Keyword domain names were once thought of as a golden ticket to top rankings, but the general consensus in the SEO community seems to be that their power has diminished in the wake of Google’s Exact Match Domain update.
I have a long history with keyword domains, having been an early promoter of the marketing value of a good domain name in my previous role as CEO of domain marketplace Sedo.com. So I decided keyword domains would be the perfect way to kick off CanIRank’s new series of original research examining the impact and interplay of various ranking factors. My goal with this series is to use the unique capabilities of CanIRank’s software to provide some hard data on ranking factors that goes beyond the typical “X is correlated with high rankings, but Y is not” analysis which in my opinion is based upon an overly simplistic view of current ranking algorithms.
What, if any, role do keyword domains play in SEO today? Is it still worth spending tens of thousands of dollars for a category-defining domain name if it’s not an automatic ticket the front of the line?
Specifically, we want to examine:
- Are keyword domain names still beneficial?
- How much do they help?
- In what ways do they help?
- What is that help worth, in dollar terms?
To adequately answer these questions, I’ll be introducing a new approach to SEO Ranking Factor analysis which uses CanIRank’s competitive analysis software to place ranking factors within their real-world context rather than examining each factor in isolation as previous studies have done.
In the olden days (which in the SEO industry means only a few years back), all it took was a few pages of content and a decent link or two, and keyword domain names would practically leap to the top of the search engine rankings. Google and Bing loved them alike; not surprisingly SEOs bought up exact-match domains by the truckload to take advantage of their ranking magic.
Then, in 2011 Google’s Matt Cutts began to hint that keyword domains may be working a little too well, and in late 2012 Google announced the Exact Match Domain update specifically targeting low-quality sites built on keyword domain names.
Although hard evidence on the impact of Google’s updates was limited to simple correlation studies and anecdotal reports, the consensus amongst SEO experts swung quickly to the belief that keyword-rich domains, or at least exact-match keyword domains, were no longer a significant benefit to search engine rankings.
This study is an attempt to elucidate the many shades of gray that exist between “yes, these domain names do work,” and “no, these domain names don’t work.”
A NEW APPROACH TO RANKING FACTOR ANALYSIS
Previous studies examining the impact of a single ranking factor generally look at the correlation between high rankings and that only factor. For example, do pages with more links rank higher than pages with fewer links? Do websites with domains matching a keyword rank higher for that keyword?
While correlations are indeed interesting, they imply a linear relationship between individual factors and search engine rankings. An apt metaphor for this world may be rankings of professional sports teams. More is always better! Just add up all your “points” on the various ranking factors and rank according to the final score!
However, modern machine learning like that which powers search engines today is much more complex. Sure, there may be points. But in my opinion they’re more likely to come from a series of intertwining classifiers trying to determine, e.g., what type of site we’re dealing with, how quality the page is, and how authoritative the site is in that topic area, and whether or not the page is spam. Each individual factor is simply another piece to the puzzle. An apt metaphor is a blind man trying to identify an elephant: How large is it? Does it have a tail? Does it have a trunk?
In this more complicated non-linear world, each individual ranking factor only means something when put in context with other factors: more links are better unless they’re all from low-quality sites with the anchor text “cheap payday loans.” Thousands of auto-generated thin content pages are bad unless it’s a shopping keyword, in which case it’s probably exactly what the user is looking for: a major eCommerce retailer.
CanIRank’s unique ability to measure the relative impact of different ranking factors gives us an opportunity to study the impact of domains with exact match keywords in a much more nuanced manner than simple correlation studies.
Using CanIRank’s SEO Competitive Analysis software, I collected data on 200 ranking factors for just over 10,000 URLs ranking in the top 10 Google results for a randomly selected pool of commercially-relevant keywords.
The data gathered by CanIRank’s software mostly falls into one of 7 areas, which we call the Major Ranking Factors (since we’re data geeks and hence not very creative):
- Page Relevancy: relevancy of the particular page to the keyword
- Website Relevancy: relevancy of the entire site to the keyword
- Page External Relevancy: relevancy and strength of links to the specific URL
- Website External Relevancy: relevancy and strength of links to the whole website
- Page Strength: trust and authority of the specific URL
- Website Strength: trust and authority of the entire website
- Social: popularity of the page on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, etc.
