The first decision you have to make when starting a new website is what domain name to register. And finding the right one matters, since it’s the real estate you’ll be building the rest of your website on.
In addition to being the main address visitors will know and find your site by, choosing the right domain name plays a role in your website’s search engine optimization (SEO) authority.
If you want people to be able to find your website, SEO matters. To establish a strong SEO basis for your website, the domain name you choose also matters.
What Is a Domain Name?
A domain name is the address people use to navigate to a website when using a web browser. Every time you type a name into Firefox or Chrome that starts with www or http, that’s the website’s domain name.
That may seem simple enough, but you should also understand a few main parts and subsets of domain names:
- Top-level domains (TLD) – A top-level domain is the part of the domain you see at the end of the domain name. The most common one is .com, but you’re probably also familiar with TLDs like .net, .org., and .gov. Many top-level domains communicate something about the website, such as what country it’s based in, if it’s a business website (.biz, .co), a nonprofit (.org), or an educational institution (.edu).
- Root domains – All the pages of your website will have unique URLs building off your domain. The part of the website that stays the same for all of them is your root domain. It’s your unique domain name combined with your TLD. So for HostGator, the root domain is hostgator.com.
- Subdomains – If your website includes several distinct parts, you can create subdomains. These will share the same root domain, but you can make it clear they belong to a specific subset of the website by putting the subdomain name before the root domain. For example, blog.yourdomain.com, or shop.yourdomain.com.
Knowing the main lingo for all this stuff is useful in navigating how to choose the right domain name and organize your website well for SEO.
How Your Domain Affects SEO
To decide where websites should rank for different keywords, search engine algorithms look at a variety of factors to try to understand:
- What a website’s about
- How authoritative it is
The domain name you choose is an opportunity to help with that first part. If your domain name says something about what your website is, it gives you a leg up in convincing Google that the site is a relevant resource on that topic.
Over time, as you work to improve your website’s SEO, all the authority you build will be tied to the domain name. While it’s possible to change your domain name later and use techniques to maintain some of that authority, it’s hard. Choosing the right domain name from day one is preferable.
8 SEO Best Practices for Domains
Choosing a good domain name for SEO starts on the day you register your domain, but it goes beyond that. Here are eight useful SEO domain name tips.
1. If possible, choose a domain that includes an industry keyword.
Search engine algorithms have a complicated process for figuring out what a particular page is about. While no one understands all the details of how it works, we do know that the algorithms pay attention to what words are used on a few main parts of a webpage, and give weight to some parts more than others. The page URL is widely regarded as part of the page that’s given a lot of weight in algorithm calculations.
A website that has its primary keyword right in the domain name can get an SEO boost because of it. But for that reason, a lot of the most obvious keywords to target in your industry will likely be taken—either by your competitors or by domain investors that charge a high price for them.
Also, going this route has some risks. You don’t want the domain name you choose to seem spammy or be confusing to your visitors.
A few notes to consider here:
- If you already have an established brand, prioritizing your brand name when choosing a domain is usually smarter than going for a keyword.
- If you haven’t chosen your brand name yet, consider a brand name that includes a relevant keyword.
- To find a brand and domain name that is still available, add something unique about your brand to the name, like putting your name in front of the keyword, e.g. katesflowerdelivery.com. Or if your brand is local, adding your geographic location, e.g. charlotteflowerdelivery.com.
2. But don’t keyword stuff your domain name.
SEO shortcuts don’t really exist, because every time people start abusing a technique that seems to yield easy results, Google changes the algorithm. In the past, buying a domain with a keyword in it like cheap-flower-delivery.com could work as a shortcut to buying a ranking for that term.
But Google doesn’t want brands to buy rankings; their results are more useful to people when the websites at the top actually earn those spots.
That means while choosing a domain with a keyword in it still has some SEO value, overdoing it can hurt your rankings. Choosing a domain name that makes sense for your brand is more important than registering one that includes a keyword.
Consider if the domain name you’re considering looks legitimate to you. As a consumer, would you assume this was a respectable brand? If it feels at all spammy, move on and figure out an alternative.
3. Choose a strong TLD.
If you can find a good domain name option that’s available as a .com, that’s your best bet. It’s the easiest TLD for consumers to remember and carries a bit more respect than most of the others.
That said, your TLD doesn’t have a direct effect on SEO. If you find an available domain name with another TLD that works better for your brand than choosing a less relevant .com option, don’t discount it. Consider if the TLD is related to what you offer. For example, a tech company could go with .tech or .io, both TLDs that provide information on what the company does.
