Brandable vs Keyword Domains: The Ultimate Guide

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Choosing a domain name is one of the most, if not the most, significant choices
you will make when it comes to setting up your online presence. This will be your online ‘face.’

And you want to have a pretty one.

But you also want to have a name that signifies, at a glance, what your website is about. Having a focused keyword domain name rather than a catchy brandable name can mean the difference between having targeted readers visit your site sooner or having just a pretty name.

Of course, there’s more to the process such as marketing, link outreaching, and your content, but choosing the RIGHT name is the first and most important step in the process of creating a website AND online brand.

Whenever it comes to registering a domain name, every person faces this choice: do you choose a brandable name that has nothing to do with your niche, a partial match keyword domain that includes the keyword + something else, or an exact match domain.

keyword domains vs brandable domains

The Old Right Choice: Exact Match Domains

The search engines are always in flux — what worked yesterday may not work today. What works today may not work tomorrow. Such was the case with Exact Match Domains.

Exact Match Domain examples:

  • insurance.com
  • cheapflights.com
  • bodybuilding.com
  • electricbicycles.co.uk
  • bestandroidphones.org

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away (or about 4 years ago), it was possible to ascend to the top of the google search results with nothing more than a handful of pages and and exact keyword domain.

exact match domains no longer good

But that’s no longer the case (since 2012). Google evened out the playing field with an search engine update and having the exact keywords in your domain name no longer give google ranking boosts.

However, EMD’s still do offer some benefits (we will discuss these later one).

 

But first, let’s talk about the types of domain choices.

The Three Types of Domains

brandable domain names

You have three choices when it comes to picking out a domain name:

  • Exact Match Domain (EMD): Exact Keyword Phrase in domain
  • Partial Match Domain (PMD): Some Keyword/s in domain
  • Brandable Domain: No keyword/s in domain name

Note that a ‘brandable domain name’ in the truest sense of the word is simply a domain name that sounds catchy. This domain name may be a PMD, an EMD, or a name without any relevant keywords. In the content of this article, however, we will refer to Brandable Domains as domains that don’t have the keywords you want in them.

…so what is the best choice?

Well, there is no ‘best’ answer here. It really depends on what you are looking to do with your website and what your ultimate focus for your website will be.

A lot of the advice out there right now will tell you to choose a brandable domain name as the best choice.

But I disagree.

There’s a lot of advantages in still choosing an EMD’s or PMD’s over a brandable domain.

Making the Domain Name Choice Depends On Your Goals

In 2015, the trend continues to be building a real brand online. This is part of a long term business strategy to build a real business online. The search engines reward you for this (and it’s easier to attract other forms of traffic like social traffic from Facebook, Pinterest, twitter if you are a ‘brand’ in an industry).

how to choose a domain name

A key part of building a brand is a brandable domain name. And a big part of having a brandable domain is to have something catchy sounding as a name.

It’s hard to impossible to do this on a spammy sounding exact keyword domain.

Try making a cool sounding brandable name out of long exact domains like this:

  • ‘bestwaystotreatpimples.info’
  • ‘howtogetridofacnefast.com’
  • ‘cheapwomensshoesforsale.net’

Hard to do, right? And your customers / readers might not take your website seriously with such long keyword phrases as the URL.

Because many people are used to short and catchy domain names now, they may not trust a website built on long keyword phrase URL’s.

So in 2015, there’s a lot of advantages to choosing a brand-style domain name. The entire web seems to be moving towards brands and the search engines are certainly favoring brands in the results as well.

You can’t argue that with Google granting broad search ranking authority to brands and peoples’ implicit trust of brands, brand name domains are a solid choice for a domain name.

In fact, the Eric Schmidt, GOOGLE’s CEO himself said “Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool. Brand affinity is clearly hard-wired. It is so fundamental to human existence that it’s not going away.”

When the head of GOOGLE is saying Brands are the end and be all, we better pay attention.

But that doesn’t mean brand name domains are the ONLY way to go.

Generally my feeling is that if you are looking at offering a non-physical product, or create an informational site, then it’s a good idea to look at a brandable keyword domain.

This is certainly the case with big companies who create a unique service. If the brand name is catchy and short and the service unique, it can easily be associated with that service.

Brandable Domain Names

how to choose a brandable domain name

A Brandable Domain name is a name you choose that sounds catchy. These names are great for general websites, websites offering services, or broad niches.