Examples of some of the data points we collect are:
- keyword usage in title, body, headings, img alt tags, and other HTML tags
- related term usage in each of the above areas
- content length
- # indexed pages
- relevancy of indexed pages to keyword topic
- relevancy of home page
- relevancy of domain name
- # external and internal links to page and website
- MozRank, MozTrust
- Page Authority and Website Authority
- Facebook shares/ likes/ comments, tweets, +1s
- Others that we’re holding back to protect CanIRank’s secret sauce ;)
We then divided the URLs into those using keyword domains (which we defined as root domains exactly matching the keyword or mostly matching the keyword), and brandable domains (which included everything else, although not all of them are necessarily brand names). For example, the keyword “tahoe lodging” included TahoeLodging.com and TahoeMountainLodging.com as keyword domains, and TripAdvisor.com, Expedia.com, Kayak.com, and others as brandable domains.
KEY FINDINGS – Do Keyword Domains Help?
Using each of these data points, we can put together a somewhat nuanced picture of how keyword domains perform differently than non-keyword domains.
- Keyword domains rank on average 11% higher than brandable domains
- Brandable domains needed an average of 40,000 more links to hit #1, and 35,000 more links to reach the Top 10
- Brandable domains required 69% higher Domain Authority and 22% higher Page Authority to rank in the Top 10
- Keyword domains were able to hit #1 with half as much content, and only using the keyword half as frequently
- Looking at all Ranking Factors, it’s clear that keyword domains rank more easily due to higher Website Relevancy and Website Ext Relevancy scores
Let’s examine each of these in detail…
Keyword domains rank on average 11% higher than brandable domains
This represents the naive approach to answering the question of whether or not keyword domains are still beneficial. We simply looked at the average rank of domains that contain the keyword vs. domains that do not include a keyword and found that keyword domains rank a bit over 1 place higher. Of course, you’re smart enough to know that a result like that doesn’t actually tell us much: maybe all of the websites using keyword domains hired better SEOs or were more aggressively targeting that keyword. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, so to understand whether that higher average rank is attributable to the use of keyword domains or not, we need to dig further into the results to understand how the characteristics of top ranking sites built on keyword domains differ from top ranking sites built on brandable domains.
Brandable domains needed an average of 40,000 more links to hit #1, and 35,000 more links to reach the Top 10
One of the largest differences between high-ranking keyword domains and high-ranking brandable domains is that the keyword domains achieved their rankings with much fewer links than the brandable domains. The average keyword domain in the top ten had tens of thousands of fewer links from other websites. While that may seem extreme, in many ways this result is predictable: the high-ranking brandable domains include mega-sites like Amazon, Wikipedia, eBay, and About.com that rank for everything under the sun, while many keyword domains are smaller websites focused on a particular topic. Note that this pattern was consistent whether we looked at the # of links to the website (~35000 more for brandable domains) or the ranking page (~1900 more for brandable).
Brandable domains needed 69% higher Domain Authority and 22% higher Page Authority to rank in the Top 10
Since most of you know that the raw number of links is a notoriously unreliable metric (50,000 blog comment links does not a high ranking make!), we also looked at Moz’s excellent Domain Authority and Page Authority metrics. Here again, the pattern was consistent: to hit the #1 ranking, a brandable domain needed an 81% higher Website Authority than a keyword domain, and a 69% higher Website Authority to reach the top 10. Stated otherwise, the average Website Authority of keyword domains in the top 10 was 41, while brandable domains had an average Website Authority of 70. For Page Authority, keyword domains in the top 10 averaged 40, while brandable domains averaged 49 (22% higher).
Keyword domains were able to hit #1 with half as much content, and only using the keyword half as frequently
So we know that keyword domains have an easier time with on-page factors, but what about on-page factors like keyword usage and content quality? While these factors are harder to compare quantitatively (higher keyword usage is associated with relevancy, but at the extremes, it’s also associated with spam), it does appear that here too keyword domains have an advantage over their brandable counterparts. Brandable domains in the top 10 had over twice as much text content on their ranking pages, and they used the target keyword and variations nearly twice as often. This is surprising given that keyword domains are almost by definition highly-focused on the keyword topic, and seems to be one of strongest indicators of a relevancy boost attributable to the keyword domain.
