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Domain Names

On the surface a domain name looks like a very simple concept. It’s basically just your address in the universe that is the Internet. It’s the name you give people so they know how to go directly to your website without the need for using a search engine like Google.

But, if you do want people to find you on Google, you need to do a little planning before launching your new site. Depending on your goals,  your budget, and your experience, you have some choices to make.

In this post we’re going to take a look at the different options you have regarding domain names such as:

  • the difference between a top level domain and a subdomain
  • exact match domains, partial match domain, and branded domains
  • why you sometimes see a www and sometimes you don’t
  • domain suffixes like .com.net.xyz, and even .ninja
  • what the difference is between HTTP and HTTPS
  • how and where to buy a domain name

Top Level Domain vs. Subdomain

A domain name is the name you see in the address bar of your browser instead of seeing a bunch of numbers, known as your IP address. Domain names make it much easier for people to find your website. Instead of saying, “Find me online at 123.456.789.123” you can say, “Check me out at TimothyBackes.com.”

What is a top level domain?

Most websites you visit probably have what is often considered to be a top level domain, or a TLD.

According to ICANN, or the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a TLD is the is last string of characters you see in a domain after the final dot (.), meaning that the TLD for this website is com and the TLD for Stanford University who uses https://www.stanford.edu as their domain name is edu.

Originally there were only a hand full of these, like:

  • .com
  • .net
  • .org
  • .edu
  • .gov
  • .mil
  • .int

Of those seven, only comnet, and org were open to the public for registration. Now however, there are hundreds available.

But, for the sake of what we are discussing today, we’re going to be referring not to these suffixes, but to what comes directly before them. I believe these would actually be technically called second level domains, but I don’t want to get bogged down in all of those intricacies.

For our purpose, what we’re really interested in is whether or not you should choose a domain like —

www.example.com

or

www.example.wordpress.com

in regards to SEO and overall website performance.

What is a subdomain?

A subdomain is basically another name nested under a mother domain. Sometimes you’ll see longer domain names, or domain names with more than a single name before the .com.net.org, etc.

Here are a few real examples of what subdomains look like:

  • http://nflfilms.nfl.com/
  • https://blog.twitter.com/
  • http://www.pennsylvania.sierraclub.org/
  • http://googleblog.blogspot.com/
  • http://sethgodin.typepad.com/

These examples show a few reasons why a person or a company may want to use a subdomain.

The NFL wanted a place to nest content about their TV series Hard Knocks as well as other media without taking away users’ attention away from the main site.

Twitter nested their blog on a subdomain to separate it from their main site which is a service. They can keep their blog under their brand without having to use their main service’s resources, which are under constant strain from the world tweeting twenty-four hours a day.

The Sierra Club has subdomains for all of their locations.

Blogspot (a.k.a. Blogger) and Typepad are blogging platforms that house thousands of blogs. Anyone can get a subdomain on those platforms.

What’s best for you?

If you aren’t starting a massive site, you probably don’t need to worry about subdomains for separating content.

As far as using them for locations, a subdomain may be more harmful than good. In fact, MOZ even states that it’s probably better to skip subdomains altogether if your main marketing focus is on SEO.

However, in regards to blogging platforms like Google’s Blogspot, they serve a few different purposes.

Firstly, most of them offer you a free blog. The downside is that you get a subdomain and not your own domain. If you’re just looking for somewhere to start, that might not bother you. For long term quality SEO though, that’s not the best option.

Most of them do come with a feature to upgrade to your own domain on their platform, but that is much more expensive than just buying your own domain from the start.

You’ll also need to consider how you want to monetize your website, because each blogging platform has its own rules as to what you can and cannot do. For example, WordPress’s free blogs don’t allow you to add affiliate offers like items from Amazon.

Finally, another big drawback of these blogging platform subdomains is that they don’t look very good for your brand. That has nothing to do with SEO, but it is something to think about.

*Note: Some SEO’s will used blogging platforms for more advanced techniques such as churn and burn websites and blog networks, but for the sake of a Beginner’s Guide, I’m not going to go into detail on that.

Exact Match Domain, Partial Match Domain, or Branded Domain?

Now that you hopefully decided on going with your own domain and not a subdomain, what type of name should you choose?

I like to break up domain names into three major catagories:

  • exact match domain or EMD
  • partial match domain or PMD
  • branded domain

What is an EMD?

Before Google released their first Penguin algorithm update in 2012, exact match domains were very popular. Basically, you would find a great keyword to target and that would be your domain name.

TB Tip: For a refresher on keyword research, click here.

So, if your target keyword was pink kitten mittens, then you would try and purchase pinkkittenmittens.compinkkittenmittens.net, or pinkkittenmittens.org.

Having the keyword in your domain name was a very powerful Google search engine ranking signal. However, after the aforementioned Penguin algorithm, having an EMD became a bit tricky to manage.

Every time another website linked to your site using its name, they would at the same time use your main keyword. This could and sometimes did lead to a Penguin over-optimization penalty. That means your site might have been on page one, but then would get knocked into the ether.

To makes things worse, Google released an EMD filter/algorithm as well and many website owners using EMD’s felt the pain. There seems to have been a little bit of a let on the severity of that algorithm, but it’s still something to keep in mind.