Here are some brand name domain examples:

  • Amazon.com – ecommerce
  • Fiver.com – cheap freelancing
  • Twitter.com – social networking
  • 99designs.com – design work
  • HuffingtonPost.com – news
  • Uber — taxi service

Brandable names, in my opinion, are generally a good idea if you are going to sink a lot of time into a single website and the website offers a specific service or physical product.

I’d always choose a brand name over any other type of name IF that brand name can be tied to the keywords you want to rank for (your niche) and you have a budget that allows for the marketing of it.

The reason WHY I don’t always do this is it’s often MUCH faster to rank niche sites with Exact Match or Partial Match domain names.

Yes, given unlimited funding, energy, and time and or a unique service being offered, I’d choose a brand. But with limited resources or a product that’s not unique, then I’ll go with PMD or EMD’s every time, even in 2015.

Benefits to Choosing a Brandable Domain

Here are some specific advantages:

Allows for Wider Market Expansion 

You’ll note in the list above that some of the biggest websites in the world are brandable domains that have nothing to do with the product or service they are selling.

Take Amazon.com. They started out as a book selling service and expanded into general e commerce site.

Brandable domains that are not tied to a specific keyword give you lots of room to grow. In the case of Amazon, imagine if they started out with a name like Books.com? They would have looked themselves into a single market rather than a general market.

The real power of a brandable domain name is that, semantically, it can become associated with any number of markets.

Easier to ‘Brand’

Because brandable names (good ones) are almost always catchy sounding, they are easier to remember and easy to mention. This makes them easier to ‘brand’.

Less Confusion with Other Websites

Brandable names are usually unique. This means there is no confusion with your brand and another website.

Higher Availability 

Because brandable domains are usually unique, you more easily find and aquire the domain for free for for a much smaller cost than PMD’s or EMD’s. Social media handles on sites like Twitter and Facebook are likely to be free as well.

Less Chance of Anchor Text Penalties in Links

It’s very possible to trigger an over optimization penalty on your site for a keyword by using it too much as the anchor text for links. This is less likely to happen if you have a brandable domain. Natural links will likely have a vary different anchor text profile which looks very good to google. What doesn’t look good is having too many of the same anchor text links for a specific phrase — this is unnatural and a sign you are doing some shady link building.

Disadvantages to Choosing a Brandable Domain Name

May Take Longer to Rank in Google

Brandable domain names will not often have anchor text keywords used in natural backlinks. This may make it more difficult to rank for specific niche terms you may be targeting.  A keyword domain (EMD or PMD), likely has an advantage here.

Less Tied Semantically to a Targeted Market

Because brandable domains don’t have keywords (you are targeting) in them, you have to spend more time trying to brand your domain in the market you are pursuing. This takes more up-front effort and cost and time.

Advertising Costs More

Using services like Adwords may cost you more money since your CTR will be lower than a domain that includes your keywords in them. More on this later.

Lower CTR in Search Engines

Having a brandable domain that does not include keywords you want to target may mean that you get less clicks in the search engine on your website.  This depends on your ranking position, your description, and your site title of course, but your URL name does effect this as well.

Partial Match Domains (PMD)

Partial Match Keyword Domains are simply domain names with one or more keywords in them that you want to rank for.

Some examples of PMD’s are:

  • gamespot.com – video games
  • www.runnersworld.com – running shoes
  • runningwarehouse.com – running shoes
  • cancercare.org – cancer help

You will find PMD’s (and brandable domains) make up the majority of the search results in Google these days.

partial match domains

In my opinion, these are the best options for building an authority niche site. You get the benefit of having the main keyword in your domain and the ability to make the name sound catchy. A win win.

And with the 2012 Google EMD Update removing the SEO boost you got from having an Exact Match Domain, there is really no reason now why you shouldn’t have a good sounding PMD. With a bit of effort on your part, it’s usually possible to create a brandable sounding domain name with one or two of your main keywords in it.

You can also easily ‘brand’ a partial match keyword domain with a bit of work. This means you don’t need to directly tie your PMD name into the niche you are targeting.

Some of the best and most trafficked authority sites are built on these PMD’s. If you search for any major keyword, a PMD will likely be one the first few results that show up:

keyword domains

In the example above, you see sites like ‘gamespot.com’ show up when you type in ‘video game reviews.’

