Descriptive Domain Names Face Extinction

By Shireen Smith

Taking the well-trodden path may seem a good way to avoid making mistakes, as it relies on the wisdom of those who have gone before. However, it’s important to stay abreast of developments, and the landscape for domain names is changing rapidly. Google’s algorithm was revised towards the end of 2012, and these changes have largely removed any advantage given to “exact match” domain names, which incorporate keywords in the hope that they will secure a prominent place in search results.

One word searches are a thing of the past

In the early days of the internet, pioneering businesses who established an online presence before their peers set a benchmark by using descriptive words or phrases in their domain names, for example This isn’t far removed from the way people might talk about businesses in a small village, referring to just “the post office”, “the supermarket” or “the shoe shop”. In this context there is no confusion, because there are only one of each in the vicinity.

Much like the small village paradigm, in the past consumers might be expected to just type what they were looking for into their browser and add .com to try their luck. However, in light of increased competition they are now more discerning, and less than 25% are likely to search in this way. Instead they rely on search engines.

Google’s algorithm

Searching for descriptive words used to be a way to locate specific businesses online – you could search for terms like “Hotels” and more often than not, quickly find the company you were looking for. However, it was not long before the web started to become overcrowded, with every business registering domain names and setting up websites. No longer a small village, the Internet was a sprawling metropolis, and nowadays a search for “Hotels” will turn up over 1 billion webpages. Just like consumers, search engines are getting savvy, and are less likely to link to your website just because it includes the word “Hotels” in its domain name.

You might ask why this is a problem, and the answer is relevance. Google’s goal is to offer the best experience to its users, and by giving some element of priority to exact-match domains, the search engine offered marketers a way to beat the system, pushing a less relevant website higher in search rankings than it might otherwise be simply by cherry picking a domain name.

Through recent changes to its algorithm, Google has taken steps to eliminate this distortion, and today, does not even make the top 10 search results for a search for ‘Car’.

Descriptive brands are bad practice

Descriptive names have never been good practice in branding as they do little to set you apart from your competitors. With countless competitors vying for position, choosing a name which isn’t distinctive is a common trap for the unwary. Furthermore, due to the recent changes to Google’s algorithm, there are even fewer incentives to use descriptive names either online or offline.

You might wonder how potential customers are meant to find you if your name doesn’t describe what it is you do. However, there is evidence to suggest users are more likely to visit sites with recognisable brand names online. In fact, the online environment was quietly moving away from descriptive names even before Google’s change. Rand Fishkin, a well known online marketing expert and co-founder of SEOMoz, which helps websites get found online, summed up this point concisely in a recent blog post: ‘Unbranded sites may be losing significant amounts of traffic vs. their better-branded competition. Choosing a “keyword-match” domain seems like a worse decision than ever’.

We agree wholeheartedly, and recommend that you take care when deciding which domain names to use for your products and services. There are a whole host of advantages to choosing a distinctive name, not least of which are the opportunity to own it through trade mark registration, and the ability to deal with competitors who try to imitate you.

About the author

Shireen Smith recently wrote a book, Legally Branded, available on Amazon, which is an accessible guide to the legal aspects of branding. Shireen Smith is founder of Azrights Solicitors, an Intellectual Property law firm, which focuses on helping businesses to identify and build intangible assets through their name, designs, innovations and contractual relationships. When an intangible asset is potential intellectual property or “IP” as it’s often referred to, it means it’s legally protectable just like land. So, you can secure ownership rights over it through registration (such as patenting) and contracts with third parties. Once you own an asset you can buy, sell, license or mortgage it just as with tangible property. Due to our focus on IP and internet issues we tend to get asked to produce website development contracts, software and other IP licensing agreements, and terms of business for new online businesses, and to draft Internet, privacy and social media policies. Shireen Smith has background as an in-house lawyer at Reuters means I bring a very practical, business oriented approach to the work. Her office works to set prices, rather than on an hourly rate basis, so you know the price for work in advance of our doing it.

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