Guide to site names: best practices to choose them and SEO tips

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In the large and complex puzzle of SEO, as we now often call our business, even small details and pieces can play an unpredictable role: they may not serve to drastically change the fate of the project, but they can help create the final design we hoped for. Today we are talking about domain names and site names, which, in their extreme simplicity, are nonetheless crucial elements of an online brand strategy, as they are the first representative signal of an organization’s identity and visibility in the digital world (and beyond).

Site names and domain names: definitions and meaning

Although sometimes the terms “domain name” and “site name” are used interchangeably, it is actually possible to make a distinction between the two concepts.

Basically, communication on the Internet requires an organized structure that allows users to easily reach desired resources and websites: domain names and site names play a crucial role in this process, allowing people to access online content and services through a system that translates human-readable addresses into machine-understandable numeric addresses.

The domain name is the unique address of a website on the Internet, the one that users enter into their browsers to access the site: it consists of a series of characters that identify the site and allow users to reach it through a Web browser. Generally speaking, a domain name consists of two main parts: the site name and the domain extension (or TLD, top-level domain). For example, in the case of “google.com,” “google” is the site name and “.com” is the domain extension.

It follows that site name is the name that informally identifies a website, as most commonly recognized by the public, and can be used to refer to the brand, organization, or entity that operates the site. It can coincide with the domain name or a part of it, but it can also be broader or symbolic: for example, “My travel site” might be the site name of a travel blog, while the corresponding domain name might be “mytravelblog.com” or “travelwithme.it.”

Although there may be some overlap between the two terms, it is important to note that they can have different functions and characteristics in the context of a web project.

What is the domain name

The domain name provides a unique identification and is therefore an essential element of the Internet structure, because it represents the unique address assigned to a resource or website in order to distinguish it individually within the vast global network.

Domain names use the Domain Name System (DNS), which functions like a telephone book for the Internet, mapping human-readable domain names into Internet Protocol (IP) addresses used by machines to establish connections and communications.

A domain name is divided into parts, separated by dots, that follow a specific hierarchy: summarizing, the rightmost part of the domain name is called the Top-Level Domain (TLD) and represents the general category of that domain, e.g., “.com” for businesses or “.org” for nonprofit organizations. The second-level domain (SLD) is located immediately to the left of the TLD and represents the specific name of the site, such as “google” in the “google.com” domain. Other subsections of the domain, also called subdomains, may be present to the left of the SLD and serve as additional identifiers or subdivisions of the site.

How to choose a domain name and why it is important

Choosing an effective domain name can serve to establish brand presence because it helps to distinguish oneself from competitors and make a connection with the public, ensuring that an organization’s identity and visibility are easily recognizable and memorable to the public.

Before making a final decision, therefore, it is advisable to dwell on strategic and careful consideration of various factors, looking for a domain name that is easily memorized, recognizable, and connected to the brand, and thus can significantly support its prosperity and success in the digital world.

Opting for a short and meaningful domain name is often the first suggestion given in this regard: an effective name reflects the brand and clearly communicates the organization’s message or value proposition, and a domain name that is too long or complicated, on the other hand, can be confusing for users and hinder brand memorability.

Identifying terms and keywords relevant to the industry or target market is a good practice for selecting an effective domain name: including relevant keywords can help establish an immediate connection between the brand and what users might be looking for in relevant products, services, or information, but without overdoing keyword stuffing, which as we know can hurt SEO.

To ensure that the domain name is easy to type and pronounce, then, it is best to avoid the use of abbreviations, numbers or hyphens: these characters can create ambiguity and confusion, leading users to type the wrong domain name or not remember it easily.

If the desired TLD (such as .com or .it) is not available, you can consider using new TLDs (such as .io, .shop, .online), which offer the possibility of creating an equally effective and memorable domain name appropriate to the brand’s identity and strategy.

Again: before registering your chosen domain name, it is essential to check its availability and ensure that it does not infringe on any registered trademarks or copyrights. We can for this purpose use domain search tools and consult trademark databases, so as to ensure that the domain name is not already in use or legally protected by other organizations.

