One of the first decisions you’ll have to make when building your accounting website is choosing a domain name. While it’s not impossible to change later on, it can be a hassle, so it’s best to put some thought into your choice before.
Broadly speaking you can choose to go with a branded domain that has your practice’s name. Or you can choose a keyword rich domain. That means a domain that includes your location and a descriptor of your practice like “tax accountant” or “bookkeeping”.
There are pros and cons to each, but as accountants we like the data to tell the story. So I did an analysis of 70 accounting websites to see what helped them dominate search rankings.
Branded vs Keyword-rich Domains
Before diving into the study, it’s important to understand why this decision matters.
Ultimately the purpose of your website is to generate leads. And one of the main ways to get traffic from people who are looking for an accountant is by ranking well in Google.
The value of using a branded domain, like your firm’s name, is that if someone wants to specifically visit your website, they just have to type in your firm’s name. Even if they just type it into Google, your firm should appear as the #1 result.
But a branded name can be harder to remember if it’s just a long acronym like www.ccfrllp.com. And it can also be easier to misspell.
The main downside of a branded name however, is that it doesn’t help you rank. So it’s not very helpful if someone who’s never heard of you is searching for an accountant.
On the other hand, a keyword-rich domain can signal to Google that you should rank for that search term.
Generally speaking, if the domain has certain keywords in it, it’s a strong signal to Google that it should be ranking for those searches.
After all, if a website’s address was www.saltlakecityaccountant.com, chances are it’s for an accountant in Salt Lake City. So if a person searches for “salt lake city accountants”, Google can guess that it’s a good result to present.
But if the address was www.ccfrllp.com, that doesn’t tell Google anything about what it should rank for.
Not only does a keyword rich domain tell Google what you do, but it also indicates where you are. And searches like “accountant” tend to deliver local results because most people want to deal with a local accountant. So Google knowing where you are is important.
The main downside to using a keyword rich domain is that they’re usually not available. Because of their popularity, they’re often all taken, but you can use a tool like Google Domains to search for some that haven’t been scooped up.
The competition for a search like “my city accountant” is bound to be high because a lot of accounting websites are trying to rank for that, so you want any edge you can get.
The below study looks into whether keyword rich domains actually do give an edge.
I started by taking a list of the biggest cities in the US by population and grabbed 30 of the biggest cities after skipping the top 10. The top 10 cities were going to be especially competitive markets, so I didn’t want them skewing the results.
I then added the word “accountant” in front of each city, and plugged them into Ahrefs, a very popular keyword research and SEO tool.
I exported the top 10 search results for each of the searches, and removed all the non-accounting websites. That includes results from Yelp, Indeed, Clutch, local accounting bodies, etc.
That left me with 70 websites that ranked on the first page for the search “accountant city”.
I then went through the list and categorized each as being keyword rich or branded.
In this case, if the domain had the word “accountant” or a close variation, and/or included the city name, I considered it keyword rich. I didn’t consider “CPA” a relevant keyword for this exercise because our target keyword is “accountant”. But also because “CPA” often appears as part of the firm’s actual brand name.
The first thing I looked at was the number of domains that were keyword rich vs branded.
This was more to ensure that we had a decent number of each type in our sample set. This isn’t necessarily indicative of which type is better at ranking.
The reason is that while there may be more branded domains on the first page, we don’t know how many of each type there are that aren’t ranking.
If 95% of domains are branded and yet the 5% of keyword rich domains are disproportionately occupying the first page of Google, that would be an indicator that keyword rich domains are very strong. But unfortunately we don’t have data around all the accounting websites out there to know that.
What is a bit more informative is looking at the average ranking of the domains that do appear on the front page.
This tells us that on average the keyword rich domains do tend to rank much better than the branded ones.
SEO is a very complex field though, with tons of factors beyond the words in the domain. One incredibly strong factor is the number of backlinks or referring domains to a page.
Google looks at links to a website from other websites as “votes”, indicative of it’s value. Not all links are created equal, so more isn’t always better. But it is still a useful measure as it has been shown to correlate with ranking.
So I looked at the average number of referring domains (backlinks from a unique domain) for the branded vs keyword rich domains.
The keyword rich domains have nearly half as many referring domains on average compared to branded domains. And yet the keyword rich domains still manage to rank higher.
I also looked at the Ahrefs Domain Rating for the domains. The domain rating is an estimate of the strength of the domain, indicative of its ability to rank in Google.
A domain’s strength isn’t everything as relevance is also very important. For example, Forbes has a very strong domain strength of 93/100 according to Ahrefs. And that’s why they tend to have articles ranking for so many different searches. But that doesn’t mean that every search you do has a Forbes article appearing.
A domain with much lower strength can outrank Forbes on a given topic if that domain has high relevance for the topic.
For example, if both Forbes and an espresso blog wrote a post about the best espresso machines. That espresso blog can outrank Forbes because all it talks about is espresso, while Forbes talks about everything under the sun.
Even though espressoperfecto.com has a Domain Rating of 23, it still outranks Forbes because of relevance.
So what do our accounting websites look like?
While the difference is small the branded domains have a higher average Domain Rating. That means that while they have more potential to rank, their ability isn’t being put to the best use. Domains with lower Domain Ratings are outranking them because they’re targeting the keyword better.
Presumably, a part of that is due to the domain being keyword rich.
One notable example of this was tulsacpa.com which with 0 referring domains and a Domain Strength of 4 ranked #5 for “accountant tulsa”.
While muretcpa.com with 255 referring domains and a Domain Strength of 34 ranked lower at #7.
There are definitely other factors to consider, but it’s still pretty telling.
So if you’re thinking about your new domain name, there’s probably plenty of reason to go keyword rich. And if you need help choosing a domain, building your website, and growing your practice, then as a digital marketing consultant who’s also a CPA I’d be happy to help!