Choosing a Domain Name – Dashes or No Dashes

There’s a lot of discussion in the internet marketing community about choosing domain names.  Some people think it’s very important.  Some people think your overall marketing strategy is much more important.  The truth is they’re both right.

Choosing a domain name should NOT be your first step when you decide to create an online presence.  Your first step should be to research the market you’ll be entering and find keywords.  Keywords are simply words or phrases that people type into search engines to find what they want.

Let’s look at domain names from 3 different perspectives:

1. Search Engine Optimization
2. Branding
3. The Real World

SEARCH ENGINE OPTIMIZATION (SEO)

SEO means doing things to your website, or for your website, to rank higher on search engines, such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing.  When people go to Google and type in “buy your product,” you want to be the first website listed, so you get plenty of visitors, and in turn, more revenue.

Many people believe that having a domain name with your relevant keywords in the domain name can help you rank higher in search results.  There is some truth to that but the real reason it helps you to rank higher is because it helps you focus on your keywords, your market and, ultimately, your customers.

Let me give you an example.  You buy “yourproduct.com” for your new online business.  The title of your website becomes “Your Product.”  When you write the meta description for your website, you include “Your Product” as keywords.  When people on other websites link to you, they use “Your Product” as the anchor link.  Now, when people go to Google to search for “Your Product,” your site will come up because it’s optimized for your relevant keywords.

Google has confirmed that using dashes (hyphens) can help search engines recognize specific words, such as “your-product.com.”  Google treats dots and dashes as spaces, so when it sees “www.your-product.com,” it recognizes it as “www your product com.”

However, Google can also recognize words that are typed together, such as “yourproduct.com.”  If you have obscure words, or multiple words can be extracted from your domain name, then you might want to consider adding dashes.  The classic example is “expertsexchange.com” (experts exchange v. expert sex change).  You might get some unexpected traffic for that one.  If you want to test your desired domain, just type it, without spaces, into Google and see if it recognizes the separate words.

I can tell you from experience that it is more difficult to get a domain name with hyphens to the first page of Google than it is without hyphens.  I have also seen experiments conducted by other people that confirmed the same thing.  If you want something else to think about, go to Google and type in any keyword.  How many of the results have dashes in the domain name?  I’m guessing not many.  Also take a look at the top level domain.  How many are dot com versus dot net, dot org, or dot info?  That alone should give you some guidance when it comes to choosing a domain name.

BRANDING

Branding is essentially promoting a product or service by using a distinctive mark or other distinguishing features or qualities.  Rolls off of the tongue, doesn’t it?  Just think of a major brand name, such as Nike.  They promote their brand by trying to be different.  Nike doesn’t want you to buy tennis shoes, they want you to buy Nike tennis shoes, and they spend a lot of money to get that brand name, Nike, everywhere they can.

Well, things are a little different on the world wide web.  Don’t get me wrong, Nike still rules, but they are an established brand with a major marketing budget.  If you’re trying to build a significant online presence from scratch, think twice before you choose a unique brand identifier as your domain name.

Here’s an example.  You’re ready to sell “widgets” on the internet, so you set up a company and you decide that it’s going to be named after you, “John Doe and Company.”  You buy the domain name “johndoeandcompany.com” and you get to work.

Now, you’re domain is “johndoeandcompany.com.”  The title of your webpage will probably be “John Doe and Company.”  When other people link to your website, they’ll probably say check out “John Doe and Company.”  Now, when someone goes to Google and types in “buy widgets,” your name won’t come up because your website is not optimized for your relevant keyword, “widgets.”  It’s optimized for “John Doe and Company.”

I’m not saying it’s impossible to develop a brand name online, because it is.  But, you have to stay focused on your market, your keywords, and your customers.  Using the John Doe example above, a better name might be “Doe Widgets.”  That has John Doe’s name in it AND the keyword that his customers will be looking for.

Now, when John Doe starts with a domain name, “doe-widgets.com,” and names his site “Doe Widgets,” people will link to him as “Doe Widgets.”  With the new name, Google will recognize that his website is about widgets and will include his website in the search results when someone is looking to buy widgets.  He builds his brand and optimizes his site to reach his customers.

THE REAL WORLD

Sometimes, when you run an internet business, you forget that there is an actual, real world out there.  In other words, I could actually tell people, in person, about my website.  You go to a party, the topic comes up, tell them about your website.  You go to your wife’s Christmas party, hey, let’s talk about my internet business.  Don’t forget about the real world when you start your business.

The real world presents different factors to take into consideration.  People don’t care about keywords and optimization.  They care about your product and the price of that product.  And, they also care about simplicity.  If you tell someone at a party to go to your website, “ buy dash john dash doe dash widgets dash and dash company.com,” you will be very lonely at this party.

Depending on what type of business you have, you might want a website domain that is simple and easy to tell people.  “Doewidgets.com”  Simple.  “Doe dash widgets.com.”  Not as simple.

An easy solution is to buy both domains and use the one without a dash on all of your business cards, promotional materials, and to tell people in person.  Forward that domain to “doe-widgets.com,” and build your online presence using the “doe-widgets.com” domain.

Keep in mind, if you don’t buy both domain names, someone could buy the hyphenated or non-hyphenated version later, and try to use your success to promote their website.  We won’t get into the legal issues involved with that, but whether something is legal or not will not matter to some people.

Many domain names aren’t available.  The simple, short ones get snatched up pretty quick.  If you can’t find the domain you want, you might be tempted to go with a name that includes a lot of dashes.  Think before you do that.
Domain names with too many dashes have gained a bad reputation.  They look like spam.  They look like phishing websites.  They look like trouble.  How many dashes is too many?  I‘ll let you be the judge of that, but if you go beyond two hyphens in your domain name, do so at your own risk.

CONCLUSION

Before you decide on a domain name, take a look at the factors listed above.  Think about your customers.  Where will they come from?  How will they find you?  You can have the greatest product in the world, but if no one goes to your website, it doesn’t matter.  Ultimately, choose a domain name that helps you build your own brand and helps attract customers on the internet.  And, remember that a domain name is just one small part of any strategic internet marketing plan.