Looking at all Ranking Factors, it’s clear that keyword domains rank more easily due to higher Website Relevancy and Website Ext Relevancy scores
So what exactly is going on here? Can we honestly say that keyword domains benefit from an algorithm boost, or are these patterns merely indicative of the diverse nature of websites built upon keyword domains and brandable domains? As with any good scientists, to move beyond mere correlation we need to see if we can find some underlying causes. CanIRank’s Major Ranking Factor scores provide one way to do just that. We see that keyword domains consistently score much higher than brandable domains on factors related to Website Relevancy and Website External Relevancy, about the same on Page Relevancy and Page External Relevancy, and much lower on factors related to Page Strength and Website Strength. Translated into plain English, this says that keyword domains rank higher because they are more likely to be highly focused on the keyword topic, and they’re more liable to have people link to their website using anchor text relevant to the keyword. These positives enable them to rank higher despite generally having many fewer quality links to their ranking page and overall site.
Not a boost, just a different type of website
Despite Google’s EMD update and other changes, keyword domains still do provide significant advantages to SEO campaigns. While a simplistic look at correlations or average rankings implies marginal benefit, a more detailed analysis of underlying ranking factors reveals that keyword rich domains make achieving high rankings easier in a way that is very tangible and understandable to anyone who has even lightly dabbled in SEO: they require fewer links.
However, rather than being a function of some mysterious “boost” that Google can dial up or down at will, it appears that keyword domains attain this benefit through their inherent qualities. Websites built on keyword domains naturally attract more keyword relevant anchor text, one of the oldest but still most influential ranking factors, and something that happens only rarely for brand sites. Also, websites built on keyword domains tend by their nature to be highly focused on the keyword topic, and at least some of this relevancy may be attributable to the domain name. In many ways, small, focused keyword websites are a crucial part of Google search result pages that seem to always feature the same half dozen big brands. They provide necessary domain diversity, and it’s hard to argue that an entire website focused on a topic doesn’t provide better information than a single page of content written by a non-specialist on say, CNN or the New York Times.
How to determine if a keyword domain is right for your SEO campaign
The value of being able to rank with fewer links varies by industry and the nature of your business. CanIRank’s software can show you what it took for existing rankers to earn their top spot, as well as specific insights into the types of links, anchor text, and on-page targeting that’s currently working well for any given keyword. From there, it’s up to you to extrapolate what it would take to close that gap: what is the cost of each new piece of content you produce, and how many links do they generate on average? How effective are your PR campaigns, affiliate programs, brand building, and social media marketing?
Compare these promotional costs to the investment required purchasing a keyword domain name to see which path is right for you. My personal opinion: for new websites, new product areas, or any new topical content that diverges significantly from your established content, using a keyword domain to launch a satellite site provides a fast-track to SEO success, and the ROI is almost always exceptional. (And you can usually transfer those rankings back to the main brand site later through judicious use of 301 redirects or other strategies.)
As Google increasingly cracks down on aggressive link building tactics, it’s also worth considering the risk reduction benefit of being able to rank well with fewer links. Many “old standby” link building tactics such as directories, blog comments, article marketing, blog networks, forum profiles, and to some extent link buying and guest posting, have become less efficient, more expensive, or downright damaging. That trend shows no sign of relenting anytime soon.
Most discussion of keyword domain names centers around exact match domain names. I specifically focused this study on a broader definition of keyword domain names to increase our sample size and because the mechanism by which keyword domain names work their magic doesn’t seem to require an exact match of the keyword. However, there may be additional benefits that accrue to exact match domain names which this study doesn’t begin to capture. It would also be interesting to examine the impact of domain extension (especially in light of new gTLDs), hyphens, and extraneous additions like “online” or “HQ.” (My hypothesis is that the quality of domain does matter since TahoeLodging.com is more likely to attract clicks and links than a less credible domain like Tahoe-Lodging-24.biz.)
As this is intended to be the first post in a series focused on the impact of different ranking factors, I welcome any feedback or suggestions as to how we can make these studies more useful for you in the future. I’m also looking for requests as to which ranking factors you’d like to see examined in more detail.