Branding & Domain Names

Using domains effectively for branding purposes means a lot more than just getting the brand name in the domain. As our jobs have transcended plain “SEO”, we are being asked increasingly strategic questions relating to broader online marketing and competitive strategies. SEO recommendations regarding domain names used to sound like, “get a URL that is short, easy to say/remember, and includes keywords.” Lately, the way we select and structure domains is a consideration of brand architecture and long-term competitive strategy.

Aligning Brand Architecture and Domain Architecture

Imagine finding the Dove Soap home in a sub-folder of unilever.com, or looking for the Colgate site to discover a separate domain for Colgate toothpaste and Colgate toothbrushes. Such misalignments of brand architecture and domain architecture will confuse customers, undermine branding strategy, and possibly minimize the positive effect of brand signals to search engines.

There are an obnoxious number of terms marketing papers and books use to describe similar branding strategies. For our purposes, the important point is that companies vary in the extent to which they market with the corporate brand, sub-brand, and/or individual product brand.

Corporate Brands

Consider a company that slaps its name on everything. The risk is that one bad product or story can damage the company’s perception across all business sectors. The benefit is that a positive halo effect from a good product can lift related products and create economies of scale in marketing. Name one such economy of scale that marketing textbooks always miss. Domain authority!

Apple is a good example of a company doing this right for the most part. All of Apple’s devices are strongly branded as Apple products. Accordingly, the “Apple iPad” has a proper home on http://www.apple.com/ipad/. No new domain is necessary for each line of products.

Apple Brand Structure

The purely-technical SEO inside of me likes having a single site and brand to worry about. I wish I could tell everyone never to launch a new domain, but there are times where it just doesn’t make sense for everything to live under one brand or domain.

The Product-Only Brand

This type of branding works best where there is a strong local connection, there are no related products, and there is limited interaction with “corporate.” The downside is that you’re going to be starting from scratch with your customers every time, and your domain name is no exception.

Many apartment complexes are owned by larger chains, but it’s common for each apartment to have a very separate brand. It helps that Rolling Pine Hills Heights sounds a lot better than the Surname Property Group.

Product brand only structure

As an example of doing this wrong, residents going through surnamepropertygrp.com to pay a bill makes a less-than-ideal best branding experience. I imagine it feels like sending money to an unknown corporate overlord.

apartment-misbrandedIf you brand a product entirely on its own, it should have its own branded domain. This mistake is often repeated online, and it diminishes from brand strategy. You don’t need to hide your brand, but presumably there was a reason for the individual brand in the first place.

Individual Branding

Individual branding means creating a bunch of brands, and slapping them on a bunch of related products. This branding strategy is usually best when you’re making a ton of products that are unrelated and have different demographics. The pros and cons obviously lie somewhere in-between product-focused and corporate branding. You receive some economies of scale within the brand, but you have to give each family its own identity – and domain.

The classic examples are Unilever and Procter & Gamble, who together make just about everything in the cosmetics and cleanings isles of major grocery stores. In the laundry detergents department alone, P&G makes Ace, Ariel, Bold, Dash, Dawn, Gain, and Tide. Ideally, each consumer-facing brand would get its own domain, but profitable domains have been understandably prioritized in that regard. The important point is that domains are both a tool for branding and a consideration for the brand strategy.

The Domain Name as a Branding Tool

There was a time when it seemed to make sense to choose a lot of exact-match and keyword-focused domains. Google was (is?) letting almost anything rank if the domain matched the query exactly. Product-specific domains sold (sell?) for millions of dollars. As with most weird-for-user-good-for-Google-type moves, the strategy just didn’t hold up in the long term.

It now seems obvious that for actual businesses, a product/service name that exactly matches the domain name turns out to be a major weakness. For the same reason that “Tow Truck Company” is a terrible consumer-facing name for a tow truck company, exact-match domains are terrible for long-term branding. It’s impossibly hard to differentiate yourself when your company name sounds inherently generic.

snipes-on-domains

Unbranded domains: like trying to ice-skate uphill

Let’s stop telling clients to buy and use domains like towtruckcompany.com – it makes all of us look bad. For specific tactics on choosing a domain, I recommend Rand’s still-relevant domain selection tips.

International Domains and Branding

International SEO was, for many years, a confusing area with no good information, but that’s not true anymore. Please, if you’re thinking about launching  a new ccTLD, do yourself a favor by reading Hanna’s International SEO presentation slides and summary.

For the scope of this post, I’d like to emphasize that you should use a new ccTLD only if you have the resources to build your brand in the region. Launching a UK site with no UK presence for a better SERP CTR is not a good idea. Think about it from a branding perspective, because getting a new ccTLD to rank is an awful lot of work, and there’s no “rank first in whichever country I please” button.

The Need to Brand: Increasingly Important, Not Going Away

“Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”

-Eric Schmidt

We may or may not see our sites as part of the cesspool, but if we don’t look like a brand we’re going to be treated like whatever-makes-up-a-cesspool (cesslings?) by Google. I recommend taking Dr. Pete’s advice: get over it, and act like a brand. A site that sounds and looks like a brand is the first step toward acting like – or even better, actually becoming – a brand.

Our industry is rapidly evolving and maturing past the point of relying on tricks to rank. This has been partly fueled by Google’s new focus on brands, and partly fueled by thought leaders who see the long-term profit potential. Branding has always mattered, but those who effective leverage their branding strategy will ride the wave with little to fear from Pandas, Penguins, or any of their friends.