Once I had an old white Ford Taurus that I used to just get around town. It was old, had around 150,000 miles on it, but could still do the job. Unfortunately, if you're going to own a car, especially an older car, it's important to know a bit about how the car works. If you don't, you can end up ignoring something that you think is a little deal which turns out to be a huge deal.
That, unfortunately, is what happened to me. I was about 750 miles overdue for an oil change—not a huge deal, I thought. "I'll bring it in the next time I have a free Saturday morning." Then I started to notice an odd sound when the car was running. But I still didn't worry about it. And then one day when I was driving home the car started to overheat. I finally checked the oil level and, yup, oil was almost all gone. I got the car towed to a shop but by then it was too late. The amount of damage I'd done to the car would cost more than the car was worth to repair. RIP old white Ford Taurus.
I tell that story not because I enjoy telling stories of me being stupid (though feel free to laugh at me) but because it illustrates an important point: When you're doing technical work, details matter. And unless you've taken the time to understand the thing you're dealing with really well, you shouldn't say things like, "eh, how big a deal could it be?" because the answer might surprise you.
Details matter in SEO.
Launching a new website is both one of the more exciting and difficult projects your marketing team can take on. It's exciting because it's your chance to fix whatever problems have been bothering you about the site, but it's a bit nerve-wracking because there are so many things that can go wrong.
One of the more basic things that can go wrong concerns the actual domain where your website "lives." The "domain" refers to the URL that people enter into their browser to access your website. (URL stands for "uniform resource locator," if you're curious.)
In this post, we are going to provide a general explainer about domain names as they affect apartment marketers.
Why are domain names a big deal?
Let's start with a simple explanation of how websites work. Websites are really nothing more than a bunch of individual files saved on a computer somewhere—individual pages will be html files, you probably have a CSS file in there, image files, and potentially a lot more than that depending on how large and complicated the website is.
When you launch a new website, you need two things: a domain name and hosting. Hosting simply refers to the server where the files that make up your website are stored. There are many different hosting options out there—Digital Ocean, Hostgator, GoDaddy, Bluehost, etc. The domain name is the string of text a person enters into their internet browsing tool which will allow them to view the website that is saved on the server.
So why are domain names a big deal? Well, look at it this way: The internet is a really, really big library. In fact, it is so big that there isn't a good way to organize it file a conventional filing system. Rather, we need to create software that can both look at as many website as possible (the technical term for this is "crawling") and then evaluate those sites and rank them in terms of value to the person using the search software.
One of the primary ways that search engines evaluate web content is by looking at the domain where that website lives. The domain, after all, is where actual human beings will interact with the files, where they will find what they need and spend time exploring the site or where they'll be confused or frustrated and bounce almost immediately. The domain is also where your site lives across multiple site versions and all the other changes you might make to the site and changes that might come to the web. So for that reason it's an ideal thing for Google to track and factor into search rankings. Now let's talk about the biggest domain-related question that many communities will face: Is there ever a time where you should move your community website to a new domain?
I'm moving to a new website vendor. Should I get a new domain or keep the old one?
As recently as late in 2015, this question wasn't that big a deal. Whether you built your site on the old domain where your community site has lived all along or you got a new domain, it didn't matter that much, at least as far as marketing your community on search engines was concerned.
Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. In 2016, Google rolled out a new update that affects how domain age influence search rankings. The too long; didn't read version of this is that the age of a domain became a much more important ranking factor in determining search rankings for branded keywords.
To put that in plainer language, before the update if someone searched for a specific brand—Pepsi, Chipotle, or even something like your specific apartment community—domain age wasn't that big a deal. If the brand being searched had an official website, that site almost certainly was the top result, even if it was only a couple weeks old.
After the update, it was more complicated. Official brand websites that were only a few weeks or even months old, probably were not the top result any more.
Why would Google make this change?
Our best guess is that Google looked at searcher behavior and concluded that the gap in relevance between official brand websites and other non-brand websites talking about the brand. If that is the case, then it makes sense to give branded websites a bit more time to establish quality, trust, and other solid user-metrics before Google starts pushing them toward the top of the search result page.
What does this mean in practice?
We saw this a number of client communities who signed on with us and who had never had an apartment website before run into trouble due to this change.
In the past, websites on new domains didn't take very long to rank for branded keywords. So if you were Sudden Valley Apartments and had a brand new website on a brand new domain, you'd rank first for "sudden valley apartments," within a few weeks of launch.
After the change, new domains began to take much longer to rank. We saw new clients with brand new domains still hanging around the 10th position (or worse) on branded terms even six weeks after launch.
In the long run, this hasn't been a major problem for a few reasons.
- First, the sites do begin to rank higher eventually. Six months out from launch all the sites we observed taking so long to rank at launch had moved in the top three search positions.
- Second, the Google My Business listing (which appears at the top or right-hand side of the search result page on branded keywords) links directly to the community website.
- Third, defensive AdWords campaigns are usually the top overall result and they also link directly to the community website.
For all those reasons, we haven't seen an appreciable change in traffic to community websites that are still sitting in the second or third search position on branded keywords compared to those at the top of the search results. The local and paid search results do a ton of work for us and make organic search position a little less important.
My community is building a new apartment website. Should we get a new domain or keep the old one?
In the majority of cases, you should keep the current domain. If your old domain has massive penalties from Google due to past unethical SEO behavior, then there could be a case for a new domain as you aren't receiving any of the benefits from having an old domain anyway.
But assuming nothing abnormal has happened on your old domain, you'll want to keep it if at all possible.
One other angle you may want to consider—if you have a fairly common community name but have never had your own website, you may want to think about this. You're going to need to buy a domain no matter what because you need a domain for your website. But before you buy a brand new one try this: It's possible that another community may own a domain that would be good, has a long-term record of using the domain well (so no penalties to overcome) but is no longer using that domain for whatever reason. In that case, it may be worth your while to pay a little extra to acquire that already-established domain and rank a little bit higher from the start. (Search Engine Land's article on this idea is worth your time.)
We have to use a brand new domain for our community website. What can we do to help rank higher faster?
So if this is your situation and there really isn't anything you can do to get an older, more established domain, here are a few things you need to be thinking about as you build your website.
- First, you need to make sure that all the website basics are solid. None of the other stuff we propose will make much difference if your site has bad content, isn't mobile-friendly, loads slowly, etc.
- Second, make sure the Google My Business listing is linking to your community website.
- Third, run defensive AdWords campaigns on your branded keywords that link to your website.
- Fourth, if you have a corporate website, link to your community's new website from the corporate site.
- Fifth, if there are any ILS's you are working with that will link to community websites, ask them to link to the website as well.
Even with all these steps, you'll still be waiting awhile before you're ranking in the top three results on organic search. That said, strong local and paid search presences will help with some of this and you will get into those top organic places eventually.
If at all possible, it is preferable (for many different reasons) that you work from an older domain when building a new apartment community website. That said, if you are not able to do that, hopefully this post has given you some good ideas for how to reduce the damage done from working with a brand new domain name. Thanks for reading!