All About Domain Ranking Factors : How Domain Factors Impact SERP Rankings
Last week we published the second installment of our guide to google ranking factors. Click here to check out All About Website SEO Factors: How Website Factors Affect SEO Rankings
Domain ranking factors also impact the strength of an SEO strategy. The degree to which you can exercise control over them will vary depending on the specific factors. That said, the following are among the most important to understand and optimize.
The importance of domain age as a Google ranking factor has changed somewhat over the years. This is common of many ranking factors as Google prioritizes different signals.
In 2010, Matt Cutts of Google explained there’s very little difference in how domain age impacts authority for a site that’s half a year old compared to one that’s a year old. Watch the following video for Cutts’ full description:
Cutts explains sites that have been around for several months typically won’t encounter any difficulties appearing in SERPs.
Additionally, Google’s John Mueller clearly stated (via Twitter) that domain age is not a significant ranking factor. That was in 2017, so it appears Google’s position on this topic has remained consistent over the years.
That said, others have noticed this statement may not reflect the full reality of the situation. An analysis of the top 20 results in SERPs for various keywords indicated the top 20 results in any given search will rarely include those with domains under a year old.
It’s easy to understand why when you consider how domain age can impact other important ranking factors. Even if Google doesn’t directly use age to determine ranking, age can still have an indirect effect.
An example would be domain age’s role in helping a site acquire backlinks. Backlinks (which will be covered in greater detail later in this guide) demonstrate to Google that a particular site is authoritative. The more backlinks you have, the greater an authority your site presumably is. That’s why quantity of backlinks is an important ranking factor for Google.
It makes sense that a site with an older domain would simply have had more time than a newer one to acquire a large number of backlinks. Thus, domain age’s indirect effect can nevertheless impact ranking.
The history of your domain may affect your overall SEO strategy in several key ways. The following are important factors to consider in order to better understand the relationship between domain history and SEO:
Some domains retain the same owner for many years. Others may have several owners over a relatively brief period of time. When this happens, Google may essentially reset the domain and treat it as new. This also happens when existing domains become expired.
Sometimes people and businesses will bid on domains that have already developed a certain degree of trust and authority. Either the current owner fails to pay the registration fee, or they sell the domain after growing its popularity. However, if the domain fails to attract buyers, it becomes expired. Google may reset it accordingly.
According to John Mueller in this video, Google also resets backlink history if the new site of an existing domain appears unrelated to the former site. Someone purchasing an existing domain (or simply changing the focus of their site) may not use that domain to offer the same content as the previous owner. Google recognizes this.
On the one hand, when Google resets a domain’s history, much of the trust and authority the domain cultivated over the years is lost. Previous backlinks may also no longer work. On the other hand, treating the site as a completely new domain might be better for SEO purposes in the long run, as you don’t want your site associated with unrelated content and backlinks.
Again, people often buy existing domains because they wish to leverage the strengths and authority the domain has already cultivated. However, buying existing domains can work to your detriment if you aren’t familiar with a domain’s history.
Buying a domain that has previously been penalized by Google may result in those penalties being carried over to your site if Google hasn’t yet reset the domain. Matt Cutts describes ways you can research this before choosing to buy a domain.
One is to perform a “site colon search.” This simply involves performing a search by typing in “site:[domain].” If this search doesn’t yield any results despite there being content on that existing domain, Cutts reveals that’s a “bad sign.”
Cutts also recommends searching for the domain without the extension (.com, .gov, etc). Browse the results to see if you can learn about its reputation. Have others spoken negatively or critically about that domain in the past? Has it been known for spam-heavy content? Taking the time to learn if a domain was penalized helps you avoid paying for a domain that doesn’t deliver the expected results.
Google’s web crawlers learn to index sites and their content effectively over time. Part of this process involves learning what a site is “about” in order to display its content in relevant SERPs. Again, if you decide to use an existing domain (whether one you own or one you’ve purchased) for a site offering dramatically different content than what’s been typically associated with that domain in the past, you may also “confuse” Google. The search engine will have difficulty identifying what type of content your site offers.
Public vs. Private WhoIS
WhoIS information refers to the identification and contact info you provide when registering a domain. You have the option of making that information public or private. Users can look up the public ownership info of generic domains through ICANN.
Obviously, there are reasons you may decide to keep that info private. That said, from an SEO perspective, you may be better off listing it publicly.
Consider the following example from a Business 2 Community case study. When a site’s owner decided to switch their WhoIS info to private, their traffic decreased significantly:
However, when they switched back to a public listing, their traffic recovered:
Google considers the status of your WhoIS information to essentially be a trust issue. If you’re not trying to conceal your identity from the public, the likelihood that your business is legitimate and that you’re an authority in your content area is higher.
