I’ve been talking to a lot of clients lately about domain names. My last post was about the mechanics of registering and managing domains. But its worth discussing how to choose them as well.

What makes a good domain name for a business?

First and foremost, you need to consider how you want to present your business to the world. How you position your company is very important, and I won’t try and distill decades of marketing work on branding here.

But when you go online, you also have an opportunity to use your domain to help position you from a keyword perspective.

Let me give you an example.

Twelve Tribes Incense WebsiteOur new client Leith has had her business online for years at twelvetribes.net. We are helping her with her new site at twelvetribesincense.com.

Why advise her to change her domain name?

Keyword research via Wordtracker reveals that incense is very popular. Like all popular keywords, the primary word (or phrase) is supported by a wide variety of related words. Here is a quick excerpt of the predicted search volume for incense related keywords:

  • incense (441)
  • incense sticks (225)
  • incense burners (224)
  • colored incense sticks (129)
  • resin incense burners (119)
  • and the list goes on and on, into the long tail

Check keyword popularity using the Free Keyword Suggestion Tool from Wordtracker.

Now you don’t have to have a keyword in a domain to rank well for it. But it sure helps. Even if Leith doesn’t get to page 1 on incense (and she will eventually), using incense in her domain will help her rank on all of the associated phrases in the keyword family (which easily accounts for over 1,000 searches per day). Popular keywords such as incense are like icebergs – you see the popular word at the top, but there is an enormous amount of related activity underneath it.

For Leith, incense is what her business is about. Adding incense into her domain name not only tells her prospective customers more about what she does, it will help her rank for the entire keyword family for the search engines.

I should also point out we identified other keywords that are important for Leith. You don’t have to have every keyword in your domain name. Using twelvetribesincense.com/anotherkeyword/ is still a good basis for ranking on anotherkeyword.

So when we look at an online business, we always consider options for the domain name. You may find a great opportunity to improve your online presence.

Domain names without or with hyphens/dashes

What if a non hyphenated domain name you want is taken, but the hyphenated version is available?

A lot of people advise that a non hyphenated domain name is best. And I agree. Best if you can get it. But a hyphenated name is very good also, if it has important keywords for you.

The reason people recommend non hyphenated domains is mainly because it maximises exposure to type-in traffic. And people can recall it more easily (if they know your name, they may just type it in as a URL to try and find you).

In the case of incense, a lot of people will simply type in incense.com and see what comes up. You can see incense.com has been bought by a domainer, who is relying on type in traffic that will in turn deliver clicks on AdSense ads – this is known as a Made for AdSense site – or MFA). What a waste.

Now making money out of type in traffic is one way of running a business on the web. Personally, I think it is a very low yield way of doing things.

If you are running a proper business, you are more interested in finding qualified traffic from referral sources (other websites) and search engines. In that case, the type-in factor just isn’t that important.

So I see incensesticks.com as being being best, but incense-sticks.com as being a very close second (and no surprise, both have MFA sites on them).

Interestingly, when you look at a domain name purely from a search engine perspective, the hyphenated version could be better (assuming there are only 1 or 2 hyphens):

  • Matt Cutts from Google tells us that Google doesn’t algorithmically penalize for dashes in the url.
  • Google tells us about hypens in domains that using separators is a good practice, but add that “even without punctuation, there’s a good chance we’ll be able to figure out that bigleopard.html is about a “big leopard” and not a “bigle opard.” So Google is saying that from a search perspective big-leopard.com is better than bigleopard.com (but don’t panic, they work hard to get it right when hyphens are not present).

For me, these comments from Google show that if your business stands to gain more from search than type in traffic, then hyphenated is best. Maybe an SEO guru can enlighten me here if I have missed something.

My theory is that many early adopters on the web came to it from a technical background. They will slap up an MFA site on incense.com because they aren’t in the business of incense. And they have written a lot about domain name selection – from their perspective. As more and more ‘real’ businesses come online – that is, people in the incense business – I think the emphasis will swing around to choosing domains that work mainly for referral and search traffic.

What about .com vs .net and other extensions

Stick with .com if you can, although there are a few exceptions to this.

If you want to rank better for searches from your country, use your country specific extension. So in Leith’s case, if her main aim was to market her incense to Australia, she would choose twelvetribesincense.com.au as her primary domain. Note she would still buy twelvetribesincense.com and redirect it to her primary site.

If you can’t get the .com you want, or the hyphenated .com variant, what about .net? If search traffic is very important to you, maybe. But using .net introduces lots of variables. You may have to explain your address more of time (“yeah, that is .net, not .com”), and perhaps people and/or search engines don’t trust them as much. I personally don’t use .net names. Maybe you would purchase them to stop others setting up MFA sites on the back of your mega brand. (Domain registrars love instilling this kind of fear into people).

Summary of my recommendations for choosing domain names

A few recommendations:

  • think about important keywords and whether you should include them in your domain
  • don’t be afraid of hyphenated domains if you are running a proper business
  • stick with .com if you can

Have you received advice about domain names? What has influenced your decision making?