Should you change your domain strategy?

Keyword-rich domain names or exact match domains (EMD) were hot a few years ago – and some would argue they still are! Back then, before the EMD update (see Google’s EMD Algorithm Update posted on the Moz blog in 2012), having a keyword-rich domain name, especially for highly competitive businesses, sometimes made the difference between ranking on the first search engine results page (SERP) and subsequent pages.

This post explores a few basic domain types to consider if you’re thinking of changing your website architecture, some of which may or may not contain your top keywords.

While EMDs can still be a useful factor today, they are more important for branding purposes and are most effective when combined with other, more important SEO elements. Some of these elements include obtaining backlinks from quality sites and developing fresh, relevant content. Having a site based on a solid content strategy that supports your business goals and focuses on your audience intent, is more important than a keyword-rich domain. With that said, moving to a keyword-rich domain could enhance your organic search results because of search relevance and brand visibility.

Companies that use a subdirectory URL structure with product brands vs. company brands may not be helping their organic search efforts. Their brand name might become a subdirectory that could be several levels deep in the URL hierarchy, and sometimes not even named after the brand. While they still can be crawled, deep pages as such, without much content and which have no backlinks (resulting in very low page rank), could be cause for concern.

Bug Company

I’d like to introduce the hypothetical Bug Company as an example. Their domain name is www.bug.com. Short, sweet, and simple except not many knew who or what Bug does because they built their brand name around their main product—bug widgets. Bug’s widgets generated the most revenue for their company and are now their priority products. They also produced the top keywords that drove the company’s target audience to their website. Bug had always used a subdirectory domain structure on their site. A typical subdirectory URL for their widget web pages would be: www.bug.com/products/widgets/bumblebee-widgets/blue-bumblebee-widgets. Note that after 3 subdirectories (products, widgets, bumblebee-widgets) Bug’s top brand, blue bumblebee widgets, is five levels down in the URL hierarchy; a very long and not very memorable URL.

The widget pages also had very little content on them. Overall, Bug felt they were not helping build their brands nor their page rankings. They had few backlinks, giving them a very low page rank. As a result, Bug saw an opportunity to develop content for their widget pages in order to build more links. Gaining valuable backlinks can be naturally obtained when your content is relevant and helpful enough that quality sites would want to link to it. Lastly, their website had an outdated drop down menu and navigation scheme taking users around 4 or 5 clicks to get to the widget pages.

Planning for a Structural Change

Due to Bug’s success with their widgets, they felt the widget web pages could also be getting a higher volume of web traffic. That, along with their other concerns, pushed them to move forward with a plan for a new domain strategy. Their goal for this major change would be to better build their top brands and increase website traffic. Any boost to their search rankings would be a bonus.

The web team was moving in the direction of EMDs for the product brands because EMDs with a top level domain (TLD) extension (.com) would mean they would have built-in, keyword-rich domain names in the top level instead of the having them in the fourth level as seen in the URL above. They also hoped to benefit from type-in traffic once the change became well known. This is traffic from those remembering short, branded domain names and typing it directly into the browser address bar instead of searching for it.

But Bug realized that if they decided to make this change, they would also have to make other changes such as their website navigation scheme to match the new TLD structure. This added another opportunity –not only would this change make it easier for crawlers to follow and take less time to crawl the most important pages, it will also take visitors less clicks to get to those same pages.

Bug’s search agency reminded them of the importance of combining this change with other SEO efforts and how they shouldn’t change their domain strategy just to try and increase search rankings. As the keyword doesn’t hold the status it once did in SEO, it was important that Bug understand that having it in your domain name is secondary to a good social and content strategy. If they really wanted to go through with it, it should be to assist in building their brand along with their priorities—social media integration, a content strategy and plans for a new mobile site. Their social strategy would help Bug build their brand as they also develop social signals and authorship. And their content strategy would also help to build their brand, gain mentions and high quality links. No matter which domain type Bug would implement, it would be whichever solution best supported their other plans and business goals.

TLDs

Bug continued to review and discuss the pros and cons of moving their product pages to TLDs. Going with a TLD strategy would: keep their URLs as short and memorable as possible, help to build their brand, gain more brand awareness and, potentially, gain better searching rankings. They also planned on creating fresh, relevant content and unique landing pages for each widget within their own domain.

While they liked these benefits, they wanted to explore all options and debated whether to stay with the present subdirectory structure, use exact match TLDs or use subdomains. Generally speaking, there really is no right answer except the most widely used answer when it comes to website and search marketing—it depends. For Bug, they wanted to be sure this decision supported their business goals.

Subdomains

I’ve outlined the implications of staying with the present subdirectory structure above and some of the benefits of a new TLD strategy, now let’s look at another option – subdomains. Subdomains can be used to structurally organize different categories of websites into different sections. Typically, the subdomain is located before the second level domain as in: www.butterflywidgets.bug.com. In this example, butterflywidgets is the subdomain of the second level “bug.” Subdomains can be very useful for some sites as they allow you separate out sections of your site using different URLs while still being attached to the brand domain.
But Bug didn’t really see value in keeping their name in the domain because it didn’t carry much domain authority or brand recognition. Their widgets, on the other hand, have immediate brand recognition and widget pages have decent page rankings. Bug became more focused on launching their new branded TLDs so they could start gaining domain authority as soon as possible. They knew it wouldn’t be quick and easy but the benefits of this move outweighed the cons.

TLDs Wins

After much research and debate around subdomains, subdirectories and TLDS, Bug decided to go with TLDS. To remain consistent across brands, they decided to implement the same for their other big brands including the other top two brands, hornet widgets and butterfly widgets. They ended up with 3 exact match TLDs for their top 3 products: www.butterflywidgets.com, www.bumblebeewidgets.com and www.hornetwidgets.com.

Bug plans to broaden the level of search engine optimization on their websites by focusing on both branded and non-branded keywords on the new sites. They also hope that these changes, combined with the development of new content will help the new TLDs gain better domain authority. Once they complete all digital marketing efforts within this project, Bug expects to gain more search visibility for their top brands, capture more search engine market share and, ultimately, drive more traffic to the newly branded TLD websites.

Ranking Changes and Results

Lastly and most importantly, Bug devoted much time and discussion to transferring as much authority and page rankings as possible over to the new domains. First on their list was to ask their search agency to build a solid 301 redirect strategy in order to direct the old widget pages to the corresponding pages on the new site. Their agency is also helping them with a new linking strategy, conducting a mobile site audit and helping them integrate social media into their website. Even though Bug had to make more changes than they originally planned for, once they made the move and all old pages were redirected to the new pages, they felt like they were on the right track and it was all worth it.

To conclude, for those of you thinking of making a similar move or managing similar projects, be sure to have a solid plan and know what your goals are. Any change to your domain or URL structure that disrupts search engine rankings should not be taken lightly or done without proper planning.

The end result was a smooth and seamless transition for Bug, but that’s not always the case. While they worked on their other tasks, their new TLDs were being indexed and one of them has already appeared in search results when doing a search for “bug widgets.” They are not in position one on the SERPs but are hopeful that their comprehensive plan will eventually get them to their desired position in search engine rankings.

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