Additionally, those who choose to hide their contact info from the public may be doing so in order to engage in dishonest tactics. Perhaps their goal is to register multiple domains in order to cross-promote each site by linking them to each other. Although this may not be the primary motivation the average person has when listing their WhoIS information privately, it could be. Google recognizes this and ranks the associated domains accordingly.
Keyword Selection & Usage
Choosing the proper keywords to include in content on your domain has always been a crucial element of a proper SEO strategy. Ideal keywords (or phrases) will correspond to user search queries. They tell both the search engine and the user what your content is about. That said, you need to understand the different types of keywords you may use, and how to research them.
For SEO purposes, keywords may be separated into the following distinct categories:
Informational keywords tend to be vague and often have a relatively high search volume. Thus, they’re often not particularly valuable to your SEO strategy.
Users search with informational keywords when they have only general ideas about the type of content they are seeking. These searches are often accompanied by informational phrases such as “How can I…”, “What is…”, “Tutorial,” and several others. They may also include industry-specific terms depending on a user’s goals. An example of an informational keyword search would be “How to improve SEO.”
It’s difficult to compete solely using informational keywords due to high search volume. That said, users performing these searches are in an early stage where they are trying to develop awareness and gather general info related to their needs. Informational keywords can still be helpful to a degree when attracting new customers who are not familiar with your business.
A user switches to navigational keywords when they have a more specific idea of what they are looking for. Often people use navigational keywords knowing to some degree which site they are looking for. For instance, if a user were to perform the “How to improve SEO” search from the previous entry, they might learn they should hire an SEO marketing firm. Now, they might shift to the navigational phase, performing a search such as “SEO marketing firm New York City.”
Navigational keywords can also include brand names when a user already knows what brand they would like to research further. Thus, including content on your site that features your brand name may help you take full advantage of these keywords.
It’s also smart to make a list of navigational keywords your potential customers may search with as you perform keyword research. Adding landing pages and similar content based around these words will help customers find you more easily during the navigational phase.
A transactional keyword is one which indicates a user is ready to make a purchase or sign up for a service. Thus, words often used in searches at the transactional phase may include “Buy,” “For sale,” “Discounted,” etc. To continue with the previous example, a transactional search might be something like “sign up for New York City SEO marketing service” or “purchase SEO marketing in NYC.”
Again, you’ll get the best results from these keywords if you keep a list of what competitors are using in your industry while conducting keyword research (explained below).
Commercial keywords (also known as commercial intent keywords) apply only to transactional searches. They are words which indicate a user is looking to perform some type of commercial transaction. As with transactional keywords, they may contain phrases such as “Buy now”, but these searches may also contain words/phrases relating to the quality of the product or service they’re looking to buy. Thus, commercial keyword searches may include “Best…”, “Affordable…”, the brand name, and more.
Determining which keywords you should focus on involves performing research. There are two main tools you should rely on when doing so: Google Search Console and Google Ads Keyword Planner.
Google Search Console
Before you can use this tool, you need to set up the Google Search Console. The process is described here.
Once you’ve completed that step, go to the Search Console, choose your site property, and navigate to “Performance.”
This will display the following information:
As you can see, the console displays queries which drove traffic to your site. Obviously, for relatively popular brands, the queries which drive the most traffic will be brand-specific. Look deeper into these results to find queries that don’t mention your brand but do deliver strong results. This is one way to come up with keyword ideas.
Google Ads Keyword Planner
You use the Google Ads Keyword Planner by first creating a Google Ads account. Open the tool, and you’ll be given two options:
If you select “Find new keywords,” you’ll be prompted to enter words associated with your business. A search for “seo marketing” yields these results:
This helps you generate new ideas. Once you have, you can switch to the “Get search volume and forecasts” feature to learn more about a particular keyword. These are the results for “seo optimization”:
As you can see, you can change various settings, such as the location or language of the audience to whom you’re marketing. Navigating to “Historical Metrics” reveals information about average monthly searches:
This is useful as a means of identifying high search volume keywords that may be difficult to rank for. Another tool useful for researching the competition is SEMrush.
Entering domain information into the SEMrush Keywords Competitor Report tool yields insights into the keywords others in your niche are using. This can help you identify popular keywords, determine how competitors are ranking for the keywords you rely on, identify new keywords that are proving effective for competitors, and identify keywords where their ranking has fallen.
Regular keyword research is an essential component of improving your domain ranking factors’ impact on your SEO strategy. However, so is optimizing for all the factors covered here, from age to history. Remember these points when researching new domains and addressing any weaknesses of your current domains.