Gamespot.com contains the word ‘game’.  However, note that this example shows you a brandable domain name that’s also a keyword domain.

Pros to choosing a Partial Match Keyword Domain

Despite the trend to go with brandable domains over anything else, I feel strongly (and in fact, my entire make money online business model is built on this) that Partial Keyword Domains are the best choice for most people. Certainly for niche websites (that end up being small to medium sized websites), you can’t really beat a PMD.

Sure, if you have a huge budget, a team of coders, a unique software service, and a marketing team, a brandable domain is awesome. But how many of us operate at that level? Few.

For the rest who are working on a few smaller sites, PMD are awesome.

Here are some of the pros to choosing a PMD:

Niche Keyword In the Name

You get a domain with a targeted keyword in it while still (with a bit of creativity) making it brandable. Your ‘brand’ is instantly tied to the product/service/niche associated with the url because of the keyword. ‘

For example, say you have a website called ‘fitnessbabe.com’

Right away, you know the website is all about health and fitness. Someone who is looking for information or resources about that topic and sees your website will know the focus of the site.

Compared this to a more general brandable domain without keywords in it like ‘Pushupal.com’ (bad example I know). A LOT more work has to go into branding that more general word as a fitness related site. This is definitely possible to do, but also a lot harder.

Better Search Engine Click Rates Than Brandable (Less than EMD)

People will see your website domain in the search results and because it’s a very focused domain with the keywords in it — keywords.

There are some studies that do show having your keywords in your domain name can positively affect click through rates on your ads and on the search engine. There is some common sense to this when you think about it. Say you type ‘credit card rates’ into the search engine.

And in the top results, you see the following popup in the first four results :

  • ‘creditcardrates.com’
  • creditcardguide.com
  • meaty.com
  • huggingtonpost.com/credit-cards

Because your search phrase is highly connected to the two domain names that contain that phrase or part of it, you are probably more likely to click on the results with the URL’s containing the keyword in it.

Better Targeted Backlinks

If you get natural links, there is a good chance you will have the domain as the anchor text which includes the keyword/s you want to rank for.

Immediate Authority Recognition 

EMD’s (especially quality generic ones — think diapers.com, or history.com, or bodybuilding.com) tend to have inherent authority if they are category killing ones. This may offer a brandable advantage right off the bat. Indeed, Microsoft found that there is a domain bias people have. People are 25 percent more likely to click on a serach result from a recognizable domain than an unfamiliar one. With EMD’s, especially category killing ones, you don’t get more ‘authority’ in a name that one of those.

EMD’s May Receive Type in Traffic

This is not so much of a factor in 2015 with many people simply typing a domain or query into google instead of the browser, but for some category domains, this does exist.

Less Chance for Anchor Text Penalties 

Since your URL name has other keywords in them, you are less likely to target an over optimization penalty with your anchor text links.

Cons to Choosing an Partial Match Domain

The scope of your website is limited by your keyword

If you are selling a service or product that can cover many different market segments, it’s not a good idea to tie your brand to a single market.

Again, imagine if the people behind Amazon.com went with ‘Bookstore.com’ instead? Would Bookstore.com function as the global eccomerce website that it’s grown into today? I’d say likely not.

If you choose a keyword domain and decide to expand beyond that single market, you will have to either rebrand your brand to cover more markets or change the domain name and re-brand it from scratch. This is not something you want to do.

Exact Match Domains

What is an exact keyword domain? It’s simply a domain name that’s exactly contains a keyword or phrase you type into google.

If building your website around a single exact keyword is your make money online strategy now, you’d better stop: that SEO-centric strategy is part of the old 2010 way of things — it’s dated and it’s not the way to build a long term business.

Trust me, I know. I lost thousands of dollars a month after the EMD update killed many of my mini sites.

Because an EMD gave a powerful ranking boost in the search engines a few years ago, you would often see all manner of spammy looking domain names ranking in google near the top. If you typed in any long tail, chances are an EMD would pop up.

Sites like the following were ubiquitous:

  • bestwaytogetridofacne.com
  • cheaplaptopsforsale.org
  • spammylongtaildomainherenow.net
  • topandroidphones.org
  • nikirunningshoes.com

Marketers (including myself) used to use EMD’s as a strategy to easily rank for long tail keyword terms because Google used to give a large ranking boost to EMD domains.  That strategy died in 2010 when google changed their algorithm  to remove the EMD as a significant ranking signal.

