AusRegistry’s Michael Korjen speaks with Jim Stewart, CEO of StewArt Media, a leading Australian Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) company.

Michael Korjen: Thanks for your time today Jim. Can you tell us why SEO and search is so important for businesses online?

Jim Stewart: Today, when people want to find a business or service they don’t go to the old paper directories. They typically go to a search engine, usually Google in Australia. If your company doesn’t come up on those searches, you’re losing business.

What have you seen as some of the major changes in search over the last couple of years and what are the major challenges that businesses face with SEO?

For the most part businesses don’t understand what’s important in search and that’s partly the industry’s fault. The industry has spent so much time trying to ‘trick’ Google that businesses think that’s what they have to do as well, which isn’t the case. The biggest problem faced by a lot of companies is cleaning up bad SEO practices like buying backlinks.

Over the last few years the biggest changes in search have related to best practice. Previously, if you had 20 backlinks to your webpage and your competitor had 10, then you would rank higher in a Google search all other ranking signals being equal. But that is no longer the case. Google has become very sophisticated in detecting people buying backlinks or backlinks networks, and over the past few years it has been making leaps and bounds to get rid of web spam.

We understand that exact match domains are an important part of SEO but Google’s algorithm updates of 2012 and 2013 seemed to change the playing field. Could you speak to us about how domain names work in search and also touch on the importance of exact match domains?

There’s a lot of misinformation about the importance of domain names in search. There’s no doubt that if you can get a domain name with a good key word in it, you’ve got a good chance of ranking better than someone that doesn’t, but it’s only one signal.

Previously if you wanted to rank highly on a search for ‘blue widgets’ for example and you owned www.bluewidgets.com.au, then that would be a big win. Even today, an address with a key word in the domain name has an edge.

In 2012 Google made an update that effectively ‘turned down the volume’ on exact match domains. This resulted in a lot of website owners losing traction in website rankings.

However since then, exact match domains have come to the fore again. Sites that have the exact match for the key word will rank high.

The important thing to remember is that an exact match domain is not the only thing website owners have to do. They still have a lot of work to do on their site, but at the moment that exact match domain is giving them an edge. When that happens, it stands to reason that Google is going to do another update.

With keywords and exact match domains, you always have to consider how they affect your brand. It wouldn’t be the right fit for a Westpac site to be found at banking.com – it just does not sit well with the brand. You do have to look at all these things together, not just in isolation.

That’s a good point Jim. Is it fair to say a domain name is only one element of a successful search and SEO strategy?

There are over 200 signals that Google looks at to rank a page and your domain name is just one of them. How much weighting it receives is dependent upon your competition. People always ask me; “What’s the one thing I can do?” and my advice is to look at what the number one result is doing, and do it better.

The biggest thing that most businesses can do, that they currently aren’t taking advantage of, is to set up Google Webmaster tools for your site. Many people have Google Analytics, but Google Webmaster tools will tell you exactly what Google knows about your site.

The reason this is important is because it will alert you to any problems Google is experiencing with your site. This may be that your site is slow, there are lots of errors or there is much duplication. These factors have a big impact on SEO and are often neglected.

Google wants to makes sure it only displays results that are going to be relevant to the search done by the user. It wants to provide a good experience for the user. Google doesn’t want to send its users to slow, confusing sites or to sites full of errors because if it does, people will stop using Google.

The other major thing that businesses should be doing (and this applies beyond search) is content marketing. You need to have a strategy around content; you need to have an editorial calendar; and you need to become the publisher. This obviously gives your site more content that Google can rank, but Google can also see that your site is active and updated frequently. In terms of ranking, Google sees sites like these as ‘worthy’ of sending its users to.

Content also has the benefit of generating more genuine backlinks. People will share good content in social media, they get picked up by other mechanisms and it establishes you as an authority in your field.

There have been some recent studies which indicate new top level domains are ranking higher than the .com equivalents. However Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller, came out to debunk this misconception by stating they offer no ranking benefit. What are your thoughts on this?

I read John’s comments which appeared to be harking back to a 2012 post from Matt Cutts, an engineer in the search quality team at Google. This has always been a point of contention because in actuality, the only TLDs Google puts any real weight behind have been the country code TLDs. For instance a .au is going to rank higher than another ccTLD, such as .nz, in google.com.au.

It’s difficult to make a prediction about new TLDs because Google has never looked at that before. I think what could be happening in some of those studies is that the people have built a website to SEO best practice – incorporating all of the necessary elements required for high rankings – which uses a new TLD such as .melbourne.

What people should be doing is looking at the new TLDs from a branding perspective. The domains are specific and allow for greater creativity. People can put them on a billboard and get their message across more easily. I think purely as a search strategy, the jury on new TLDs is well and truly out.

Finally I wanted to pick up on your comments about .au and how Google favours country codes for specific countries. What would be your advice to startup businesses primarily focused on Australian customers? Do you recommend getting a .au domain name?

 We recommend that you get the domain name for every country that you want to operate in. Some people will say you should only have one website, but that’s not entirely true. If you’re going to operate in Australia and New Zealand, getting both .au and .nz will make it easier for you to rank in those countries. While some think this will only lead to duplication, Google is very good at understanding that content in .au is for Australian users and content in .nz is for New Zealand users. This eliminates any duplicate content problems.

There is a setting in Google Webmaster tools where you can choose to geographically target certain users. With a TLD (non-country code), it is not automatically set. So for instance .com doesn’t necessarily mean you are targeting people in the United States – you have to specify that in Google Webmaster tools. So certainly if you want Australian customers, get a .au address.

Fascinating stuff Jim, thanks for having a chat with us. You’ve given us some valuable information for people considering their search strategy and the importance of a .au domain name to reach Australian audiences.

It seems that the Internet has evolved. As we enter this era of new TLDs it is important that all stakeholders contribute not just to its development but its betterment. Betterment takes time with periods of experimentation, but the end should always be to provide users with the best experience.

Best practice now dictates that website owners need to take into account a number of factors when developing a website. For those who do the right thing the rewards are higher rankings, more traffic and increased sales.

What is unlikely to change over time is the importance of a domain name. A domain name paints a picture. It’s your brand, your business, your calling card. It’s the memorable name that navigates a person through the Internet maze and brings them directly and logically to you.

Regardless of future algorithm changes, a domain name holds its own in the world of search, always being the first thing to consider when establishing an online presence.