Finally, it is advisable to protect the brand by purchasing related domains. This can prevent competitors or malicious parties from registering domain names similar to the main one: in practice, it pays to register variants of the domain name, including using different TLDs or slightly different names, and redirecting to the main one, so as to further strengthen the brand presence online.

Beyond these so-called “realistic” effects, there are then some theories (perhaps more “false myths”) that link domain name choice to potential SEO benefits: Immediately clearing the field of illusions and simplistic views, there is no direct correlation between domain name and ranking on Google, and at most the name can serve to influence the user experience and memorability of the site – elements that, in some way, can help to strengthen the brand’s authority and thus indirectly also promote its organic visibility.

Most notoriously, the use of a relevant keyword in the domain name: In the past, search engines gave greater importance to keywords in the domain (a practice known as “Exact Match Domain” or EMD), but for years updates to search algorithms have reduced the emphasis on the use of keywords in the domain name.

Best practices according to Google

Google Domains pages contain a brief guide to help in choosing a good domain name that is appropriate and effective for your online strategy.

  • Name length. It is advisable to choose short domain names, typically between 3 and 4 terms, which are easier to remember and type and allow users to reach the site directly.
  • Keywords. The terms in the domain name should be relevant to the content we publish. Descriptive words help new visitors understand the topic of the site and can increase the likelihood that the site will be viewed by users who are looking for related products or services.
  • Location. If the target audience is confined to a specific geographic area, it may be useful to include the location in the domain name-this way we can exclude any visitors outside this area.
  • Name brand. A brand name is an exclusive distinctive mark that can help distinguish the domain from competitors. Brands increase the distinctiveness and longevity of products, as users quickly recognize established brands. Developing a brand takes time, but a successful brand can translate site popularity into tangible economic results.
  • Domain suffixes. The most popular domain suffix is .com, but Google Domains offers a wide range of choices, from .academy to .zone; more specific suffixes can help create a more distinctive image and more effectively communicate the site’s purpose, and alternative suffixes do not negatively affect ranking in search results, Google specifies.

Then there are some “things to avoid” explicitly, i.e., elements that can negatively affect the perception of your domain name, such as:

  • Use of numbers or hyphens, characters that can make the site name harder to type or remember.
  • Incorrect spelling of existing words or business names, which can raise suspicions of spamming or phishing on the site.
  • Similarity to an existing brand or trademark: assigning the site and hosting content a name similar to that of an existing business can lead to claims of abuse or copyright infringement, which could result in suspension of the site and/or legal action. Visitors may not be able to access the site or send emails until the dispute is resolved.

The steps to set up a domain name

Turning to the technical aspects, setting up a domain name for a website is not particularly complicated, but it still requires several steps, including choosing an appropriate domain name, registering it with a registrar, and connecting it to the hosting service.

Wanting to summarize in a step-by-step guide how to set up a domain name:

  1. Choosing a domain name

As mentioned above, the first step involves strategic thinking about choosing a domain name that is descriptive, easy to remember, and reflects the content or purpose of the website. Ideally, it should be short, without hyphens or numbers, and contain a keyword relevant to the industry or topic. Once the domain name is chosen, we can also select the appropriate domain extension (TLD), such as “.com,” “.org,” “.net,” or a country-specific TLD, such as “.it” for Italy.

  1. Check domain name availability

Through a domain search tool offered by a registrar, one must check whether the chosen domain name is available; if not, of course, alternatives or variants of the name should be considered.

  1. Choosing a registrar to make the name official

After verifying that the desired domain name is available, one must refer to an accredited domain registrar, which will enable the purchase and registration of the domain name. These are registrars, which is a company or organization accredited by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) or other national registry authorities, which is precisely responsible for registering, managing and transferring domain names for Internet sites. The main role of a registrar is to allow customers to register the domain names they wish to use for their website, and to ensure that these domains remain unique and are not duplicated.

Typically, registrars also offer additional services such as web hosting, DNS management, SSL certificate services, and assistance in configuring and transferring domains between different registrars or between different domain owners. Some popular registrars are GoDaddy, Namecheap, Google Domains and Register.co.uk.

During the registration process, you will need to provide contact information and pay an annual domain fee; the domain can be registered for a year or more, depending on your needs.

