Several domain name registrars are now selling names of up to 63 characters long (67 if you include the .com, .net or .org portions), which has sparked a wave of speculation that these longer names pose new opportunities with search engines. I've been flooded with questions on this subject, so here's a look at the issues involved.
In the past, .com, .net and .org domain names were generally limited to 22 characters (26 including the extensions). Now that the limit has been raised, names that were never possible to register are available. From a marketing standpoint, the new names offer some possibly significant value. From a search engine standpoint, the value is negligible.
Let's start with marketing. The advantage of having a domain name based on a generic term is obvious -- it's easy to remember for those thinking of finding a site about that product or service. Sites like cars.com, pets.com, news.com are just some examples of businesses that have been capitalizing on generic terms successfully, from a marketing perspective.
The longer domain names may offer a similar marketing advantage, to some businesses. For instance, "yosemitecampingreservations.com" is now possible. Potentially, someone could register that name, then hope that anyone looking for "Yosemite camping reservations" would run the words together and slap on a .com. Additionally, this company could run marketing campaigns and hope that the name would stick in people's memories.
Now for search engines. Does having yosemitecampingreservations.com mean a guaranteed rise to the top of search engine listings? Absolutely not. Could it help? Perhaps a little -- and only a little, in my opinion. I have looked at numerous cases where people are sure that having the terms in their domain names is what has improved their rankings. In all of these cases, I've found that there are plenty of other factors that are also coming into play. Nothing has convinced me that the URL text is a secret weapon, and you see plenty of examples of sites that continue to rank well without having keywords in their domain names.
I'm not trying to rain on anyone's parade but rather put expectations in perspective. It probably won't hurt to register some long domains that contain your keywords in them; it even might help a little, but don't expect miracles from it.
For further information, I put the question out to some of the crawler-based services, and here are the responses I got just before the holidays:
"Keywords in the domain name do not help much in ranking. We look at half a dozen factors in ranking. The words on the page, their frequency and position on the page, are still among the most important factors," said Don Dodge, AltaVista's Director of Engineering.
Inktomi said that it tries to list a site first in its results if the domain name matches the query and if the term is unique. For instance, look for Quokka, and it's likely Quokka.com will be first in Inktomi's results, as it is a unique word. But search for "sports," which is more generic, and you'll find that being "sports.com" is not particularly helpful.
"When the search term or the domain name is pretty generic, then the URL name becomes less important and is only a minor factor that influences the ranking of results," said Andrew Littlefield, Inktomi's Director of Search.
As for Go, "At this time we do not appreciably upweight matches on URL paths --- so having a very explicit domain will not help a site much," said Jan Pedersen, Go's Director of Search.
Still thinking of registering a new, long domain name? Then here's some practical advice, Q&A style:
Question: Do hyphens in the name help, such as yosemite-camping-reservations.com vs. yosemitecampingreservations.com?
Answer: Potentially, using the hyphens would be better, because they should break the domain name up into discreet words. Without them, you just have one long word. However, I would never register any hyphenated domain name without also having the single word one. It leaves you too vulnerable from a marketing perspective. You don't want a competitor obtaining the single word version and capitalizing on any brand identity you build with the hyphenated version.
Question: How much repetition of a term in a domain name is too much? For instance, would "toys-toys-toys-toys-toys-toys-toys.com" be rejected or penalized for spamming?
Answer: That's an actual question I've received, and the answer is unknown. To be honest, I don't even think the major search engines have considered this as an issue, since the whole concept is relatively new. In general, URL text isn't that important anyway, so I don't think you have to be concerned that there are any particular spam filters you'll fall into by having names like that.
Question: Can search engines crawl sites with long domain names?
Answer: There's no indication they'll have any problems. As long you can reach a site with your browser, a search engine should be able to do the same. Both AltaVista and Inktomi explicitly said they'll have no problems.
Some last issues to keep in mind:
While URL text isn't that big a deal, link popularity is. All major crawler-based search engines are taking it into account in a significant way. For those who own multiple domain names, this means you should chose one of them as the main domain that you'll be promoting online. Use this domain, and only this domain, for all your online publicity and as your "public" address. That will help build the popularity of that domain.
Any other domains you've registered should be kept "private." Let them resolve back to your main web site, so that you can capture any accidental traffic, such as people guessing at the domain name. But if you also promote these other domain names in a big way, you'll end up diluting the reputation that your primary domain can build.
