’t get indexed in Google until after they have been registered. This means that if the site has been de-indexed from Google for a policy violation, you won’t be able to find out until after you have purchased the domain. This is why it is always risky spending a lot of money on an expired domain. There have been cases where an expired domain has great metrics, only to find out after purchasing the domain that it had been deindexed from Google.
You can check whether a domain is indexed by searching “site:domain.com” in Google. It typically takes around 5-15 days after registering a domain for Google to index it. If a domain you register does not index in google within two weeks of its registration, it means the domain has probably been penalized by Google.
Domain Authority (DA) is one of the most important metrics for checking the health of a particular website and its ability to rank highly in the search engines. It is scored out of 100, and the greater the DA, the more likely you are to rank high on the search engines. As the name suggests, the authority refers to the entire domain and not just a web page. A good expired domain name will have a Domain Authority of at least 10 and above. You can check out the DA of the domain using Open Site Explorer. Page Authority (PA) which is typically checked alongside DA, is usually set back to 1 for all expired domains.
Note however that In some instances, you could even find an expired domain with high domain authority (DA) and page authority (PA) only to find that the domain has been penalized by Google and banned from participation in the ad sense program. This is why you cannot rely only on domain authority alone to determine the value of a domain name.
Citation Flow (CF) is a metric developed by Majestic.com. It is scored out of 100, and is typically generated based on how many links are pointing to your site. A high Citation Flow generally means the domain name has strong link popularity. Note that Citation Flow only looks at the quantity of links to the domain, it doesn’t tell you whether the links are spammy. This is why CF is read in conjunction with Trust Flow which is discussed below.
Trust Flow is one of the most important metrics for checking the ability of a particular website to rank highly in the Google search engine in particular. The number is scored out of 100 and it predicts how trustworthy a particular web page is, based on the trustworthiness of the sites that link to it. Typically, if you have a high Citation Flow but a low Trust Flow, it generally means the domain name has a lot of toxic backlinks that are potentially damaging to the domain’s ability to rank in the search engines.
You may come across a domain name that has been redirected in the past. In this case, the name was changed by the original owner and then redirected to the new site. It then became available because the original owner chose not to renew the domain name. This may have serious repercussions for the domain name due to the way Google and Alexa treat domain name redirects.
If a domain name has been redirected, it will invalidate the domain name’s PageRank and Alexa ranking. There is also a possibility that the PageRank will not recover even after being resubmitted to Google’s index. If the domain has been redirected in the past, you’re better off skipping it. You can check if its ever been redirected by using the Way Back Machine tool.