So don’t buy an EMD just to rank quickly on Google — you won’t just on the domain alone anymore.

However, despite EMD’s not being as powerful as they once were, there is still reasons why you might want an EMD.

If you do any sort of keyword search for terms, you can still find plenty of Exact Keyword Domains still ranking on the front page. These websites, of course, have strong ranking signals keeping them on the front page for those keyword terms because of content, backlinks, and other ranking signals. But it goes to show you that EMD’s are still not dead — nor will they be in the future I feel.

A recent study by CanIRank.com showed the following:

  • On average, keyword domains rank 11% higher than branded domains
  • Non-EMD domains need, on average, about 40,000 more links to make it to number 1 on google for a term and 35,000 links to hit number 10 on google search.
  • Branded domains need 69% more Domain Authority and 22% more Page Authority to rank in the top ten search results.
  • Keyword domains were able to reach number 1 on the search engines with half as much content with the keyword used half the time compared to branded domains.

Another older study done by memorable.com found that EMD’s can double PPC (pay per click) ctr rate.

What can we take away from this study? Well, keyword domains are still around, live, and kicking. And in some cases, they STILL may offer a fast track to easier rankings.

You can find any number of exact match domains with quality websites on the front page of google, going head to head with brandable domains.

Look at the term ‘cheap flights’ in google for example:

exact domain name examples

Let’s look at some of the pros of the EMD:

Pros to Choosing an Exact Match Domain

There are a couple reasons why this is the case:

Better Targeted Anchor (Natural) Text Links

Natural backlinks will tend to use your URL as the anchor text or some variation of your domain name as the anchor text.

This means a large percentage of links to your site will be targeted anchor text for the keyword you want to rank. This can provide a large ranking boast for your site for specific keywords (ideally the keyword/s you want to really rank for). And this is a passive effect — you are not gaming the system specifically. It’s possible to rank much quicker for the keyword phrase you want to rank for because of this effect.

Higher Adwords CTR 

In certain situations, EMD’s may increase your Adwords CTR based on the keywords you type in Google.

Your exact keyword domain, if it shows up on the first page, will tend to get a higher percentage of clicks (assuming the meta title and description of your site are good as well).

There’s a number of studies done that show EMD’s, in certain cases, have higher CTR when it comes to ad clicks.

Studies Showing EMD Get Higher CTR Than Non EMD:

  • In the study How Generic Domains Impact SEM Campaign, the researchers found that DivorceLawyer.com got 298% higher CTR than the ads with the URL VIadimirLaw.com. This study specifically shows the EMD is far more superior than the PMD.
  • Beep.com.au switched their domain name to CarLoans.com.au and in five months (with only the domain change), they decreased Adwords spending by 35 percent and increased sales from 60 million to 100 million — all just because they changed to an exact domain name (read interview here).
  • Microsoft did a study and found Domain Bias exists. That is, people are more likely to click on a domain name in a list of search results if the domain name contains familiar words or phrases vs a domain with unfamiliar words in it.

Why would keyword domains have higher CTR in ads?

Well, it comes down to the google Adwords Quality score, which is based on three things:

  • CTR
  • Ad Relevance
  • Landing Page Experience

The more an ad is clicked, the higher the CTR value and because Quality Score depends on the CTR as one of the variables, the more clicks and ad gets, the higher the quality score.

Google’s Adword algorithm works on this formula:

Ad Rank = CPC Bid + Quality Score

So your ad rank position depends on how much money you you bid for the ad and the quality score your ad has been given. So if your quality score is HIGHER, you can bid less money for the same ad rank. Basically, you can spend less money for the same position.

Since EMD can increase your CTR, you may be able to pay less per bid while still having a higher quality score.

Make sense?

Higher Search Engine CTR

Along the same lines of the increased Adwords CTR, EMD’s may increase the search engine CTR for your site IF they user types in the EMD (or highly related keywords).

Why? Because your domain name and the implicit focus of it is highly tied to the exact search typed in.

Think about this for a second. It makes sense that someone typing in

‘best android phones’

and sees, among the top search results, ‘bestandroidphones.com’ that there is a STRONG semantic connection between the search phrase and the content of the website. Hence more people are likely to click on this.

I will be TESTING this specifically with an experiment. I have a brandable partial match domain that pulls in about 1500 – 2000 impressions a day.

