A client asked for my opinion on domain names as ranking factors. Specifically, she asked if Google pays attention to domain name keywords and the choice of domain name extension (such as .com).
Here was her question, redacted for obvious reasons:
“I have not decided on a name for my practice. I’m wondering if I should register a unique brand name, my name (drjanedoe.com), or a generic but keyword-rich domain name (cityplasticsurgery.com). But before I spend the money to buy a premium domain name, I’m wondering whether there is any benefit or disadvantage to using a .doctor or .clinic name for Google searches, or if it’s preferable to find a .com name (difficult, as you know) or .ca name (Canada). Do you have any advice?”
First, Let’s Define “Ranking Factor”
Understand there are four types of ranking factors:
- Official ranking factors,
- Unofficial ranking factors,
- Unknown ranking factors, and
- Erroneous ranking factors.
Official ranking factors are those Google has publicly stated or confirmed when asked. Unofficial ones are factors that Google has neither confirmed nor denied. And unknown ranking factors are those only Google knows about.
Erroneous factors are those Google has publicly denied. Sometimes vigorously. Some of them may be intentional obfuscation to prevent others from gaming the search engine. But others may be to dispel SEO myths that are based on simple correlation and not causation.
That said, there are probably around 40-50 official ranking factors (and Google has also confirmed that there are multiple variations of each one, too). But there are over 200 unofficial ranking factors. Some are only speculation. However, some SEOs have validated many of them through testing.
Nevertheless, Google has published guidelines, such as their Webmaster Guidelines and the Search Quality Raters Guidelines. And they have filed publicly accessible algorithm patents. While not all patents are active, they give, along with their guidelines, a glimpse into what Google considers important.
All this to say, my answer here is partly Google’s, but it’s largely my opinion.
So caveat lector.
Keywords in Domain Names
Keywords in domain names are indeed official ranking factors. But after multiple algorithm updates, they are not as important as they used to be. They may also be dangerous. In 2012, Google started to penalize exact match domain names (or EMDs) because of their spammy intent.
The risk of penalty depends on exactly that: the intent. If an exact match domain makes sense to the brand, the industry, or the business, such as torontoplasticsurgeon.com or cosmeticsurgeryclinic.com, then it’s fine.
The risk is when the domain name is long-winded with five or more keywords. This is no different than keyword stuffing in content, which is also frowned upon. It’s also when the domain is intentionally misleading (i.e., it’s neither the name of the industry, the business, or the brand).
Case in point: one of my clients once had a long, hyphenated domain name, which she owned for years. It was something like:
Obvious old-school SEO.
Her traffic was lacklustre.
When we decided to register her own name, something like DrJaneDoe.com, and migrated her site to the new domain without any structural modification or content changes whatsoever (i.e., the website stayed the same whilst the domain name alone changed), her traffic tripled in less than a month.
Partial Keyword Matches
One way to reduce any risk of penalty is to use partial keyword matches. A partial match is where the domain contains part of a keyword. It uses one either as a modifier/qualifier or to point out a major benefit or selling point.
For example, a partial domain name keywords match may include:
But in my estimation, the most effective type of partial match is through the use of implication or association. Choosing a word related to a keyword or one that can be associated with a keyword will significantly reduce the risk of penalty and increase the brand’s perception and positioning.
For example, think of Netflix.com for “flicks (movies) on the Internet” or Mashable.com for “mashup of news stories.” There are also implied keywords, such as Match.com (online dating) or Greyhound.com (express bus services).
So having a partial keyword in your domain complies with search engine guidelines while benefiting from both ranking and branding signals.
For example, you can include words such as “clinic” or “doctor” (common abbreviations and initials like “Dr” or “MD” are partial keywords, too). Or you can use an implied keyword such as “Cosmetica” or “Skinsational.” (I made those up, so any similarities to real practices are unintentional.)
Keywords in Domain Suffixes (TLDs)
The answer to this is not as black and white as the domain name. It depends on several factors. I’m going on a bit of tangent, but it will become clear soon.
There are TLDs (top-level domains, such as .com, .net, .org, .edu, and .gov). There are ccTLDs (country-coded TLDs, such as .ca, .us, .eu, etc). The new ones are called gTLDs (generic TLDs) or alternative TLDs, such as .surgery, .clinic, .doctor, .medical, etc. There are over a thousand of these, and more are coming.
