There have been a number of debates over the years about the SEO value of having keywords in your domain URL.
In a 2009 Google Webmaster video, Google’s then-head of web spam Matt Cutts confirmed that from a pure ranking standpoint, “it does help a little bit to have keywords in the URL”.
More recently, Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller stated in a Google Webmaster Central office hours hangout that keywords in URLs are a “really small ranking factor”. But small can still make a difference in the grand scheme of things, and there are also compelling reasons from a usability standpoint to include keywords where they are relevant.
A new study by Fractl, whose findings were shared exclusively with Search Engine Watch, set out to investigate the relationship between the top ranked websites in various industries and the inclusion of keywords in their URLs.
It found that nearly two thirds of top-ranking websites use keywords in their URLs – but this can vary significantly from industry to industry. So what can we learn from the findings about the importance of having keywords in your domain URL?
The study looked at the top 10 keywords across 10 major industries: business, credit cards, debt, email software, food and beverage, government and trade, hotel, plumbing, software and weight loss. It then analysed the top page results for these keywords and their URLs, to find out how often keywords were used, and in what form.
Overall, 63% of the top ranking sites for each industry – nearly two thirds – included keywords in their domain URL. Of the industries analysed, the debt industry had the highest incidence of keywords in their domain URLs, with 76% of URLs in the debt industry using a keyword.
As an industry, email software was the least likely to use keywords in its domain URL, with less than half – 47% – of sites in the email software industry using keywords in their URLs.
Among the top ranking websites for each industry, seven out of ten sites used a keyword in their URLs, two included a partial keyword – for example ‘tp’ for ‘trade policy’ – and only one site included no keyword at all. This was the top ranking site for the weight loss industry, although it included the word ‘diet’ instead.
The debt industry: keywords galore
The debt industry had a high level of keyword usage in its domain URLs across various search terms. Out of the top 10 ranked websites for the word ‘debt’, 100% of sites used the keyword in their URLs.
Similarly, all top ranking sites for the keyword ‘debt equity’ used the term in their URLs, while 95% of the top ranked sites for ‘debt finance’ used the keyword in their domain URLs.
The keywords least likely to appear in domain URLs for the debt industry were ‘debt equity loans’ and ‘credit debt loans’, with 55% of top ranking sites using these keywords in their URLs. This could be because these keywords are longer, making it less likely that they would be used in their entirety.
Email software: less is more
The industry with the lowest incidence of keyword usage in its URLs was email software, although it’s interesting to note that this was also the industry with the longest keywords, with all keywords having at least two words, and some having four or five.
No set of websites rose above 60% keyword usage in their URLs, and the least-used keyword – ‘bulk email software buy’ – appeared in just 35% of URLs for the top ranked sites. ‘Newsletter email software’ and ‘best email software’ were the keywords most likely to appear in URLs, with both keywords appearing in 60% of top ranking URLs.
Hotel keywords: regional differences
The hotel industry had 62% usage of keywords in URLs overall, with seven out of the 10 top ranked sites for the term ‘hotel’ including the keyword in their domain URLs.
Popular booking sites like Travelocity have made it to the top of the SERP without needing to include the keyword (although the word ‘travel’ could arguably be considered a related keyword). Another of the top ranked websites was www.otel.com, which although it doesn’t contain the keyword in its entirety, has all except one letter!
‘Region-specific’ keywords such as ‘san hotel’ (i.e. San Francisco or San Diego) or ‘york hotel’ were more likely to appear in URLs, appearing in 100% and 80% of URLs for their respective keywords.
At the lower end of the spectrum, ‘hotel discount’ and ‘reservations hotel’ were the keywords least likely to appear in URLs, appearing in 35% and 25% of URLs, respectively.
How can URL keywords help you rank higher?
It’s clear that there is a link between the websites which rank highly for a certain keyword and whether or not that keyword appears in its URL. However, this is unlikely to be the only factor that determines whether or not a site can rank well.
As those of us in the industry know, countless other things can contribute to good SEO, and the study by Fractl was focused on one aspect. But does this mean that you shouldn’t bother with keywords in your URLs? Not at all.
Rand Fishkin, Founder of Moz, published ‘15 SEO best practices for structuring URLs‘ in which he argued that ‘using the keywords you’re targeting for rankings in your URLs is a solid idea’. Firstly from a readability and usability perspective, having relevant keywords in your URL lets users know exactly what they’re getting.
Google’s SEO Starter Guide also states that, “If your URL contains relevant words, this provides users and search engines with more information about the page than an ID or oddly named parameter would.” In other words, including keywords – or at least clear and direct information – in your URL is a best practice.
Secondly, Fishkin points out, URLs are frequently copied and pasted, and when no anchor text is used in a link, the URL itself will serve as anchor text – a powerful ranking input. However, he also cautions against keyword-stuffing your URLs or using keyword repetition:
“Google and Bing have moved far beyond algorithms that positively reward a keyword appearing multiple times in the URL string. Don’t hurt your chances of earning a click (which CAN impact your rankings) by overdoing keyword matching/repetition in your URLs.”
Fiskin also cites research from the International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining which demonstrated that the URL is one of the most prominent elements searchers consider when deciding which site to click on.
Again, having clear and relevant information in your URL helps you to earn clicks – and while click-through rate is still hotly debated as a possible ranking factor, once you do manage to rank for a particular keyword, it’s no good if no-one clicks through to your site.
What about Exact Match Domains?
Exact Match Domains (EMDs) – when the domain of a site exactly matches the keyword that you want to target – can also be a means of ranking well for your keyword, but use them wisely.
Most brands will derive their domain from the name of their brand, which might also contain a keyword – such as glassesdirect.com. But Exact Match Domains are often a sign of a spammy website, and one which Google is on the lookout for.
— Gary Illyes ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ (@methode) November 25, 2016
On the other hand, EMDs are often memorable, which is good from a usability standpoint – a user searching for cheap flights will have no trouble remembering the URL ‘cheapflights.com’, and there can be no mistake as to what the website is for.
If you have a legitimate reason for using an EMD and aren’t combining it with any other spammy tactics, then you should be fine.
In conclusion: usability first!
The bottom line of all of this is to consider the user experience first and foremost. As we’ve seen, a clear, direct URL is the best route to take in order to ensure that users know what they’re getting from your website and are prepared to click on it. In many cases, this can also help your ranking as an added bonus.
Many of the top websites in various industries thus use keywords in their URLs, but others which don’t are still able to rank highly. Much as we now know that writing quality content is better than stuffing it with keywords, the same applies to creating quality URLs. In the end, it comes down to what makes sense for your brand and website.