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03|26|2009 02:21 pm EDT

Armchair SEOs Play with Toys.com

by John Andrews in Categories: Domain Sales, Featured

In light of the news that Toys.com lost it’s Google placement, DNN reached out to SEO consultant John Andrews to get his take on the Toys.com deal and his view on an effective strategy to take using this multi-million dollar domain name asset.


When Toys ‘R’ Us sought toys.com in a biding war with National A1 Advertising, pretty much everyone in domain world paid attention. Toys ‘R’ Us was the #1 player in the offline toy industry, and National A1 already controlled boys.com, girls.com, and babies.com. Toys R Us matched bids all the way up past $5 million before National A1 ran out of steam (or money).

Toys ‘R’ Us previously bought etoys.com, which it kept online as a unique toy web site. After this auction domainers and SEOs speculated on how Toys ‘R’ Us would execute online with the toys.com domain. Many noted that at the time of the auction, ToysRUs.com held the #1 spot in Google for the search query “toys”, while eToys.com appeared at #3. Toys.com held the #4 spot, which suggested that Toys R Us the corporation now controlled 3 of the top 4 ranking web sites in Google for “toys”. Walmart appeared at #3 on the day of the auction.

Certainly owning 3 of the top 4 results for toys represented considerable value to Toys ‘R’ Us.

We don’t have hard data on Google’s traffic numbers, but estimates based on leaked historical data suggest that those 3 spots represent 58% of the click traffic. If you consider the attractiveness of the results in the top 10, you  noticed 3 domains with the word “toys” in them (all belonging to Toys ‘R’ Us), plus Walmart and a few toy manufacturers (like Fischer Price and Lego). I think it is safe to assume that consumers searching “toys” would be attracted to click on the “toy” domains, while those with brand affinity might prefer Walmart and Amazon.

Surprisingly, toys.com was redirected to toysrus.com. Within a few days, toys.com disappeared completely from Google’s index. The Google results for “toys” now show ToysRUs.com and etoys.com, with Walmart at 3 and Amazon higher up on the page than it was before. What happened? With a redirect in place on toys.com, Google would eventually drop the domain from the index since it was considered irrelevant. Was this a wise move by Toys ‘R’ Us, or a big mistake?

DomainNameWire said “big mistake” . InternetRetailing suggested Toys ‘R’ Us should have spent a few dollars on SEO consulting . StorefrontBackTalk blogger *Evan Schuman* said “Oops!” () But was redirecting toys.com  really a mistake?

It’s clearly a shame that toys.com was redirected. Clearly Toys ‘R’ Us could have made better use of the toys.com web site. However, we can only play armchair SEO in this case. We don’t know what went on behind the scenes. The redirect appeared before the whois registry data was updated, which may suggest the domain was redirected by the seller side, without involving Toys ‘R’ Us in that process. So the question on our minds is… what would have been the best way to handle the acquisition of Toys.com?

Technical SEO best practice for redirecting a domain like toys.com to ToysRUs.com is to locate every existing URL and replace it with a 301 redirect to the equivalent destination on the surviving site. This is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process. The 301 redirect ensures that existing links to Toys.com would continue to support the new location, once Google had processed the change, but it is not a flawless process nor does Google guarantee the link benefits will transfer. Practical SEO knowledge about this process differs from the Google recommendations: it is best to approach a large redirect project like this in chunks, keeping both new and old sites online during the transition, watching carefully to protect those valuable backlink assets. To properly redirect toys.com to toysrus.com and protect the link equity, an SEO would need access to both sites for weeks or a month or more. Given the existing strength of eToys.com and ToysRUs.com, however, the significant exact-match value of Toys.com is probably worth more to Toys ‘R’ Us than the existing backlinks. Could this redirect be temporary? Perhaps Toys ‘R’ Us sacrificed the link equity of the old Toys.com domain to conserve development resources, which are better dedicated to building a new site on Toys.com?

