Why Google Favors Keyword Rich Domains

You would think search engines are like an “equal opportunity employer.” That everyone has has the same chance to get ranked for certain keywords by taking advantage of on-page and off-page techniques, which include some of the following:

Theoretically speaking, my competition could match my site in each of these categories. For example, if I build a high-quality link, my competition can do the same. If I optimize my title tags, H1 tags, content, and other on-page elements, then my competition can essentially do the same.

In essence, they can match me link-for-link, quality content for quality content, title tag for title tag and everything else I am doing to ensure they rank just as good, if not better than I do.

However, one thing they cannot do is match the domain name of my site. Having a great domain name is an exception, and Google and other search engines place a lot of emphasis on keyword rich domains.

This is where Google and others have shown some biases toward websites. How is it that search engines are biased? Unfortunately, search engines use highly complex algorithms to find and display the results you and I see, and with any computer-run system, you can find a way to manipulate it.

For example, look at the search results for “online universities,” a keyword in a known ultra-competitive industry.

The first three results are for www.onlineuniversities.com followed by a mix of .com and .edu websites. This might look good on the surface, but looking deeper into why these sites are ranking revealed some interesting results. I only looked at .edu sites to get an idea of why they are not ranking in the top spots since it would be natural to think an .edu should show up before a .com.

Onlineuniversities.com has a small amount of Open Site Explorer and Google links compared to the rest of the competition for this term. In addition to having a lot fewer back-links, there is a huge discrepancy between their number of .edu and .gov links compared with the competition.

So how is it that Onlineuniversities.com is out ranking four .edu sites, which are highly relevant to the search term “online universities”?

I attribute a lot of this to the domain name. There are other reasons keyword domains and SEO go hand in hand such as:

  • Credibility – A keyword specific domain looks more trustworthy to search engines and to individuals linking to the site.  If someone has a business selling widgets and their website domain is widgets.com, search engines and individuals have a good idea what the purpose of the site is.
  • Anchor text links – External links to a keyword domain include that specific keyword in the link because that is the company name. This is a great way to get keyword anchor text links from directories like Yahoo, Business.com, and Best of the Web. These directories don’t allow keywords to be used in the title when submitting a listing. They only want the business name however; if the name of your business online is keyword rich there is a good chance you will get listed in these types of directories.
  • User-friendly – Keyword domain names are easier to remember then other domains. From a user perspective, they are more likely to remember widgets.com then reverbnation.com which is actually a site that shows up for the term widgets.

Individuals in the SEO industry would argue that Google is placing less emphasis on keyword rich domains, but I feel like they still place a fair amount of weight on these types of domains. This is a great strategy to incorporate with your SEO efforts and one that creates a core competency for a business. In every niche, you will find keyword rich domains and that is why businesses are looking to use a keyword domain to their advantage.

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  1. says

    I absolutely agree with this. Even if you concede the point that Google and other engines are putting less emphasis on keyword rich domains, the fact is that by having one you will get some natural link benefits that will play into the algorithm, thereby still making it a great idea and a big advantage to have a keyword rich domain.

  2. Dave Lawlor says

    Who in the SEO world would say that keyword domains are being weighted less? It has been broached by Matt Cutts at Pubcon in Vegas and in his twitter stream that they are looking at it, and it may change sooner or later, but your right it is still a very heavily weighted factor at the moment.

  3. William Alvarez says

    I think you have an interesting and somewhat valid point here, since I myself have been in the business of building thematic architecture websites and buying exact match domain names for a long time now for the solely purpose of SEO, but I wouldn’t make a statement like: “domain.com has a small amount of Open Site Explorer and Google links compared to the rest of the competition for this term” and attribute success to the domain name itself because it’s not about quantity, it’s about link diversity and they might have a few potent inbound links that make it up for them in order to rank higher than the rest of competitors.

    Good experiment though.

    • says

      I do SEO in France and I totally agree with the fact that a site that has 5 relevant backlinks like youtube, facebook or a blog with lots of traffic will rank higher than a site with 1 000 “ordinary” links even with a keyword in the domain name. A keyword in a domain name is just one of the SEO techniques amongst so many others.

  4. T.J. says

    The one thing I noticed regarding Google placing less emphasis on keyword rich domains is before you can pretty much launch an exact match domain and hit the first page with no links and barely any content pretty easily/quickly. (two weeks)

    I think the difference now especially on the local level in competitive markets where everyone is doing it now (example Phoenix) you have to build them out with consistent, updated content and need some relevant trustworthy links.

