Google is always changing the various signals they look at to determine a site's relevance. This is typically done in reaction to the world of SEO (particularly the black-hat variety) attempting to game one or more signals. For instance, the meta-description and meta-keyword tags don't really impact your ranking anymore these days--but six or seven years ago were still pretty important. And the next big change seems likely to involve the weight given to keyword-rich domains.
Are Keyword-Rich Domain Names On The Way Out?
Aaron Wall over at SEOBook.com has a great piece analyzing a video from Matt Cutts, wherein Cutts answers a viewer question regarding keyword-rich domains. In Wall's view, it's clear that Google is valuing branding more than ever before, and is even looking for new ways to allow it to impact results.
And Cutts just about says as much in the video, by making this statement:
"Now if you are still on the fence, let me just give you a bit of color. that we have looked at the rankings and the weights that we give to keyword domains, & some people have complained that we are giving a little too much weight for keywords in domains. So we have been thinking about at adjusting that mix a bit and sort of turning the knob down within the algorithm, so that given 2 different domains it wouldn't necessarily help you as much to have a domain name with a bunch of keywords in it."
Check out the entire video, which is just three minutes long:
(As an aside--Matt really puts on a clinic here on how to do short, well-produced videos, both in terms of his on-camera presence as well as the clear audio and clean set).
If Not Keyword-Rich Domains, Then What?
As Google continues to try and stay a few steps ahead of the spammers, gamers, and black-hats, they are always on the lookout for new signals that may help prove to them which sites are the most valuable. Where we used to rely heavily on the meta tags back in the day, they've been replaced by more modern signals such as link authority, pagerank, and keyword-rich domains.
As those signals become targets for the shadier side of the web, Google is looking to find even newer ways to measure a site's worth. Some things they may look at and assign more weight to moving forward:
- Branding - Cutts sends a clear message in the video that a branded domain is likely to matter more in the near future than one with a killer exact-match keyword phrase in it. His example is Twitter.com. When Twitter launched, the word "twitter" didn't really mean anything int he online world. It was a domain very far from being keyword-rich. But ultimately, it has more value now because of the branding of Twitter across the rest of the web.
- Social interaction - What is Facebook and Twitter saying about your brand or business? How much social "action" does your identity command?
- Reviews - Google is going to start relying on reviews more and more. Business reviews on Yelp or in Google Places, video reviews on your YouTube clips, Amazon reviews for product and brand names. If links were the "currency of trust," then reviews are the next evolution. Links simply suggested that the linking site trusted the destination site... reviews give us exactly how the reviewer feels, with no suggestions or guesswork needed.
- Personalization - I think Google is pretty freaking far away from personalized search ceasing to be important. In fact, I think it's only going to get more important. There is no blanket algorithmic solution that works best for everyone, because we're all unique individuals with unique search patterns and goals. The more the search experience can be tailored and customized to the user, the more likely they'll have success.
Wrap-Up - SEO Signals Evolving
Wall's closing thoughts sum up the issue pretty well:
"Classical SEO signals (on-page optimization, link anchor text, domain names, etc.) have value up until a point, but if Google is going to keep mixing in more and more signals from other data sources then the value of any single signal drops... The link graph is rotted out by nepotism & paid links. Domain names are seen as a tool for speculation & a short cut. It is not surprising Google is looking for more signals."
In some ways, this is like losing an old friend. I'm not the most seasoned SEO veteran--many have blazed trails in the industry before I came along. But keyword-rich domain names have long been a part of my reliable arsenal of tools. I'll be sad to see it go.
But on the other hand, I'm excited about the new signals that might be coming down the road. This is what we all love about SEO, right? The game changes so often that it gives all of us--even the little guys--a chance to keep up with the industry leaders.
What signal is undervalued or ignored completely right now that you think will become hugely important for ranking in the near future?