In the SEO world, those top ten spots in Google are golden. We would much rather have 3 of them than 2, for the traffic but also for the branding opportunity, the marketing opportunity, and to keep competitors one spot lower down the page. ToysRUs.com already represents the most recognized brand of toy stores, while eToys.com represents the most famous online toy store in history. Toys.com represents the defining generic “brand” for toys, and is the click of choice for unbranded consumers searching the Internet. Most SEO practitioners would publish on all 3 given the opportunity, and work to help toys.com and etoys.com serve variants of the online toy market instead of directly competing with each other. Design Toys.com to represent a welcomed alternative to eToys.com for part of the market, just as ToysRUs.com represents a shopping alternative to eToys.com or Amazon or WalMart. Own the top spots based on market acceptance, in addition to domain benefits from exact match or historical link equity.

How hard will it be for Toys ‘R’ Us to produce a new Toys.com and rank it in the top 5 of Google for searches related to toys? Not very, which is precisely why Toys ‘R’ Us had to pay $5.1 million to keep it out of the hands of competitors. How might Toys ‘R’ Us approach the “perfect” toys.com domain, given their existing portfolio of toy web sites? Since I am an SEO strategist, I’d recommend building a site that promotes toys, not just an ecommerce toy store. I’d develop a strategy for toy marketing, optimized to rank in Google for informational queries and brand queries. This would utilize the powerful toys.com domain authority in audience building, giving the worlds largest online toy retailer (ToysRUs.com) control of potentially the worlds most influential online toy marketer (toys.com). It also supports modern and upcoming monetization models, such as audience building, issue framing, and market shaping, ready to work for eToys.com and ToysRUs.com.

Design aspects would make this toys.com sufficiently different from eToys.com or ToysRUs.com. Properly designed, Toys.com could cross promote either of those sites for actual toy sales. Given the potential garnered by control of three major online toy domains, I would integrate Social Media components. I asked Rhea Drysdale of Outspoken Media to consider this issue, and she also recommended a strong Social Media component for Toys.com:

“They currently have reviews on ToysRUs.com, but there’s no way for users to interact with one another or get rewarded for their contributions. Meanwhile, the social arm of Toys ‘R’ Us seems to be entirely focused on deals with the blogs.toysrus.com subdomain, which has just a couple hundred backlinks, a small Facebook fan page, a half-hearted Twitter following @toysrus (though their widget page links to @toysrusonline!), a YouTube profile that posts toy commercials, two barely active web widgets and duplicate content issues with sites like http://toysrusblog.typepad.com/. They could transition their social strategy to the new domain with minimal impact.”

Rhea also agreed with me about the potential for creating a marketing site, saying “Toys.com should become the authority for all things toys, not the place to buy them.” She also assumed that Toys ‘R’ Us would have little difficulty ranking Toys.com after a re-launch, noting “The strength of both domains [ToysRUs.com and eToys.com] will quickly cement [the new Toys.com] in the top results on Google and give Toys ‘R’ Us a brand boost for building their community.”

So did Toys ‘R’ Us goof by redirecting Toys.com to ToysRUs.com and losing the existing Google rankings? I doubt it. There are simply bigger fish to fry at this time. It is important and usually profitable to consider SEO aspects of a site move or relaunch, but Toys ‘R’ Us must also pay attention to opportunity costs. We’ll know soon enough how effectively they execute on their “priceless” new generic dot com domain. Once they launch, we’ll be in a much better position to critique their execution.

John Andrews is an independent SEO consultant and a managing partner at UpperLeftPlacement.com, a Seattle SEO firm. John publishes an SEO insider blog at www.johnon.com.

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21 Comments

[…] Armchair SEOs Play with Toys.com | Domain Name News […]

Steve M

March 26, 2009 @ 5:19 pm EDT

Very useful & informative article.

Thank you.

wannadevelop.com

March 26, 2009 @ 7:03 pm EDT

…what else is new???