  1. Linking the domain name to the hosting service

After registering the domain name, you need to connect it to the hosting service that will host the to website. Usually, the hosting provider will provide the addresses of the DNS (Domain Name System) servers to be set up at the registrar, which allow the domain name to point to the hosting server and “work”-that is, it is so that when a user enters the domain name into the browser he or she will then actually be directed to the correct location of the website. By accessing the registrar’s control panel, the DNS settings for the domain can be updated with the addresses provided by the hosting service.

  1. Wait for DNS propagation

After setting the DNS addresses, you may need to wait a few hours or, in some cases, up to 72 hours, for the changes to propagate over the Internet; during this time, DNS servers around the world will update to reflect the changes.

  1. Verify the operation of the domain name

Once DNS propagation is complete, the domain name should be operational and pointing to the hosted website. To be sure that everything is working properly, a simple test is all that is needed, which is to type the domain name into the address bar of your browser and find out if you actually reach the site.

Site names: a label for the web space we want to build

Also called a site title, the site name is the visible and easily recognizable name associated with a website. When you visit a site, the site name is usually displayed in the title bar of your browser and in search engines as part of the results. Unlike the domain name, the site name has a primarily descriptive function and does not provide direct access to the site by typing it into the browser address bar.

The site name is important for both users and search engines. For users, it provides a clear indication of the content or purpose of the web page; for search engines, the site name is one of the factors used to determine the topic and relevance of the site, which affects its ranking in search results. Therefore, a well-chosen and descriptive site name can help ensure an optimal user experience and support SEO ranking strategies.

Why we need to choose good site names

There are some practical reasons why we should consider the choice of site name wisely and appropriately.

First of all, if effective and catchy, the name will provide the foundation for a strong and memorable brand; moreover, it could have an impact on organic ranking in search results, as Google’s guidelines and guidance point out.

The relationship between a site name and online success is based on several factors, including the impact on memorability and domain authority: a site name that is easy to remember and pronounce will help users return to the site and share it with their contacts, and potentially sites with memorable domain names are more likely to accumulate quality backlinks and establish a good online reputation, contributing to the growth of their online authority.

As far as SEO is concerned, a readable and descriptive site name can increase visibility in SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages), because Google considers (also) the domain name in the context of other factors to determine a site’s relevance to search queries, albeit with a weight that is obviously minimal. However, it is important to note that overuse of keywords in the domain name, a previously popular strategy among webmasters, is now discouraged by Google and could lead to penalties.

Google’s guidelines specify that it is critical to avoid practices such as keyword stuffing and the use of exact match domains (EMDs) solely for the purpose of manipulating organic rankings. Instead, the focus should be on creating high-quality content and optimizing the site to provide the best possible user experience. This is consistent with Google’s approach, which aims to reward sites that offer value to users and provide relevant and informative content.

Site name and Google: the guidance and best practices

Let’s try to look in more detail at what these official guidelines Google provides for managing site names, defined as “the name of the site from which a page included in search results originates.” This is therefore quite different from page title links-the page title, which are specific to each web page-because the site name refers to the entire site and is the same for all its pages.

Google uses a number of different sources to automatically determine the site name, but we can indicate our preference by adding WebSite structured data;

after almost a year of “spot” experimentation, since last September the feature appears in Google Search results worldwide and in all languages in which Google Search is available, both on mobile and computer.

Google’s generation of site names in the SERP is fully automatic and takes into account both a site’s content and references to it on the Web: the goal of the site name is to best represent and describe the source of each result. Specifically, Google Search uses a number of sources derived from a site’s home page to automatically determine its name, including:

  • WebSite structured data
  • The content in the <title> elements
  • Header elements, such as the <h1> elements
  • og:site_name

Google cannot (nor can we) manually change individual site names, but the search engine is constantly working to make them as accurate as possible.

To help Google better understand site names, the guide says, we need to follow the basics on Search, the general guidelines on structured data, and the following technical and content-related guidelines:

  • Technical Guidelines

Currently Google Search supports only one site name for a site, where a site is defined by domain or subdomain. Google Search does not support subdirectory-level site names, and subdomain names beginning with www or m are generally considered equivalent.