  5. TJ Welsh says

    That is a great point, William. Link diversity is a big factor in rankings and I should have looked at this and made it part of the experiment. It would be difficult to look at every single link for each domain and you wouldn’t be able to find every single link going to a given domain. However, I did look at link diversity as best I could and I imported links for each domain into an excel spreadsheet. I broke down the data and removed duplicate URL’s to get a list of unique, external sites linking to the domains. This is what I found:

    OnlineUniversities.com Unique – 1,149 sites
    Capella.edu – 1,820 sites
    Phoenix.edu – 2,973 sites
    Waldenu.edu – 2,501 sites
    Devry.edu – 2,553 sites

    It would be worth looking into the “potency” of each link as you suggest and find out the types of links each site is receiving. I may have to run additional tests and write a follow up to this post. Great suggestions on how links affect rankings.

  6. says

    It sounds cool about Keyword Rich Domains in Google’s favor. It is my view that before a web site become famous, it must have good domains that make everyone easy to search in the search engine, and also must have excellent domain related keywords.However, without good content and resources, it is impossible to be listed in top 10 of Google search. To my own experience, even I use keywords like my domains and closely-related to it, it is still invisible from the world!

  7. patrick says

    While domain name is still a big factor, I don’t think onlineuniversities would be anywhere near the top without the huge amount of backlinks they’re showing.

  8. TJ Welsh says

    Thanks for the question, Stuart. In keeping with this industry, when I do a search in Google for the term online education the number one ranked site is online-education.net. About four positions lower is the non-hyphenated domain onlineeducation.net.

    When you compare the two domains this is what it looks like:

    •Y Links – 4,800
    •.Edu Links – 20
    •.Gov Links – 3
    •Y Page links – 971
    •OSE Links to Page – 421
    •OSE Links to Domain – 1,099

    •Y Links – 111,000
    •.Edu Links – 63
    •.Gov Links – 3
    •Y Page links – 65,800
    •OSE Links to Page – 687
    •OSE Links to Domain – 1,450

    The Y links in this case are most likely skewed and I didn’t look at each site in depth (including on-page factors) but in my opinion I think Google and Bing/Yahoo treat hyphenated domains similar to exact match domains. Even in the UK I noticed that online-universities.org is ranking on the first page for the term online universities. If I had to pick between the two I would still go with the exact match domain however, I think the search engines favor a single hyphen domain as well. It would be worth running additional tests to see.

  9. Charles says

    Great post. Too many people are missing this very important SEO “secret”. I totally agree with you. But even the SEO “gurus” are only doing it in a small way. I could only find four out of ten that use SEO in their domain name on the first page of google. This means that only 40% of SEO experts are privy to this info.

  10. Wylie says

    Interesting post. I agree that a keyword-rich domain name is great to have – however if you are trying to establish branding (and don’t want a generic domain name, which is probably taken already anyways) why not start a blog and have all the keywords you need with them in your URLs. Seems to be the smartest way to increase keyword linkage nowadays. WordPress links provide a lot of the features you suggested in one package.

    • TJ Welsh says

      Wylie, I understand companies want to build their brand and a domain is good for that but it takes a while to build up a brand name that individuals recognize and trust. You have to use a lot of other marketing methods both on and off line to build your brand if you are starting from scratch. In my experience keywords are great to use with a blog but and they are effective when you are targeting long tail terms. However, when you are going after head terms it is almost impossible to rank that way. I agree WordPress is a great blog to use for SEO purposes.

  11. Bonnie says

    TJ – Agreed – Hard to find great domain names these days – as the one-worders are gone, and the two worders are slim to none. I suspect if you get creative with your marketing strategy…

    Thanks for the Info – And I’ll be Bookmarking Your Blog!

  12. TJ Welsh says

    Savita, I have a few thoughts on this. First, is natural laundry detergent going to be your main product? If it is then your domain is in good position since you are ranking #27 in Google for that term, or at least what I am seeing. Your domain has credibility and is ranking fairly well for this competitive industry so if this is your main product I would say you have a good domain.

    If you are wanting to rank for terms like “natural products” or “green products” it will take a while with your domain since those type of terms are “uber” competitive so you may want to start now. It would take a while with a keyword rich domain but it would definitely help.

    Secondly, if you you want to stick to product specific terms like “natural laundry detergent” or “liquid laundry detergent” I would use your domain authority and build out pages with keywords in the URL i.e. http://www.time2gonatural.com/categories/liquid-laundry-detergent.

    Keyword rich domains are great for highly competitive terms but you have to consider them when building out your brand as well.

    Hopefully that helps and thanks for the question.

  13. Alessandro says

    I wonder if this is still valid after so many months of Panda? I am not so sure anymore that keywords in a domain are still so relevant, but i might be wrong….
    In any case, it makes sense, but who knows what Google decides? Are there any official suggestions from them?

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