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. One note: If you're here looking for help in choosing a community name then you will want to read our guide to choosing an apartment community name. In this post we are focusing specifically on domain names—the string of text someone enters into a search bar to access your website.
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
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?
What are general best practices with domain names?
Domain names are important because they're the way that people directly access your website and they're one of the simplest ways for search engines to learn about your website. As a general rule, these are some of the best practices:
- Domain names should be relatively short and easy to remember.
- If possible, use a .com domain extension as many human users are less trusting of newer domain extensions, such as .biz.
- Use the community name in the domain name. In some cases, you may also want to include the city or 'apts' or 'apartments.'
- If there are other local landmarks that share elements of your name, then including 'apts' in the domain name is helpful as another signal to Google that this is an apartment website.
- If there are other communities in the nation that share your community name, including the city can tell search engines that this is a website for the community with that name in your particular city.
These are general principles. In odd cases, you may need to break one of these rules. But in the majority of situations, following the above guidelines should help you identify a good domain name for your community website.
I'm moving to a new website vendor. Should I get a new domain or keep the old one?
Google claims that domain age is not a ranking signal for their search engine. That being said, Google sometimes will say things that are technically true but somewhat misleading. We tend to think that their comments on domain age fall into this category. It may well be true that there is nothing in Google's search algorithm that directly looks at the age of a certain website.
That being said, the way users interact with a website obviously influences search rankings. So too do backlinks to the website. Brand new domains will not have any record of user engagement and they won't have any backlinks. So while Google may not be looking at the age of a domain directly, they are looking at things that tend to correlate to the age of the domain.
This is why many search industry insiders will talk about a Google sandbox. It is simply a fact that many industry experts have seen websites that have had significant jumps in traffic after a certain amount of time has passed from the time they launched a website on a new domain. In fact, we have seen this with a number of RentVision clients. Regardless of what Google claims, we can tell you many stories of communities that launched websites on new domains and struggled to rank for quite awhile after launch before seeing a major spike in traffic a number of months, sometimes even a year, after they launched on the domain.
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.
We have to use a brand new domain for our community website. What can we do to help rank higher faster?
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 Google Ads 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!