ASN5

March 26, 2009 @ 7:31 pm EDT

As often is the case, I disagree with the domain name brain trust. Type-in traffic is a generic domain name’s claim to fame. How many people really go to google to find toys? To me, having the toys.com domain name land on the toysrus.com website is a no-brainer. However, I would have recommended using a CNAME rather than a redirect. This may have mitigated some of the issues complained about by domainers, but either way, you always want the generic associated with your brand. In some instances, it may make some sense to backdoor the association like PetSmart (pets.com) and Bayer (aspirin.com), but more often you’re better off getting potential customers to your brand immediately, as Barnes & Noble (books.com), Discount Tire (tires.com), Bank of America (loans.com), Carl’s Jr. (burgers.com) have all done. The suggested idea of manufacturing a separate co-brand for toys.com – something in the realm of Monster.com’s non-branded jobs.com – diminishes the high profile association available to the company.

Ron

March 26, 2009 @ 8:43 pm EDT

Great article.

This is an example of things to come. Corporations realizing that owning multiple spots on search engines can be very advantagous.

Buy now or let your competitors get a permanent advantage.

E

March 26, 2009 @ 8:44 pm EDT

It’s not good search results to have one company own the top 10. With toys.com being public as it is, I would bet regardless of what Toys R Us did with it, Google would hand job it so there would be more competitive top 10 results for the super competitive toy related phrases.

Ron

March 26, 2009 @ 8:48 pm EDT

@ASN5

-How many people really go to google to find toys?

Tons of people such as myself have gone online to browse for unique toys for younger siblings, newphews, neices.

Browsing is not equal to buying.

-Monster.com’s non-branded jobs.com

Monster did this strategically to grab search engine positioning. Positions they can’t get with their domain ‘Monster.com’

Even if they could reach those positions with Monster there would be an advantage owning several positions on the search engine since these positions really mean market share.

[…] I read a guest post at Domain Name News titled “Armchair SEOs Play with Toys.com“. It was a good article about Toys.com losing its Google ranking, and how it’s easy to […]

Are you an Armchair Domainer?

March 27, 2009 @ 1:06 pm EDT

[…] I read a guest post at Domain Name News titled “Armchair SEOs Play with Toys.com“. It was a good article about Toys.com losing its Google ranking, and how it’s easy to […]

Chris Nielsen

March 27, 2009 @ 4:41 pm EDT

The average monthly search volume just for the single keyword “toys” is 4,090,000. “toy” is about 90k. The average monthly volume for searches that contain the word “toys” is over 30M. You can have the type-ins, I’ll stick with the search results. But those of you with domains that get nice type-ins are leaving big money on the table if you don’t optimize or develop your domains. A good SEO can wipe the floor with most parked domains using an optimized site. I’m fairly new to domains, but started optimizing sites about 10 years ago. Most domainers know as much about SEO as SEOs know about domains… :-)

Before I get serious with my comment, I just thought I would share that Estibot.com, which generally appraises domains for much higher amounts than are realistic, appraises toys.com at only $2.5M! While I don’t generally pay more than $7 or $8 for domains, I have to wonder if it’s accurate in this case? It would be interesting to know what toys.com was earning per year…
http://estibot.com/results.php?domain=toys.com

Toys.com has NOT been dropped from Google’s index. But all of the content except for one URL are not being shown, due to the pages not existing or due to them being considered duplicate content. This makes perfect sense, since the toysrus.com existed first for the same content that toys.com now shows. Yahoo only seems to know about one page from toys.com and I think maybe they do a better job of flushing duplicate content…?

Creating 301 redirects for the old toys.com would not take all that long, depending on the number involved. You scan the site to get all the old file names, create PHP redirect scripts using the old file names, and install them on the old domain. Looking at archive.org there is only one page listed for 2008, and 2007 only had 15 pages, so with a coffee break this work could be done in about an hour. But how valuable would 301s be when you have two completely different sites? Well, probably not too much. Search engines are not going to just give you all the old links they had to the new site. Where one already existed, I would expect it to remain and you aren’t going to get a second one from the 301. What MAY happen is that some systems will recognize that their link needs to be updated to point to the “new” location, and if they don’t have that link, they will update it. In reality I don’t know how often this happens, I just do it to be on the safe side for the client.