The one exception for when TLDs do influence rankings is geographic ones. If your company primarily does business in a specific country, choosing the TLD for that country signals to Google where you are, so you’re more likely to show up in the results for people searching in that location.
4. Choose a domain that’s easy to remember.
The golden rule of SEO is that while search engines matter, people matter more.
The best domain name for SEO is one that visitors will be able to easily connect to your business and remember when they want to come back. If your business is named Joe’s Burger Shack and you go for the domain affordable-burgers-chicago.com, your biggest fans will be confused when they go looking for you at joesburgershack.com.
Before you choose a domain name, think about your customers. Will the domain name be intuitive to them? Will they be able to remember it the next time they want to find you online?
5. Keep it short and straightforward.
While long-tail keywords can be useful in some aspects of an SEO strategy, they’re bad news for domain names. The best domain names are short, simple, and straightforward. Sticking with those 3 S’s helps you choose a domain name that’s easy to remember and doesn’t require too much typing.
Customers have a lot going on, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to find you and keep coming back for more. A long, complicated domain name like glassrepairprofessionalsnewyorkcity.com might communicate what you do and get some keywords in there, but it’s unwieldy and tedious.
6. Keep your website at one domain.
All the SEO work you do builds authority for your domain name, which means that if you split your website between multiple domains, you have to work that much harder to earn authority for each of them. To get the best SEO results for the time you put in, focusing them all on one domain name is best.
That includes picking one version of your domain name to stick with between: www.yourdomain.com, http://yourdomain.com, and https://yourdomain.com. Choose one, then set canonical tags on the others, and be consistent with which you use when building links to your website.
Occasionally, there’s a good business reason to create a new domain for your business. For example, if you spin off a new brand that has a different focus and new target audience. But in most cases, your SEO efforts will go further if you stick with one domain.
7. Know when to use subfolders versus subdomains.
A subdomain, as previously described, is when you create a subcategory under your root domain for a distinct part of your website, such as shop.yourdomain.com.
Search engines treat subdomains as a separate website for SEO purposes. As you work to build authority for your website, that can be a problem. If your blog is set up as a subdomain, any backlinks your blog posts earn will strengthen the authority of your blog, but not the rest of your website.
Subfolders are an alternative way to organize your website into parts and one that’s useful for SEO. You can create a subfolder for each of the main categories on your website, and the subfolder becomes a part of the URL for every page included within it.
For example, your blog becomes a subfolder at yourdomain.com/blog. Every new post will become a part of the subfolder, i.e. yourdomain.com/blog/postname, and will still be treated as part of the domain name for SEO purposes. Subfolders are an important part of building an intuitive website architecture that’s good for SEO as well as visitors.
Subdomains can still be valuable in certain use cases. If a section of your website will target a distinct audience, different keywords, or a different geographic area than other parts, a subdomain may be useful from an SEO perspective. And in some cases, a subdomain makes sense for a part of your site that isn’t focused on SEO and/or that requires a different platform to run, like a support forum. That’s the case for HostGator’s support forum (located at https://support.hostgator.com), as one example.
8. Customize all website URLs.
Many of these tips come into play on day one when you’re choosing the domain name for your website. This one is important to apply for every new web page you create moving forward. When you create a new web page, don’t stick with the automatically generated HTML. Take time to create a unique URL that’s relevant to the page.
In each case:
- Use the primary keyword you want the page to rank for.
- Choose a URL that describes what’s on the page.
- Keep it short. The URL isn’t the place to go into detail describing what’s on the page. Stick to a few words that describe the main idea and don’t bother with full sentences.
- Avoid stop words like and, but, and the. They don’t add anything to the meaning, but do increase the length.
Creating a relevant URL for each web page is one of the fastest, easiest steps you can take to improve SEO for the page. If you have a CMS like WordPress, an SEO plugin or extension will make this step easy.
SEO Starts with Your Domain Name
Choosing the right domain name gives you a strong SEO foundation to build your website on. If you haven’t registered a domain name for your website yet, use HostGator’s domain registration tool to find out what’s available and snag the best domain name for your website.
While your domain name is important, it’s just step one to achieving rankings for relevant keywords for your website. Once you’ve landed the domain name of your choice, you’ll want to work on a full SEO strategy to build authority for your website. Every SEO win you have will make the domain you chose stronger in your eyes of the search engines.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.