SE marketing: in defense of dashy domains
Dashed domains offer a big target for proponents of a purer web marketing. They float there broadside in the SERPs, overshadowing the sleeker domains, just begging for a pot shot. You'll find eager takers on any major SE forum or blog.
Disclosure: yes, I am responsible for some dash-intensive domains. Opinion: why would a serious search marketer not experiment with a potentially fruitful technique? But beyond any real or perceived benefits, dashed domains are worth pondering for what they can reveal about marketing via search.
Yahoo! created this monster, if a monster it is. Blame them for a search algorithm based solely on the content of the search listing and not on the web site in question. Further blame them for leaving only one element of those listings in the direct, unalterable control of the webmaster or marketer: the domain name. Yahoo!'s editors could edit all the flowery marketing copy out of your description, but they couldn't touch your "buy-flowers-here.com" domain without defeating the purpose of a directory.
You can also blame them for their word-matching algorithm. It seems to only recognize words embedded in domains as separate words when the words are delimited somehow. A dash, an underline, a dot. "Buyflowershere.com" didn't match a search for "buy flowers"; "buy-flowers-here.com" did. So what was a web marketeer to do, especially when Yahoo! was the Google of its day?
Remarkably, both of these preconditions for the dashed domain scourge still exist today. Even the Google directory still appears to match only on delimited words. Google's directory SERPs bold your search terms in the displayed snippet, and the bolding only shows on delimited words. This bolding may just be a visual cue to the searcher, completely independent of the workings of the search algorithm, but this appearance alone suggests the value of dashed domains to many online marketers.
The value of these supercharged domains was highlighted, ironically, when they almost lost their value overnight in October 2002. Yahoo! de-emphasized its directory in favor of Google's crawler results, and in so doing effectively pulled the plug on hundreds of sites that depended on those dashes for their traffic. Sites with long Yahoo!-optimized domains went from thousands/week in revenue to pennies overnight.
But other sites with dashed domains continued to flourish: sites that had gotten their dashed domains into Google's crawler results, where they benefited from Google's link-friendly ranking algorithm. By packing keywords into your domain, dashed domains guarantee that any links to your site will front-load Google's index with your most important keywords in close proximity to your link. My "buy-flowers-here.com" listing on Yahoo!'s directory still smells sweet since it's letting Google know both where I am and what I am. I'm at buy-flowers-here.com and I'm about buying flowers. There is active debate on Google forums about how much benefit keyword-packed domains offer. But there is enough evidence to suggest to many that it's worth it to dash their domains.
And what of searchers?
Perhaps the biggest continuing benefit of dashed domains is to the human searchers in the search equation. Remember them? Undashed multiple word domains are unnatural and unsightly. They are the norm only because computers didn't used to like spaces in file names and paths. Web geeks accept them because we've gotten used to them. But imagine how odd the convention must still seem to first time web users.
Dashless domains are so pre-sliced-bread. If a searcher's brain happens to scan my undashed domain as "buyf-lower-sheres", she's lost to me as a customer. I personally find my eye lands on strong word-like clusters in the middle of a domain and parses out from there. So my new hosting company becomes "futu-request" and a Sunday in January is transformed into an avian wonder: "superb-owl".
Next time you're scanning a search result page (for keywords other than your own!), take note of how quickly your eye skips over anything it cannot instantly parse. There's every chance your brain is disregarding as visual noise plenty of undashed domains while picking out individual words—and your target keywords—from space delimited content and dashed domains. Dashing a domain is the sliced bread of web marketing, as good for searchers as for search engine ranking.
Dashed domains may also be "the nude in the ice cubes" of internet marketing. Think of your Adword tile in the middle of seven others. Think of that searcher's mouse sliding down the right margin until something clicks. He might not even know what clicked or why. How much time did you spend honing the description copy, trying to fill it with trigger words, only to have it displayed in tiny grayed-out type? Wouldn't hurt to have a few extra keywords in the domain name—green and a few points bigger—to lure another click onto your site. Repeat that hundreds or thousands of times a day or month.
With those extra delimited keywords, will your ad be just that much more likely to register a connection in the searcher's brain? If not subliminally then maybe just not quite liminally. Just enough to produce more clicks from more customers your ad clicked with. Enough to bump your conversion rate up, and your ad up the column with it? Perhaps. Definitely worth considering, especially if you don't have the resources of the folks behind the tiles above you.
Branded or dashed?
Indeed, for many web marketers, from dot-com entrepreneurs to small businesses venturing on-line to affiliate site hobbyists, it's really an issue of resources. Building a brand simply isn't an option. They don't have the time to associate a catchy made-up name with some feel-good concepts. Especially not when people might feel just as good about them simply knowing what they do. "Buy-flowers-here.com" ain't sexy, but you know what you're getting—arguably even if it turns out to be an affiliate site.
Perhaps this is where some of the ire against dash-dash-dot domains comes from. It's the little guys without their branding agencies and with only with their do-it-yourself search marketing who have the most to gain with dashed domains. With a little cleverness and a dashed domain, they can jostle in beside the big names in the search results. So what of brand in a world of search?
The web is becoming more like a flea market everyday. Your listing on a search engine page—directories especially but also crawlers—is like your stall on a market aisle. You arrive early to claim a spot, but your location may change week-to-week. And when you don't move, even your most loyal customers may have trouble re-finding you in the maze.
The searcher's experience of searching, finding and acting (buying) is becoming more and more seamless. And the process seems to be less frequently mediated by a typed URL. In the melee of the search flea market, a dashed domain that simply names what you are may be more valuable than a branded domain. Sure, brands are easy to remember and type into a browser. But at what cost, when even those who start with a brand in mind are as likely as not to enter it in a search engine rather than the location bar?
At their heart, dash- and keyword-rich domains are an acknowledgment of the primacy of search. They may be untypable and unrememberable, but who types a domain any more? Besides the big brands maybe. For everyone else, there's search. Dashed domains—in their use and in the complaints against their use—are an acknowledgement that you can make it on the web today without anyone but you ever typing your domain.
Story by Cam Balzer