What is a PMD?

PMD stands for partial match domain. Using the above example, if your main keyword is pink kitten mittens a PMD would be something like kittenmittensexpress.com.

Some people really like PMD’s because they still give you some relevant key words in the domain but it also lessens the threat of an over-optimization penalty if you’re careful. If you spend some time doing some keyword research and checking out which domains are ranking for various terms, you’re almost certain to stumble upon some PMD’s.

What is a branded domain?

A branded domain takes a totally different approach from what EMD’s and PMD’s do. The domain name usually has nothing to do with what keywords you’re trying to rank.

Many big brands use branded domains, like Walmart, Amazon, and Apple.

A huge benefit to branded domains are that you don’t have to worry about over-optimization in regards to your keywords when other websites link to you using your name.  That makes link building a lot less stressful and confusing.

Another bonus to opting for a branded domain is that if you ever feel like you might want to sell your website in the future, branded domains appear much more professional and tend to be a lot more appealing to a potential buyer.

There’s no perfect answer here as to which of the three above options to choose. Whatever you choose, make sure to have a plan in place for how you are going to market your site before jumping in and buying a domain.

To “www” or not to “www”?

You’ve probably noticed while browsing the web that some domains start with a www like CNN, and some do not, like my site.

In terms of SEO value, I have never seen a study that shows either one is better for ranking your site. That means whether or not you choose to lead off with a www or not is purely a personal choice. Some people believe dropping the www makes the site look nicer and brand name more prominent, while others don’t or just don’t care.

Whichever you decide to go with, the main thing to keep an eye on is that you don’t have both a www version and a non-www version.

If you’re using WordPress as your content management system (also known as a CMS) than you shouldn’t have to worry. It automatically 301 redirects whichever you aren’t using to whichever you are using. But, if you choose to use another CMS, be careful and ensure there’s only one version of your website.

Dot Com, Dot Net, or Dot Ninja?

As previously mentioned, there used to only be a few domain suffixes to choose from, especially if you weren’t an organization that qualified for one of the special options. Now though there are tons of options.

The common belief is that as far as pure ranking and SEO go, your suffix doesn’t matter. There have been a couple case studies showing this as well, but I can’t seem to find them currently.

One thing to remember though is that a .com might appear more legitimate to a web browser than a .guru. That means you might get more click throughs, which is believed to be one of the signals that Google uses in its ranking algorithm.

“Http:” or “Https:”?

IF you’re new to working on websites the first thought that might come to mind when having to choose whether not to set your domain and site up using http or https is, “who cares?” If so, then you are exactly like me.

But, over the last year or so, this has actually become of bit of a hot topic in SEO circles due to this statement from Google on August 6, 2014:

We’ve seen positive results, so we’re starting to use HTTPS as a ranking signal.

That’s all it took to start a heated debate that is still not completely extinguished to date.

What is HTTP?

As this is a post about SEO and not about programming code, and as I have very little actually coding skill or knowledge, I’m not going to go too deep into this.

Basically, HTTP is short for Hypertext Transfer Protocol.

It’s just the rule set that allows all of the Internet to link to itself, including the links in your websites, and the links going out from your site or coming into it.

It’s of course a lot more complicated than that, but for the sake of SEO, that’s about all we need to know.

What is HTTPS:

HTTPS is short for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure. The extra “S” at the end stands for “secure” as you can easily tell by the name.

Why is it secure? Good question.

What HTTPS does that HTTPS does not is it encrypts the information passed between you browser, like Chrome or Firefox, and the website that you are visiting.

It’s not perfect security and skilled cybercriminals have ways of still getting the info they want to steal from people when a vulnerability like heartbleed is discovered, but it’s much better than no encryption at all. That’s why you’ll often see e-commerce websites using HTTPS.

Which should you pick?

As of now, all of the major case studies like this one, though it’s a bit old, have shown the SEO boost is so minor, that it’s nothing to lose sleep over.

If you’re starting a fresh website and buying a brand new domain, than picking HTTPS certainly won’t harm you, and it may save you some time and trouble later down the road.

But, if you already have a site up and running under HTTP, and you have some other websites linking to you, you might just want to let things be. You will lose some link equity and authority making the switch.

FWIW, this site is just plain old HTTP.

Where do I Get a New Domain Name?

You get a domain name from a broker or a registrar. Brokers often sell high value domain names (very short dot com names like running.com) for a premium, and for a beginner, it’s probably not worth the time, effort, or money to target these.

I buy all my domain names through a very simple, fairly priced, and overall good company to do business with, Namecheap.

You can check them through my Namecheap referral link.

PRO Tip: Every month Namecheap issues a coupon code that you can use to save $1 or more on a new domain name. Namecheap’s April 2016 coupon code is FOOL4DOMS

There are others too, like GoDaddy, which I avoid like the plaque thus I refuse to link to them, and Hover, who seem OK as well, I just prefer Namecheap as they have always been great.

Wrap Up

A lot of people don’t spend any time while deciding on a domain name, and others get so wrapped up in it they spend weeks and weeks debating on what to choose. Don’t be like either of those.

You’ll want to strategically choose your name, but don’t get stuck double and triple guessing yourself. Make an educated and thoughtful choice, and get to work on building your website.

Namecheap.com