This is true even to the point of deciding whether to promote your site with a www prefix or not. Many web sites can be reached both ways. If your site is like this, pick one format (either one is fine), and stick with it as your primary domain.
There are other issues that come into play when you have multiple domain names, so let's look at a fictional example. Congratulations, you now own all these domain names:
Assume that you've had the first domain for ages -- in fact, your site is called YosemiteCamping.com. This is the domain you submitted to Yahoo way back in the 90s (wow -- we can say that now!), and it's the main domain you've been promoting when doing link building. This is the domain you want to continue promoting.
Assume the next two domains you registered last year. You did this thinking people might type them into their browsers, guessing that there might be sites at these addresses, just as people will guess that The Gap is at gap.com. Fine -- resolve these names back to your web site. This lets you tap into that "accidental" traffic I mentioned. But don't link build using these domains, as that can dilute the value of your primary domain. Keep them "private."
Also, don't actively submit these domains to crawler-based search engines, in hopes of making them think that your single site is actually three different sites. Likewise, don't submit these domains to human-powered search engines, in hopes of tricking them into giving you multiple listings. Both actions could cause you to be considered a spammer.
Now let's assume the last five domain names were all just registered -- you grabbed the new long domain and all the hyphenated versions thinking these would help with search engines. But if you actively submit them to the search engines, you could be considered a spammer, right? Right. So here are your hard choices....
1) Submit some or all of them anyway to crawler-based services, and hope that you either don't get caught, that a competitor doesn't complain about you, or that if someone does complain, the search engines takes no action.
2) Create new web sites for some or all of the domains, then submit these new sites to the crawler-based services. You'll almost certainly see a traffic boost, though not because you have keyword-based domain names. Instead, it will be because by running multiple web sites, you'll have multiple root pages, which tend to be ranked more highly by search engines. You will also have taken a much larger step toward being labeled a spammer, assuming you are detected.
3) Don't actively submit the domain names, and just let them resolve to your site to capture accidental traffic.
Now even if you are absolutely conservative and never submit your "private" names as described in option 3, you may find that the crawler-based search engines will index you under them anyway. That because some scan for new names as part of their index building process. Also, if anyone submits your site using one of your alternative names, the search engines then becomes aware of it under that name. That means you could be accidentally spamming the search engines, even though you are only intending to legitimately have multiple domains to tap into accidental browser-based traffic.
Don't be too worried about this. If you haven't been actively submitting using the other domains, you probably won't have any problems. You should only take action if you suddenly discover your traffic from a particular search engine suddenly stops for no apparent reason. If resubmitting doesn't correct the situation, then get in contact with the search engine and ask if there's a problem with your site. If you've been placed on some type of blacklist, you should be told -- and you should be removed once you explain that you did not intend for the other domain names to be registered.
By the way, multiple domain names are a big problem for the crawler-based services -- they need to come up with better ways of ensuring sites aren't accidentally spamming them. And with this sudden explosion of new domain names being promoted as search engine secret weapons, it's likely they'll be taking a closer look at the issue. It's another reason not to bank too much on a keyword-rich domain name somehow propelling you to the top of the results.
ABCs and URLs
More information about the issue of keywords in URLs. It also discusses how keywords in domain names can have an impact in increasing traffic from within web browsers.
Registrars race to profit from longer domain names
News.com, Dec. 20, 1999
A look at the hype over long domain names, from a marketing perspective.
ICANN List of Accredited and Accreditation-Qualified Registrars
A list of all official registrars that can register domain names, though not all can yet issue the longer ones. And ICANN really deserves a ding for failing to post any information about the longer domain names on its site. This was a huge change, and as the body overseeing the domain name process, it failed and is still failing to keep the Internet community properly informed.
An accredited registrar that can handle long domain name requests -- no particular recommendation, just one that I know of offhand.
Yes, you can also register long domain names with the granddaddy of registrars -- though unbelievably, it took the company nearly a month to catch up with its competitors in offering this ability.
Quickly discover if a domain name is available, along with whether a trademark for the term has been registered, discover related words, and more. A great tool. It's not yet long domain name capable, however.
A great resource for all things domain. Helpful links, news and a wizard to find domain names.
What You Must Know About Long Domain Names
ActiveMarketplace, Dec. 1999
Want the hype? Here's a nice recap of various people saying that you should register long domain names to benefit with search engines.
Prank or profit? Web name auctioned off for $10 mln
Reuters, Jan. 3, 2000
Year2000.com may have been sold for $10 million -- now that's hype, if it pans out.