Branded vs. Geo-Modified Domains
A client came to me with a seemingly-innocuous question, "Should we launch a separate domain for each of our office locations, or should we keep a single, branded domain?"
Context: This client had purchased an exact-match keyword domain in 2010, before Google had rolled out its EMD update that disallowed sites from ranking on the basis of the keywords in their domain alone. The site they purchased had their city and main service in it (the term they wanted to rank for most), and not surprisingly, they ranked nearly overnight. It was upon this past experience that they were certain if they did the same thing again and purchased another geo+service EMD, they would rank instantly. I was advocating for a single, branded domain. Below are the contents of my response to their question.
BENEFITS OF A SINGLE, BRANDED DOMAIN
STRONGER BRAND ASSOCIATION. Searchers often make selections from the search engine results pages (SERPs) based on their familiarity bias. In other words, they are likely to select the URL of a brand they recognize and trust. While having keywords in your domain can be helpful, it doesn't distinguish you as much from your competition as brand mentions would. I personally like a mix of brand and keywords. For example, if I Googled “best vegan donuts” and one of the search results was RogersVeganDonuts.com, I might be more inclined to click on that over RogerSmith.com (if I wasn’t familiar with the brand, keywords help me trust it for relevance’s sake).
CONSISTENT USER EXPERIENCE. User experience can be cleaner on a single domain. In order to get all the information about your business (i.e. both areas served / both offices), a user wouldn’t have to navigate off-site with a single domain, whereas they would with a multi-domain strategy.
DOMAIN AUTHORITY. Orlando, as a new office, would benefit from latching onto the authority of the main site in a single-domain strategy. Whereas launching Orlando on a new domain would mean starting out with no authority and no backlinks, launching Orlando attached to the main site would mean starting out already with authority and backlinks.
MESSAGING. Because the content on each domain must be unique, we couldn’t share any messaging between the two. A single site would offer the benefit of not having to rewrite non-city specific pages such as the home page, about us page, and attorney pages.
GEO-SPECIFIC EXPERIENCES. With a single domain, we can still customize city-specific sections to offer unique user experiences. For example, example.com/orlando could have an entirely unique message that distinguishes itself from example.com/tallahassee.
SINGLE V. DIVIDED EFFORTS. Authority is a domain-based factor, and as such, doesn’t transfer well through indirect relationships with other websites. With a single-domain strategy, we wouldn’t have to divide our efforts attracting authority links separately for each domain.
FUTURE-PROOFING. A single domain is more future proof. If you added more offices in the future, it’d be fairly simple to add new pages to an already-established domain, whereas going with a multi-domain strategy would mean having to launch a brand new website every time another office opens in order to remain consistent.
BENEFITS OF MULTIPLE, GEO-SPECIFIC DOMAINS
DISTINCT CAMPAIGNS. This strategy could be beneficial if you wanted a less holistic organic presence, preferring to keep the Orlando organic campaign separate altogether from the Tallahassee organic campaign.
GEO CONSISTENCY. Although you could offer a custom, city-specific experience with subpages on a single domain, you may be able to address your visitors more personally with separate domains.
There would be less confusion over which pages to cater to which locale. The entire Orlando site would be optimized for Orlando, while the entire Tallahassee site would be optimized for Tallahassee. Whereas with a single domain, we would be selecting some “shared” pages (that don’t belong to either office) to have more generic geo optimization like “Florida.”
CITATIONS CONSISTENCY. While we can set up citations to go to their appropriate subpage on the site (ex: Orlando citations pointing to the example.com/orlando page) it is common for some backlinks to go to the home page. If the location “home” pages are located on subpages, some of the backlinks may go to a geo-neutral page (true home page) rather than a location-specific page.
If you enjoyed this, check out my Whiteboard Friday on Moz: The Goal-Based Approach to Domain Selection! It was largely inspired by questions like this.