What’s in a name? In SEO, potentially a lot

In the world of online business, you can live and die by your name, which for small business owners usually translates into your site’s domain name URL. If you’re a spammer, you likely don’t care about your business name’s URL. Spammers buy domain names by the hundreds (or even thousands) and use each one as a disposable commodity for their nefarious activities. Once a domain name becomes associated with web spam activities, it faces punitive measures from the engines, often rendering it valueless. The spammers simply ditch that domain name and move on to the next, and the spam wars go on and on.

Most legitimate companies, however, value their domain name, and don’t want to do anything to damage it. In fact, these companies invest time, energy, and money to build their online business identities around these domain names.

The domain names of smaller businesses are often the names of the founder/sole proprietor. As such, the names of people often become business names. That’s cool. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Unless…

How do you spell that?

If the spelling of the words in the personal name are outside of the norm, then it becomes tricky. Worse yet is when the words of the name are pronounced in a familiar way but are spelled differently. If such a business advertises in audio media such as radio, this can be really problematic. And with the Internet, just like with your English teacher in school, spelling counts. Big time.

I’ve recently worked with a couple of such businesses who faced this exact scenario. Both of these businesses recognized early on that the preferred spelling of the business domain names were not what people would naturally type in a browser bar upon hearing the name. So both wisely bought additional domain names as secondary spelling variations of the primary domain. This was a very wise and important step, but neither business finished the job of optimizing the setup so that it would benefit their site for search.

Double Trouble

To main business confidentiality, for business example No. 1, let’s use the fictitious name of Jayne Smythe as the small business proprietor. Let’s say Jayne bought the following variations of her name as domain names (remember, these are fictitious examples!):

  1. jaynesmythe.com
  2. jaynesmith.com
  3. janesmythe.com
  4. janesmith.com

The first domain name in the above list was the intended primary domain name, but it was obvious that any of the four domain names might be used by web users for directly browsing to the site or for search engine navigation queries, with the fourth domain name in the list being the most likely used variation.

To capture all of the potential misspelled web traffic, Jayne set up a full site for each of the four domain names, each completely independent of one another, but each one containing the same content. Worst of all, that site content was heavily updated on a daily basis, so there was quite a bit of logistical work to do to create and update all of the fresh content between the four variations of the same site. I’m not sure who suggested this setup, but I can imagine it must have cost Jayne a good deal of money to maintain this needlessly complex configuration.

Aside from potential maintenance costs, the additional search engine optimization (SEO) problems were multifold. For starters, each site’s domain name was competing for search engine rank against the three other variations for the same keywords, thus diluting the rank potential for the given content. In addition to that, the consequences of having all four site hosting duplicate content meant that when search engines discovered and purged the dupe content in the index, Jayne had no control over which site’s version was maintained. This splintered the source of all that great content between the four sites, making the whole thing a search engine mess.

Before I began my work with this business, I ran a Google search on the No. 4 variation, the most common spelling of the business name, intentionally knowing it was not the intended primary spelling. I found the business listed twice in the top 10! Competition is good, but not when it is against yourself!

I recommended that Jayne immediately stop providing new content to URL variations 2, 3, and 4 of the above list. Instead, she needed to shut down those duplicate sites, and then set up permanent (301) redirects for all URLs within those alternative domains to the primary domain URL. This would stop the costly maintenance work, prevent existing backlinks from breaking, yet also enable the primary URL to earn search engine credit for those misspelled links. I also recommended some significant changes in page metadata (keyword optimizing the <title> tags and adding descriptive text to previously blank <meta> description tags).

Within one month of publishing those changes, the targeted primary domain saw an 11% rise in traffic, consolidated its rankings, and enjoyed a 17% increase in new users. And now when Jayne does a Google search for her misspelled name (no matter which variation), her primary domain earns the #1, #2, and #3 spots out of the top 10. That’s how it’s supposed to be!

Finishing the redirect job right

Business No. 2 was in a similar spot. Using the slightly different fictitious name of Jayne Smith for this example, she wanted web visitors to go to her namesake domain, jaynesmith.com. But realizing that janesmith.com was the more likely spelling web users would type upon hearing the name spoken, she wisely bought that second domain name as well.

Unfortunately, the second domain was set up incorrectly in terms of SEO. For starters, while it did use an HTTP redirect, it erroneously employed a temporary (302) redirect instead of the important-for-SEO 301 redirect.

This detail is important because search engines interpret a temporary 302 redirect as just that – temporary. If a business temporarily sold out of their top-selling XYZ widget, they could set up a 302 for the widget’s sales page URL to point to a “Sorry, temporarily sold out” page URL until new inventory arrives. The use of the 302 maintains the original URL’s search engine rank, so when the temporary redirect is removed, the original URL still has its original rank. But web servers often employ 302 redirects as their default redirect type, and many webmasters unknowingly use this by mistake for all redirects. In the above example, a permanent 301 redirect is in order. A 301 causes search engines to transfer all previously earned ranking value earned by the old URL over to the new URL. A long term use of a 302 does nothing to help the redirect’s target page to consolidate search engine rank value.

The second issue was that the 302 redirected the user to a deep link within the primary domain. Given that the user was attempting to reach the site’s home page, albeit at the secondary domain, this must have led to visitor confusion, bounces, and lost opportunities for conversions.

Again, I recommended the use of a 301 redirect from the second domain to the first, and then target the redirect to point to the home page at the root of the primary domain. Within one month after updating the redirect, Jayne noted a 16% increase in the number of search engine referrals, which then grew to 25% during the next month. She was very pleased with the results.

Canonicalization

The common theme here is domain canonicalization – the process of determining which version of multiple domain names is the primary (or canonical) version. Once identified, webmasters need to drive all of their traffic to the canonical domain name.

Since you can’t control what your users search for or how others link to you, set up your site’s entry points to act as a giant funnel, which gathers many more potential visitors and use redirects to guide them to the site of your choice. When this happens with search bots, you get the added benefit of having the search index content funneled to the one, canonical domain. And given that search engines index content by URLs, you can consolidate all potential ranking dilutions to the canonical URL, maximizing its rank value.

Your business name is your identity. While a unique name can be memorable and thus be very positive, if the words in the name are unfamiliar to your target audience or the words use atypical spellings, it can also be a source of frustration for potential customers who want to find you but cannot. Anticipate their needs, know what they are likely to do, and set up your site’s name so it can be easily found (even if the easy way to spell it is not the intended business name). Once you acquire the various domain names you need, use 301 redirects for all of the alternative names back to the canonical one to ensure that any web searches and erroneously typed URLs in backlinks to your site will still work, thereby benefitting both your customers and you.

There’s even more to canonicalization considerations. We’ll get into those details soon. Until then! red diamond logo

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