I will be changing the domain to an exact match domain for the main keyword phrase I’m targeting. I will directly track the CTR for the key phrases the site is ranking for in Google Webmaster Tools Search Engine Optimization. This will provide some concrete and specific data about how the domain name effects search engine CTR.

Some EMD’s can be Branded

There are some exact match domains that can be (or have been) branded.

These are usually category killer domain names (single or double word EMD’s that capture an entire market)

There are some examples of brandable exact keyword domains that are (now) a brand and also exact domains:

  • bodybuilding.com
  • escrow.com
  • booking.com
  • hotel.com
  • freelancer.com

In this situation, both your keyword mention and your brand mention are one in the same and you can get some strong social signals with your keyword domain.

However, unless you have five or six figures to buy a domain like this and a solid service or product to offer once you buy it (or you bought the domain a decade or two ago on the cheap), then these type of domains are not an option.

I just want to point out that it is possible to build a brandable business on an exact match domain, provide it’s a short one or two word category killer domain.

Less Likely To Trigger Over Optimization Anchor Text Link Penalties 

With EMD’s it’s expected that a good many of the anchor text in natural links will be the URL of the site or the exact keywords. You may have more allowance here when it comes to having the exact or variations of the keywords as the link text. This can be good because it means you can get more targeted links (and benefit form them in the form of higher rankings for specific keyword terms) without getting slapped down for it.

Cons of Choosing a Exact Match Domain

Market Limiting 

EMD’s, because they are so very specific, can lock you into a very narrow niche. In some cases, a focused websites built on a good Exact Keyword Domain can be quite effective, even if Google does not give you a ranking boost.

May Have Spammy History

Because the pre-2012 era had so many spammy EMD’s floating around, there is a very good chance if you find a new EMD, it was previously registered and used for a low quality website and may be now penalized by google.

I’d rather a brand new PMD or Brandable Domain any day over a previously owned EMD with spammy history.

I have a couple personal examples where I have bought an EMD only to find the site never did rank in Google because it had been low quality content + links on it by the previous owners.

Difficult to Obtain

And let’s not forget how difficult it can actually be to find and register an EMD for a good keyword or keyword phrase. Most EMD’s for good keywords have been bought already. You have to shell out money (often a lot of money) to obtain one now.

You can pay hundreds or thousands for an EMD which will offer no SEO value or you can register a brandable domain or PMD for free and put that money you save into quality content production.

Which do you prefer?

The Final Word

There is no clear cut answer to which type of domain is better.

  • If you are offering a real service over a number of different market segments, a brandable domain name is the best choice.
  • If your business will expend into NEW, very different markets, a brandable domain name is the best choice.
  • If your business is highly focused on a specific narrow market, an Exact Match Domain or Partial Match Domain is a better choice.
  • If you have a limited budget but want some passive SEO boasts (anchor text in backlinks, higher CTR clicks), Partial Match Domains are the best choice.
  • If you want to maximize SEO with less time and money spent on your marketing and SEO efforts AND your website is focused on a specific niche, Exact Match Domains are a good choice.
  • If you intend to do a lot of PPC advertising in a very narrow market, EMD’s will offer you a much higher CTR and lower cost for bidding than Partial Match Domains and Brandable Domains, based on a number of studies done.

I strongly feel if you are building high quality authoritative niche sites, then Partial Match Domains are the best type of domains.

At the end of the day, however, you can rank ANY type of domain, regardless. The quality of your content  and your link outreach efforts are what will make your website successful at the end of the day — NOT the type of domain.

I have a mix of all types: category killer domains, EMD domains, partial match domains, and brandable domains. My best websites always came down to the QUALITY of content on my sites, not the domain name.

These days, I almost always opt for Partial Match Domains as my primary choice for new websites.

My Tips for Choosing a PMD

My quick advice for choosing a good PMD term.

  • Pick shorter URL’s over Longer (2 words works best or 3 words at maximum. I always aim for 2 words now)
  • Choose .com if you can, but .org or .net is fine too
  • The best PMD’s are brandable and have your keyword in it. Catchy sounding PMD’s go a long way to making your site look and sound more authoritative

Resources / Citations

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Comments 4

  1. Areesh November 11, 2015
    • BenK November 12, 2015
  2. Poorya January 11, 2017
    • BenK January 12, 2017

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