Interestingly, in Feb 03, 2003, the archived home page has what looks like etoys content ‘ “eToys” is a registered trademark of KB Holdings, LLC.’ but perhaps they were just using that name at the time…? No matter, just curious.

Google shows about 1,090 backlinks to toys.com and Yahoo shows about 530 backlinks. Hey, I wish all my sites had those kind of numbers, but for a domain like toys.com, that’s NOTHING and reflects the fine development work that was done to garner a $5M price tag. For perspective, our small, outdated, pathetic company site shows over 68k links at Yahoo. So while nothing to sneeze at, the backlinks sure did not make this a valuable domain IMHO.

So, did someone make a mistake worthy of being fired over when they redirected this domain to toyrus.com? I was going to say “Yes”, but now I’m not so sure in the scheme of things if it was really such a bad mistake, but yeah, I guess I do think it was a mistake, only in the discarding of the existing assets of the domain. If something else was gained, then it may have been worth doing the redirect. This leads me to my next point.

I don’t think the domain should have been redirected. While toysrus gains the value and traffic of type-ins, toys.com loses big time. Toysrus is the biggest and baddest toy seller around, but toys.com is like god. Now toysrus is setting itself up as god, and how many are going to swallow that!? Sure, you’d like to have 2, 3, 4, or more top listings at Google, but that AIN’T going to happen unless those sites have DIFFERENT content and DESERVE to be there. If you wanted a 3rd domain in the rankings, bang, you just shot yourself in the foot.

So I agree with the idea of developing toys.com as it’s own sie, but it should not just be to sell toysrus toys, but ALL toys. Let me explain. Toys.com should be a subsidiary of Toysrus and take advertising from ALL toy companies, and become the true toy authority. Blogs, social netjerking, whatever. The point is that the shareholders of toysrus should benefit and while there will always be competitors, the owner of toys.com can charge advertising fees to all of the other companies. So now you have the leading toy company selling even more toys, thanks to preferred placement on toys.com and a new revenue stream from owning toys.com and charging everyone from target to brass button bears to advertise. Now THAT is owning the market, when your competitors are paying you…!!! The temptation is for a company to “become” the generic domain, and I think that’s generally going to be limiting, if not a mistake. Killing off the competition is so 80’s Microsoft. Why try to kill them when they can be paying you?

Here’s another thing to think about: By keeping toys.com “generic”, you make it much more saleable in the future. Toysrus is on top right now, but what if that changes? A generic site could keep advertising for competitors that are still viable and perhaps even keep Toysrus going through possible bad times…

My last thought is that if I was in a situation like this (will never happen) I would do research to find out how well the competitors would do with the domain if they bought it. Would they redirect? Would they park it with ads and add their own links for free? Would they put up some lame site? And what am I going to do with the domain? Who is more likely to succeed?

Adam Strong

March 27, 2009 @ 5:59 pm EDT

@ASN5 Clearly you didn’t read the article as it is written by an SEO specialist. I forgot to add the disclosure “No domainers were used in the making of this article” ;)

Also, to answer your absurd question “How many people really go to google to find toys?” The answer is about 1 million plus per month on a slow month. . .and that’s just the term toys.

[…] Domain Name News is one of the leading online “newspapers” of the Internet domain industry. Publisher Adam Strong asked me about the recent $5.1 million dollar toys.com sale, and after some conversation on SEO aspects I agreed to write my thoughts for publication on DomainNameNews.com. I asked a few friends in the SEO industry if they would like to participate, and the article went online. Click through to read Armchair SEOs Play with Toys.com. […]

ASN5

March 28, 2009 @ 1:51 pm EDT

@ET AL: True, people do search for “toys”… My ill-conveyed point was that I don’t think many of them are actually looking for toys, just as most people that search for “cars” are not looking for cars. Instead, I believe most of these folks are looking for a specific type of toy (like the “Monsters vs. Aliens” play sets) or a specific type of car (like a hybrid or a SUV) and start out searching with the easy-to-type-in generic. So associating your brand with that generic is the holly grail because people will eventually start typing toys.com into the address bar rather than typing in google.com.

