Domains and URLs
Your website’s address or ‘URL’ can have a significant impact on its success, both from ranking and branding perspectives.
Addressing the ranking side of things first, before Google’s 2012 EMD update it was ridiculously easy to rank websites using “Exact Match Domains” or website addresses that exactly matched what searchers were looking for.
For example, If you wanted to get to the top of Google for “flower shop nottingham” you could just set up www.flowershopnottingham.com and wait for the money to roll in. I’m not joking. We could rank sites within a day or two based purely on the domain in some cases, which meant we didn’t have to worry about troublesome things like content and links.
Like all loopholes, this one was closed around the time of peak effectiveness. Having said that, many of the sites that ranked during this period are still enjoying top positions today, as the usage metrics are good and Google’s algorithm has seen no reason to drop their rankings, despite EMDs no longer providing a benefit.
However, even without the EMD benefit, it can often make sense to use a more descriptive domain for your site. If a fictional accounting firm called E Smith & Son, based in Bury, has the choice between www.accountantsbury.com and www.esmithandson.com, the more instantly descriptive domain name would be the first choice. If a Google searcher types “accountants Bury”, what is the keyword the searcher has in their heads as they look through the results for someone relevant? They’re going to see a website address which exactly matches the keywords they’re looking for and the website will clearly be relevant.
Key EMD Myths
Many businesses have, at some point, bought up large numbers of Exact Match Domains related to their industry. One of their first questions is; “is there any benefit to pointing all of these domains at our main website?” The answer is no. The only way that these EMDs would be of use is if you were to build up separate, fully functional websites for each of them with unique, targeted content, thereby giving the site a high relevance for that phrase and then marketing each individual site to build its authority. Great, but in the time it would take to do that, you could have turned your main website into an unstoppable mega beast by directing all resources at it instead. Simply redirecting lots of new domains to your main site gives no SEO benefit.
The second myth is that using an EMD actually harms your ranking. People talk of Google’s EMD algorithm update as a ‘penalty’ in the same way that other Google updates focused on links or website quality have penalised sites. Actually, the EMD update removed some of the advantage rather than installing a disadvantage. The perception of a ‘penalty’ only exists because sites that once enjoyed a significant benefit had this removed and they might have noticed a subsequent ranking drop.
Differences between TLDs
A common question is about the difference between different Top Level Domains (TLDs), for example, .com, .co.uk, .org and .ninja. Should you go for a .com or a .co.uk? If they’re taken, what about a .io?
As a rule, Google treats all TLDs equally. In other words, a .com won’t get you a ranking benefit over a .biz, despite a lot of spam/trash sites using .biz and other non-traditional TLDs. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, even uses a .xyz domain itself.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should use a fancy TLD because the .com and .co.uk are taken. Keep in mind that the general public is extremely unfamiliar with non-traditional TLDs, so could struggle to find or remember your URL. There’s also a key perception difference between .com and something like .biz, which gives people the impression that it’s second rate or that the .com has been taken. In general, go for the domain name that gives you the biggest perceived authority in your space. If you’re trying to choose between the .com domain and your local country domain, the choice should be purely about what your audience is most likely to prefer. There is, to my knowledge, no clear evidence that says local TLDs outperform .com. For what it’s worth, I’d personally always choose the .com when it’s available.
Hyphens and Separators
As a rule, avoid the use of hyphens in your domain. As well as making them different to remember and tell people, they can be seen as a spam indicator.
Hyphens in page URLs (e.g. www.ninjadresses.com/long-dresses/long-red-dresses) are fine and preferable to underscores. This is due to the way Google sees hyphens and underscores in URLs. Whilst Google recognises a hyphen as a word separator, it does not with underscores. So, long-dresses would be seen by Google as “long dresses” but long_dresses would be seen as “longdresses”.
While we haven’t seen any conclusive proof of a relationship between domain length and SEO friendliness, choosing a domain that is less than 14-16 characters long makes a lot of sense. Firstly, it’s easier to remember and type correctly, resulting in less lost traffic as a result of misspelling. Secondly, long domains tend to cause problems in Google Ads because they can be too long to fit in the Display URL section of an ad.
The age of your domain can have an effect on your ranking, although Google’s ex spam-fighting super Ninja Matt Cutts has publicly declared that the effect is minimal.
An older domain signals to Google that the website has been established for longer, so is therefore more likely to be a reputable business and less likely to use short term spammy tactics.
Secondly, websites tend to pick up links as they age, which can give older domains more authority than a brand new domain.
One myth is that the length of domain registration has an effect on ranking, i.e. if you pay for a five year registration when you buy your domain, your site will rank better than if you just pay for one year. The reasoning is that if you register your domain for the next five years, you must be planning to keep and promote the website for a long time and therefore be less likely to be a ‘churn and burn’ spammer, right?
While this makes logical sense, Google has confirmed this has no impact on ranking.
Domain names are not case sensitive, e.g. ExposureNinja.com is identical to exposureninja.com. Even so, we recommend you keep all domain names lower case. Most internet users don’t have this level of knowledge about how domains work and are used to seeing all lower case.
Using keywords in your URLs does have an SEO impact in the URLs of your pages. Imagine that you are a search engine trying to choose between these two pages to rank for “standard lamp”:
• Page 1: www.bobslighting.com/d/1URvQqfaedz
• Page 2: www.bobslighting.com/lamps/standard-lamps
Which page appears more relevant for the phrase “standard lamp”? No contest, right?
Here’s how that URL works:
We’ll cover the folder part in the next chapter when we look at how to structure a top ranking website but the page URL is the bit we are focusing on here (“standard-lamps”). The page URL should be short, descriptive and can use hyphens to separate words (it’s rare that people need to remember specific page URLs so you’re okay to use hyphens here).
How you set up your page URLs will depend on the website platform that you’re using. Inside WordPress, for example, the first thing you need to do is check that your Permalinks are set to Post-Name:
You’ll then be able to set each page’s URL while you’re editing that page:
Once people realise that keywords included in their page URLs might help them improve their ranking, the tendency is to go all out and stuff every keyword they can possibly think of into their page URL:
This is not for you. You’re better than that and ‘keyword stuffing’ isn’t going to help you. It would more likely reduce the number of clicks the site gets from the search, which could actually harm your ranking. No-one knows the exact measure Google uses to detect keyword stuffing in URLs so, in general, do what the highest quality websites do and use simple, short, descriptive URLs.
Unlike domains, page URLs ARE case sensitive so exposureninja.com/services and exposureninja.com/Services would be two different pages. Using upper case characters can confuse your users and result in errors on your site if, for example, a user types in the wrong URL by not including the upper case character, or if you accidentally type the URL as entirely lower case in a link. Either of these will generate a 404 (page not found) error on your site, which is bad for user experience and can result in the user leaving your site and going elsewhere.