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.

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12 Comments

  1. Indeed, branding is paramount, and shows you stand for something. With social media so pervasive, consumers simply expect not just to know the brand but the people behind it as well.

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  2. Jonathan

    It is important for SEO to dovetail with marketing strategies Numerous multunational brands (P@G) now co-brand a product on multi media channels to sell/develop consumer trust P@G) (Unilever) another example is the gound-breaking way J&J developed Baby dot com & Babycenter dot com / babycenter.co.uk back in the early days each site authoritative, each highly ranked. I noted a tv ad cleverly using the generic to carry the co-brand only last week UNUM: used backupplan dot com The North American verticals Quinsteeet Bankrate & Lendingtree are very successful models of keywords (insurance dot com) used by marketeers to create seamless calls to customer calls action. IMO only about 20 keywords in the financial - insurance - auto - retail make up the vertical online group.
    “Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.” YES but I have a cesspool and it requires emptying Zinminging.com/cesspool cleaning/ septictank cleaning as my brand to call or SepticTank.com (brands are often cesspools)
    Not my world but TowTruck.com would be enough of a head start if I was in the business.

    One of the only ways to compete with existing multinational deep pockets in long term sustainable marketing budgets is to have registered a group of keywords that can be used to co-brand & develop your core new brand name.
    Go with the flow, damming water will not work.

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    • Carson Ward

      Hi Jonathan,

      You make some really good points. I agree with you that generic domains have their place. The sites you mentioned aren't really trying to compete in the market for goods and services. I should have added a caveat that generic-sounding sites are great if the competition is for information.

      Dogs.com would be a great place for petsmart to put up high quality information about dogs with some ads, but it wouldn't be a good place to sell dogs or dog supplies.

      You might get a little more traffic in the short-term with towtruckcompany.com, but that's more time spent as a generic when you could be building a long-term brand. Even in the short-term, I suspect your conversion rate would suffer as a generic-sounding company rather than just a brand people hadn't heard of yet.

      It takes time and effort to build a brand and reputation. I recommend new companies start with that ASAP rather than playing around with tricks to get some extra visitors from Google.

  3. Ian

    +100 for the Blade reference

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  4. Jonathan

    Thanks Carson: My comments relating to TowTruck.com = traffic this is the "brand" or alternatively use the keyword to be an authoritative site for your companies distribution / rental business whist co-branding your actual company brand XXXDistribution inc.
    It is not about playing tricks with Google It is one of the only ways to compete with existing multinational who have the economies of scale to pay the ferryman.
    Quinsteeet Bankrate & Lendingtree paid highly for insurance com creditcard com auto com.
    The only sites I mentioned that are information based are the J&J who use text links and banners to commercial benefit. There are many other languages and if you are forward thinking and register or buy AutoInsurance - LifeInsurance - HouseInsurance - MotoInsurance - AutoSales under the branded dot com and if each is authoritative in its own right, as a media company (no Black hat) you co-brand your company name. Do not hide anything from Google spam engineers this is about authoritative indipendant quality information according to your URL you will be acting according to the “Brands are the solution, not the problem:" accord. The Generic IS the brand.

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  5. BAM! Did this hit home. We met just today on the idea of combining our individual web brands that were established a decade ago on the premise of "keyword" domains.

    Aside from the obvious headache of multiples of costs for SEO and infrastructure, now, you're right, it does seem that Google just doesn't love that "direct keyword in the domain name" approach - and for consumers, it has ALWAYS been confusing where to send them for different products. And I think with a brand like Cool Shopping Ideas - it could actually help make shopping and finding us easier for repeat customers. (ahhh wouldn't that be nice, rememberability).

    As we progress into the teen years of ecommerce we'll overcome the growth pains of ecommerce puberty and learn more about building a business that operates primarily online, instead of just being an "online business". Thanks for the kick in the pants.

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  6. Thanks for the post, Carson. I agree and disagree with some of the points made here, but only because I think it 100% depends on what industry/vertical we're talking about, as well as organic vs. paid traffic. I'm still seeing such an importance of product/service + location domains when it comes to PPC click thru rates (unfortunately, many advertisers take advantage of this in spammy ways).

    The other thing I want to embellish on and continue where you left off with the Apple example, is that not only is Apple the brand.. but it's also looked at as the product. I feel like most people say "I own an Apple" when referring to the computer they own. "Kleenex" is another example, since many people refer to tissues as "Kleenex's". Branded domains can be leveraged even moreso if this is the case. Some goods and services don't see as much value in branding just because of the type of business. I guess it also comes down to the brand recognition that exists - if people don't know your brand, then I would imagine it has no benefit (probably a negative effect) on organic & ppc CTR. You really hit this home when you mentioned the importance of " having the resources to build your brand in the region."

    Thanks for the post, great job!

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  7. Excellent post. This gives me the idea how branding works in the big companies. As i can see
    it is very complicated for me not working on big company. I think the flow is also applicable to small and new business.

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  8. Paudie

    If you are already grouped in the cess pool then is there any evidence that using better brand focus in your SEO will help Google to recognize you as a brand? In other words, is Google forgiving?

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    • Carson Ward

      Good question; I think it depends on whether you're talking about manual penalties or algorithmic sorting. When manual action is taken, my experience is that it remains flagged on your account long into the future. As soon as the penalty is removed, you are treated just like everyone else - unless you get hit by a second manual action, in which case Google is less than forgiving.

      Here's the good news, though: the vast majority of Google's rankings are entirely algorithmic, and branding signals are no exception. If you start sending strong signals as a brand, you reap the benefits right away.

  9. Jon Davies

    Nice post. I think another point for those looking to create a brand is to consider the brand name's potential for confusion. It needs to be short and easy to remember, otherwise people will find it much difficult to find you (getting the domain name wrong).

    For those with a brand name already, a good way to check how confused people are by the name is to check analytics, look at your visits through brand terms, and find out what proportion of these are spelt incorrectly. Based on the results you may want to:
    Consider a different brand name if confusion is high (though this is not to be taken lightly of course and requires serious consideration before going down this route)
    Buy up the most commonly searched for misspellings to prevent anyone from grabbing your traffic for their own benefit
    Look for potential marketing improvements to improve recall of your brand name
    Remember that you won't grow your brand if most people don't know how to spell it

    Again, great post.

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  10. our company has active in 2 different subject. one is content and the other is e-commerce. And we have 2 different brand names for these servcies. I am responsible from branding. now we are dicussing if we need to seperate the domains because thet serve under one domain only. I believe that strength of a brand name is one of the most important communication skill. today you can be a brand only with your website like facebook. now we are trying to locate a new brand and I believe it need another domain for this. But the director's ask me to find the proof (whitepapers). can you help me about this subject ?

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