Up until recently, TLDs and particularly .com domains (or “dotcoms”) outranked all others. The reason for this is because only TLDs (and ccTLDs) existed. After the introduction of new gTLDs, Google’s algorithms hadn’t caught up yet.
But there’s another reason .com outranked others…
It’s something called “implicit feedback.”
Now, this is a bit of a “black box” over at Google (i.e., it’s unknown, and Google has often sidestepped when asked or even outright denied implicit feedback as a ranking factor, likely for the reasons I mentioned earlier).
What is implicit feedback? I’m simplifying this greatly because I’m not an engineer, but implicit feedback is the data that Google gets from observing, analyzing, and learning from search behaviors.
For example, clickthrough rates in search results provide implicit feedback because they are indicators of relevancy. The more clicks a search result gets, the more relevant the result seems to be. The more relevant a result seems to be, the more often (i.e., the higher) Google will show it in search results.
There are also things like dwell times and pogosticking (also called “long clicks” and “short clicks”). For example, when a user searches Google, visits a search result, decides it doesn’t meet their needs, bounces back to Google, and goes on to the next result, this creates implicit feedback.
The controversial part is not whether Google uses implicit feedback and considers it (because they do), but whether they use it as a ranking factor.
With pogosticking, for example, Google learns that a certain result did not meet the searcher’s needs. Therefore, it goes to reason that Google will downrank it (or, better said, uprank a competitor who may provide a more relevant result).
The reason that ranking factors based on implicit feedback are likely to exist, even though Google denies it, is based on three facts:
- Google is not only the world’s largest search engine. It also holds the world’s largest share of website analytics and Chrome browsers, making it relatively easy for them to curate a lot of implicit feedback.
- Google has published a considerable number of research papers and filed an equally considerable number of patents regarding algorithms that use implicit feedback in various ways.
- And finally, Google’s own engineers have either implied or confirmed that they use it, such as during informal question periods, at seminars, in interviews, and even during their own presentations.
The Feedback-TLD Connection
As mentioned earlier, high clickthrough rates tell Google that the search result has satisfied a user’s search query — and therefore should appear more often.
That’s why the .com TLD was easily outranking everything else for a long time. TLDs are more widely known, so .com gave any brand a credibility boost due to familiarity. Think Facebook.com, Apple.com, Microsoft.com, etc. It is also older, and domain age is an official ranking factor and an indicator of authority.
The result is a snowball effect.
Users clicked on dotcoms more because they have great brand recognition and credibility, increasing their clickthrough rates and, in turn, their rankings through implicit feedback. (Again, this is my opinion only.)
After introducing new gTLDs, Google has updated its algorithms a few times to recognize them. In 2015, Google confirmed that gTLDs don’t affect a site’s search rankings. This means that choosing a .com or .company, for example, won’t matter in terms of SEO. Either one is fine.
But I believe they are affecting them or will affect them indirectly.
Some gTLDs are industry-specific and therefore more credible and meaningful. Like the .com used to do in the early days, these TLDs might influence the audience’s perception of a brand, affecting its clickthrough rate.
Recent studies have confirmed this. For example, .tech, .io, and .ai for startup tech companies have often outranked .com on Google. I’m sure .doctor, .clinic, and .surgery for plastic surgeons will be the same.
There’s growing evidence that gTLDs are proven to favor better clickthroughs, and therefore will boost rankings over time due to implicit feedback.
Some Final Domain Caveats
First, one thing to be careful of is that some gTLDs are known spam houses, such as .top, .party, .work, .xyz, etc. Google tends to disfavor domains in known spam neighborhoods. That said, most industry-specific and professional service gTLDs have a 0% spam score, which means they’re fine to use.
I forgot to mention ccTLDs (country-coded ones). They, too, provide some benefit, mostly with local SEO. If you plan on being local and staying local, and if the location is part of your brand or benefit (e.g., torontotummytucks.ca or londonfaceliftdoctor.co.uk), it may be beneficial.
However, if you plan on expanding or if you attract patients from other locales or countries, you might want to stick with a non-location based TLD/gTLD.
In the end, using a partial keyword domain name or one with an industry-specific gTLD might provide some benefit — if not from an SEO standpoint, it likely will from a branding one. And if implicit feedback does exist as I’m sure it does, chances are you will gain the compounded benefit from both.