WebSite structured data must be on the site’s home page-home page means the main URI at the domain or subdomain level. For example, https://example.com is the domain home page, while https://example.com/de/index.html is not. Note: If there is no structured data on the subdomain home page, the domain-level site name can be used for the subdomain as a backup.

The home page must be scannable by Google, i.e., it cannot be blocked for Google. If it does not have access to the contents of your home page, Google may not be able to generate a site name.

If we have duplicate home pages for the same content (e.g., HTTP and HTTPS versions of your home page or www and not www), we need to use the same structured data in all duplicate pages, not just the canonical page.

If we are already implementing WebSite structured data for the sitelink search box functionality, we must nest the properties for the site name in the same node. In other words, we should try to avoid creating an additional block of WebSite structured data on the home page if possible.

  • Content-related guidelines

Google encourages choosing a unique name that accurately reflects the identity of the site. Do not choose a name used by another site, as it may be misleading to users. The name you choose should follow the Search content standards.

Use a concise and commonly recognized name for the site (e.g., “Google” instead of “Google LLC”). There are no character limits for the site name, but on some devices long names may be truncated. If there is a commonly recognized alternate name, we can use the alternateName property to specify it (e.g., an acronym). This alternate name could be a commonly recognized acronym or a shorter name for the site, and it must meet Google’s guidelines; we can also indicate more than one, listing them in order of preference, with the most important listed first.

Use the site name consistently throughout the home page. Whatever site name we use in the structured data, it should be consistent with the content of the home page, the <title> elements, and other prominent sources from which Google might derive the site name.

How to solve problems with site names

The updated version of the guide also provides clarifications to avoid problems and resolve critical situations related to name management and display in SERPs.

As a reminder, the best way to tell Google a preferred site name remains the use of WebSitedati structured data, but the guide also encourages greater use of the alternateName property. Sometimes, a preferred site name is not available for use-for example, Google generally does not use the same site name for two different sites of a global nature-and so if our preferred choice is not available, it may be useful to provide an alternate name using precisely the alternateName property, which allows the search engine system to consider other display options.

In any case, the official document defines rare cases in which the system might not select a preferred or alternate site name-usually this might happen if a name does not appear to be unique, concise, or commonly recognized with a particular site. To avoid the problem, we can designate the domain or subdomain name as the site name so that it can be used; however, before trying this alternative solution, we should verify that the preferred and secondary names are provided via WebSite structured data and that other sources on the home page help to support such structured data.

What to do if the preferred site name is not selected

More specifically, if Google’s systems are insecure about the name we have provided, they may generate different site names using other sources or show a domain or subdomain name.

If the preferred site name is not selected by the automated system, therefore, we can try these steps:

  1. Verify that:
  • The site name found in the WebSite structured data on the home page is the preferred site name.
  • There are no errors in the WebSite structured data.
  • Structured data follow Google’s guidelines.
  • Other sources on the home page use the preferred name for the site.
  • We are not attempting to set a site name for a subdirectory. Site names are not supported for subdirectories (for example, https://example.com/news is a subdirectory-level home page
  • and cannot have its own site name).
  1. Make sure that redirects work as intended and that Googlebot can access the redirect destination, and then request a rescan of that page. If the page redirects to a page visible to Googlebot, the site name will reflect the redirect destination.
  2. If we have multiple versions of the site (e.g., HTTP and HTTPS), we should always use the same site name.
  3. If we have updated the structured data of the site name, we allow Google time to rescan and process the new information. The crawl can take from several days to several weeks, depending on how often the systems determine the need to update content.

If we have followed these steps and our site’s preferred name is still not selected in SERPs there are two last options:

  1. First, try providing an alternate name using the alternateName property. If Google’s site naming system is not secure enough to use the preferred name, this is the suggested step.
  2. Provide the domain or subdomain name as a backup option. To provide the domain or subdomain as a backup option we must add the domain or subdomain name as an alternate name. The domain or subdomain must be all lowercase (e.g., example.com not Example.com) for the system to detect it as a preference for the site name. Google’s system will seriously consider using that name if the preferred name is not selected.
  3. If the problem persists, provide the domain or subdomain name (all lower case) as the preferred name as an alternative last resort solution.
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