In Defense of Dashy Domains
By Cam Balzer, 4/21/2003
Dashed domains offer a big target for proponents of a purer web marketing.
They float there broadside in the SERPs, overshadowing the sleeker domains,
just begging for a pot shot. You'll find eager takers on any major SE forum
or blog. Disclosure: yes, I am responsible for some dash-intensive domains.
Opinion: why would a serious search marketer not experiment with a potentially
fruitful technique? But beyond any real or perceived benefits, dashed domains
are worth pondering for what they can reveal about marketing via search.
Yahoo! created this monster, if a monster it is. Blame them for a search algorithm
based solely on the content of the search listing and not on the web site
in question. Further blame them for leaving only one element of those listings
in the direct, unalterable control of the webmaster or marketer: the domain
name. Yahoo!'s editors could edit all the flowery marketing copy out of your
description, but they couldn't touch your "buy-flowers-here.com" domain
without defeating the purpose of a directory.
You can also blame them for their word-matching algorithm. It seems to only
recognize words embedded in domains as separate words when the words are delimited
somehow. A dash, an underline, a dot. "Buyflowershere.com" didn't
match a search for "buy flowers"; "buy-flowers-here.com" did.
So what was a web marketeer to do, especially when Yahoo! was the Google of
And it still works… maybe even better than before
Remarkably, both of these preconditions for the dashed domain scourge still
exist today. Even the Google directory still appears to match only on delimited
words. Google's directory SERPs bold your search terms in the displayed snippet,
and the bolding only shows on delimited words. This bolding may just be a
visual cue to the searcher, completely independent of the workings of the
search algorithm, but this appearance alone suggests the value of dashed
domains to many online marketers.
The value of these supercharged domains was highlighted, ironically, when
they almost lost their value overnight in October 2002. Yahoo! de-emphasized
its directory in favor of Google's crawler results, and in so doing effectively
pulled the plug on hundreds of sites that depended on those dashes for their
traffic. Sites with long Yahoo!-optimized domains went from thousands/week
in revenue to pennies overnight.
But other sites with dashed domains continued to flourish: sites that had
gotten their dashed domains into Google's crawler results, where they benefited
from Google's link-friendly ranking algorithm. By packing keywords into your
domain, dashed domains guarantee that any links to your site will front-load
Google's index with your most important keywords in close proximity to your
link. My "buy-flowers-here.com" listing on Yahoo!'s directory still
smells sweet since it's letting Google know both where I am and what I am.
I'm at buy-flowers-here.com and I'm about buying flowers. There is active debate
on Google forums about how much benefit keyword-packed domains offer. But there
is enough evidence to suggest to many that it's worth it to dash their domains.
And what of searchers?
Perhaps the biggest continuing benefit of dashed domains is to the human searchers
in the search equation. Remember them? Undashed multiple word domains are
unnatural and unsightly. They are the norm only because computers didn't
used to like spaces in file names and paths. Web geeks accept them because
we've gotten used to them. But imagine how odd the convention must still
seem to first time web users.
Dashless domains are so pre-sliced-bread. If a searcher's brain happens to
scan my undashed domain as "buyf-lower-sheres", she's lost to me
as a customer. I personally find my eye lands on strong word-like clusters
in the middle of a domain and parses out from there. So my new hosting company
becomes "futu-request" and a Sunday in January is transformed into
an avian wonder: "superb-owl".
Next time you're scanning a search result page (for keywords other than your
own!), take note of how quickly your eye skips over anything it cannot instantly
parse. There's every chance your brain is disregarding as visual noise plenty
of undashed domains while picking out individual words—and your target
keywords—from space delimited content and dashed domains. Dashing a domain
is the sliced bread of web marketing, as good for searchers as for search engine
Pass the Crown Royal
Dashed domains may also be "the nude in the ice cubes" of internet
marketing. Think of your Adword tile in the middle of seven others. Think of
that searcher's mouse sliding down the right margin until something clicks.
He might not even know what clicked or why. How much time did you spend honing
the description copy, trying to fill it with trigger words, only to have it
displayed in tiny grayed-out type? Wouldn't hurt to have a few extra keywords
in the domain name—green and a few points bigger—to lure another
click onto your site. Repeat that hundreds or thousands of times a day or month.
With those extra delimited keywords, will your ad be just that much more likely
to register a connection in the searcher's brain? If not subliminally then
maybe just not quite liminally. Just enough to produce more clicks from more
customers your ad clicked with. Enough to bump your conversion rate up, and
your ad up the column with it? Perhaps. Definitely worth considering, especially
if you don't have the resources of the folks behind the tiles above you.
Branded or dashed?
Indeed, for many web marketers, from dot-com entrepreneurs to small businesses
venturing on-line to affiliate site hobbyists, it's really an issue of resources.
Building a brand simply isn't an option. They don't have the time to associate
a catchy made-up name with some feel-good concepts. Especially not when people
might feel just as good about them simply knowing what they do. "Buy-flowers-here.com" ain't
sexy, but you know what you're getting—arguably even if it turns out
to be an affiliate site.
Perhaps this is where some of the ire against dash-dash-dot domains comes
from. It's the little guys without their branding agencies and with only with
their do-it-yourself search marketing who have the most to gain with dashed
domains. With a little cleverness and a dashed domain, they can jostle in beside
the big names in the search results. So what of brand in a world of search?
The web is becoming more like a flea market everyday. Your listing on a search
engine page—directories especially but also crawlers—is like your
stall on a market aisle. You arrive early to claim a spot, but your location
may change week-to-week. And when you don't move, even your most loyal customers
may have trouble re-finding you in the maze.
The searcher's experience of searching, finding and acting (buying) is becoming
more and more seamless. And the process seems to be less frequently mediated
by a typed URL. In the melee of the search flea market, a dashed domain that
simply names what you are may be more valuable than a branded domain. Sure,
brands are easy to remember and type into a browser. But at what cost, when
even those who start with a brand in mind are as likely as not to enter it
in a search engine rather than the location bar?
At their heart, dash- and keyword-rich domains are an acknowledgment of the
primacy of search. They may be untypable and unrememberable, but who types
a domain any more? Besides the big brands maybe. For everyone else, there's
search. Dashed domains—in their use and in the complaints against their
use—are an acknowledgement that you can make it on the web today without
anyone but you ever typing your domain.
Cam Balzer markets some undashed and dashed domains, including Web-Cite.com,
where he analyzes search marketing from the inside out. He apologizes for the
excess of plain and em-dashes in this article.