Numerous pivotal decisions need to be made when you first start building your company’s marketing strategy and online presence, and choosing the name of your website is one of the most important. Since it’ll probably be the first impression of your brand that customers will encounter, a domain name is as crucial to your business’s success as your company name itself. But the decision rests largely on whether an exact match domain (EMD) or branded domain is a better fit for your business.
There are several factors to take into account when deciding on a domain name. On one hand, taking into consideration technical elements like SEO and Google algorithms is crucial. At the same time, the appeal, originality, and impact of your brand name are also significant.
In the past, exact match domains were the only way to go. Keywords in the domain name that matched search terms ensured a sizable amount of traffic to a website. However, this practice died down in September 2012 with the release of Google’s EMD Update. Low-quality websites with EMDs no longer made the grade, and the rest had to adapt to the new reality.
Image via Moz
Since then, a clear trend has emerged toward branded domains becoming the norm. As more and more companies are realizing the power of branding, they’re investing more into making their names recognizable by referencing their services or products.
Since simple keyword optimization has gradually become outdated, EMDs may work best for you. But making the choice between EMDs and branded domains depends entirely on your specific marketing goals. So let’s delve into the different options you can consider for your domain name.
Why Did Exact Match Domains Used to Work?
Image via Domain Sherpa
First, what constitutes an exact match domain? EMDs generally include one or two words that represent the product or service a business is offering. This keyword optimization makes the domain name highly relevant because customers can immediately identify whether a particular website is applicable to what they’re searching for.
The advantages of EMDs include better matching anchor text links, higher search engine click-through rates (CTR), and higher AdWords CTR. On the flip side, EMDs can be seen as spammy, and they’re often difficult to obtain. Furthermore, they can lead to brand confusion due to generic commercial keywords.
Image via Moz
The way search engines rank websites on the basis of their domain names is constantly changing. Prior to 2012, a website with only a few pages and an EMD was enough to rank on the first pages of Google. So what changed? You might say that was the era of SEO-centric strategies, since most websites’ focus was less on providing users with useful information and a satisfying experience, and more concerned with bringing in as much traffic as possible.
Today, however, customers have become much more tech-savvy—and thus more demanding in terms of what they expect companies to offer them online. Spammy websites, which offer no real value, simply don’t work, and search engines have put a great deal of effort into penalizing them, or eliminating them altogether. The only way EMDs can be beneficial in this context is if websites offer high-quality content, and therefore actual value for their users.
How EMDs (and PMDs) Can Still Work
Image via Search Marketing Standard
Although EMDs have lost a big chunk of their power and appeal, they’re still a viable option when you’re deciding on the right domain name. Or, you could compromise with a name that has similar characteristics to an EMD but that’s closer to a branded domain: a partial match domain (PMD).
PMDs contain one important keyword followed by a catchy word or phrase. Together, these two elements make up a more appealing domain name than an EMD. Other pros of PMDs include high click-through rates thanks to the relevant keyword, and quality backlink anchor texts.
Yet, similarly to EMDs, partial match domains have been associated with low-quality content and spammy practices, so Google has taken action to identify improper usage of PMDs, as well as to regulate keyword stuffing. Additionally, PMDs can limit your branding efforts. If your business is active in a variety of market niches, including a specific keyword in your domain name means you might need to revise your entire website to reflect all your business activities.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Branded Domains
Now, let’s focus on branded domains, which don’t contain keywords related to your products or services, but instead rely on the popularity of your brand. Since they’re easily recognizable (and easy to obtain), branded domains are great for building your visibility, and they allow you to diversify your activities without rebranding. Plus, there’s less chance of facing anchor text penalties with a branded domain.
Image via Big Commerce
Despite all the positives, branded domain names come with disadvantages, too. The biggest is that establishing your website‘s credibility with Google takes longer and requires more effort. Because of this, click-through rates may be lower than with an EMD or PMD, which means you’ll likely need to spend more on advertising.
Your Domain Name Depends on Your Goals
It’s obvious there’s no black-and-white answer to whether an EMD, PMD, or branded domain is the best option for your business. Each has its pros and cons, but ultimately your choice should be based on your company’s particular goals.
If you want to gain more exposure, exact or partial match domains can be a smart option. Using relevant keywords can result in a sizeable boost in traffic and get your products recognized more easily, especially if you don’t have a big budget for advertising and branding.
Although using an EMD or PMD isn’t necessarily a spammy practice from an SEO point of view, it also doesn’t produce the same results as it used to. It’s still possible to develop a website with a high ranking if you have one or more keywords in your domain name, as long as you’re careful not to overuse them.
Image via Shout Me Loud
However, branded domains are a great alternative if you’re focused on building up your brand image. Branded names are especially useful if:
- You offer several services
- You work in a broad industry
- You run a website that undergoes constant changes (like Amazon or Twitter)
While it takes more effort and time to get a branded domain up and running, the payoff is greater in the long run—plus, don’t forget that Google likes brands.
The Future of Domain Names
Today, the most common domain name choices are branded and partial match domains. While SEO still plays a major role in a website’s performance, branding has become the leading force in defining a company’s online—and offline—success.
Why is branding so powerful? Because it differentiates your products and services from your competitors’. A compelling brand creates emotional connections to make it easier for people to relate what they do. The same goes for branded domain names: They don’t appear spammy and are far more memorable than generic keyword-based names.
Branded domains seem to be the future of domain names—not only because they can support your SEO strategy, but also because they’re relatable and memorable. Domain names should also be relevant, concise, unique, and easy to spell. Whether you choose a portmanteau word or coin a completely new one, incorporating creativity and an emotional appeal is always encouraged.
Both exact match and branded domains hold potential for enabling your business to launch a successful website. However, branding is widely accepted as the preferred approach, as it’s more tailored to people’s interests than the simple keyword-based method.
Ultimately, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the type of domain name you choose largely depends on your marketing and business goals. Regardless of what you end up settling on, remember that both search engines and customers value high-quality, educational content over simple technical optimization.
About the Author
Alexander Kesler is a seasoned entrepreneur with hands-on traditional and digital marketing experience. He is the Founder and President of inSegment, a Boston-based full-service digital marketing agency.