Of course, all this assumes you actually have a brand…

@Adam: As was already mentioned, ToysRUs already owns the top spots on the results page for “toys”, so I’m not sure where you go from there in terms of optimizing. After all, top rank is the goal of SEO, right? Frankly, it seems like any serious discussion of SEO would be domain independent – and since the article was specifically addressing what ToysRUs did with toys.com, I would say it went off the reservation in terms of a purely SEO conversation.

Things like having an existing company with an existing website “produce a new toys.com” certainly go well beyond the scope of SEO. I could easily be in error, but to me the article appeared to be targeted at domainers and the comments appear to be from domainers. And, while I’m not a multi-million dollar company, I have worked with many of them and can tell you their goals are much different than a domainer trying to generate cash flow from clicks they get being at the top of the search engine results page.

ToysRUs has “1,500 freestanding destination toy and baby specialty stores worldwide”, with “nearly 700 international stores in 32 countries.” For a company like that, the value of associating your brand with a pure generic far, far exceeds the benefits of making a new website to get yet one more good search engine placement.

Absurdly yours,

ASN5

Adam Strong

March 28, 2009 @ 9:16 pm EDT

ASN5. Sure a search for “toys” vs a search for “Monsters vs Aliens Play set toys” is less targeted, but I think John made it clear that the Toys.com positioning had clear value. If a user searches for toys and aren’t looking for toys but rather a specific toy, then any toy retailer would still want to be in that position.

I think your devaluing the search because it isn’t targeted enough is offbase. The search for “toys” could simply be people looking for a toy for their grandchildren and not know what to buy. Just like people searching for a car often don’t know a model but just want to browse and find the best source.

There is always value in a domain name that has a search ranking for a generic term that gets millions of monthly searches. Untargeted or not those millions of searches represent potential buyers and when they search you don’t want the competition to be one step closer to acquiring that customer.
“In the SEO world, those top ten spots in Google are golden. We would much rather have 3 of them than 2, for the traffic but also for the branding opportunity, the marketing opportunity, and to keep competitors one spot lower down the page”

The article was written by an SEO consultant and written as a “what would/could Toys’R’Us do to keep their ranking, thus the armchair SEO in the title. John states “what would have been the best way to handle the acquisition of Toys.com?”

I appreciate your armchairing and look forward to hearing what other SEO experts think.

john andrews

March 29, 2009 @ 12:36 am EDT

There is much more to SEO than a ranking for one search query “toys”. When considering a strategy for a domain, the SEO addresses much more than web page optimizations. Site architecture/structure, linking, and content are all essential to ensure top rankings across a collection of search queries. When more than one ranking domain is owned, cross-linking opportunities exist. The basis of SEO is trust, and that must be managed carefully, but if you own three trusted sites you can rank just about any content you put onto the site (by employing the power of the three sites).

In discussing SEO, I am not limiting myself to “on page optimizations”. I am looking at search engine traffic. If you want search traffic, for whatever purpose, the SEO is the guy to look to for advice. That includes marketing brick and mortar stores, couponing, sales promotions, market shaping, corporate communications, toy community (user generated content, etc).

toys

March 29, 2009 @ 11:23 am EDT

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[…] Toys R Us, many (including us) were quick to point fingers at Toys R Us. But one SEO consultant penned a fascinating piece that questions whether Toys R Us had much choice in the matter.“Did Toys ‘R’ Us goof by […]

[…] 2. Will Toys ‘R’ Us Flub $5.1M Toys.com Purchase? Um, yes it will. At least as far as SEO is concerned. This article was written before the article in #1. Of course it’s easy to be an armchair SEO. […]

[…] 2. Will Toys ‘R’ Us Flub $5.1M Toys.com Purchase? Um, yes it will. At least as far as SEO is concerned. This article was written before the article in #1. Of course it’s easy to be an armchair SEO. […]

[…] 2. Will Toys ‘R’ Us Flub $5.1M Toys.com Purchase? Um, yes it will. At least as far as SEO is concerned. This article was written before the article in #1. Of course it’s easy to be an armchair SEO. […]

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