McDonald’s and their McSuperfluous Domain Portfolio

I took a run this past weekend and happened to trot past my local McDonald’s. Like any good American, I took a break to stare up at the Golden Arches:

I’ve always been fascinated by those signs with the movable letters. This is mainly because of a game I used to play with some friends in college: come up with the funniest phrase possible by rearranging the letters in a given sign. After we had the best idea, you can imagine what shenanigans would take place next. (I’ll write that blog post in 2012 when the statute of limitations is up.)

Anyway, what did that McDonald’s sign say? Let’s take a closer look:

I understand that not everyone’s set of movable letters is fully-equipped, so I don’t blame them for using dashes instead of dots in the URL. Nor do I mind them using upside-down M’s for their W’s (the guys who decide how many W’s come with these signs clearly weren’t prepared for the advent of web addresses).

What caught my eye here was the URL. What does McState mean? Is it some kind of HR terminology I don’t know about? How are job-seekers supposed to remember such a bizarre URL? Why not just have a “jobs” link at McDonalds.com?

Then it hit me: I’d bet each franchisee, coast to coast, got a set of instructions from corporate that read something like this: “Please change your outdoor sign to advertise your state’s local jobs domain: WWW.MCSTATE.COM (replace “STATE” with the name of your state).”

Apparently, somebody at this particular franchise glossed over the end of those instructions just left the URL as “McState.com” instead of making it say “McNewJersey.com.” I typed in www.McNewJersey.com and, lo and behold, it was the NJ recruiting site for McDonald’s. HA! We all took a break from our ecommerce dashboards and had a good laugh.

Another click, however, revealed that this domain-based absurdity might not be an isolated incident. Apparently, it reaches all the way up the corporate ladder.

If you actually go to McState.com, it is a site owned by McDonalds. It’s a simple, generic landing page that provides links to each of the 50 state-specific McDomains and asks you to choose your state. This could just be there to protect against mistakes like the one I saw today, but some evidence suggests otherwise.

For instance, McState.com has a PageRank 5, which is pretty high for a landing page that just shoots you off to other domains, especially since McNewJersey.com (the page with the actual content) only has a PageRank 4. The only way this could happen is if McDonalds is actually frequently linking to McState.com. Maybe my local franchisee’s sign wasn’t a mistake after all; maybe it was a corporate mandate.

If McState.com is supposed to be what’s advertised, the situation is slightly less funny but even more ridiculous: why promote a less memorable, less targeted domain that requires an extra click when you could show a more memorable, locally-targeted domain that actually includes the content your audience is looking for? Moreover, your company’s name is one of the strongest brands on the planet, so why do you need to use all of these ancillary, forgettable domains in the first place?

And in case you were wondering, yes, McDonald’s actually owns every single “McState.com” domain name. Just plug in any state name (the complete, correct spelling) and you’re taken to a cookie-cutter recruiting site specific to that state. That’s a pretty impressive portfolio, considering the domain prefix is simply “MC,” which could be a prefix or acronym for any number of things.

I wondered if McDonald’s was able to snap up all those domains through a registrar or if they had to assemble the set out in the aftermarket. (McDonald’s is famous for having domain issues from day one.) I turned to the trustworthy folks over at DomainTools to see if I could dig up some back-story on this McPortfolio. Here’s what I found:

  • McKansas.com, McMissouri.com, and McNebraska.com were registered to McDonald’s Corporation on July 16, 2001. I’m not sure why these states came first, but they do border each other so maybe it started as a regional push.
  • 45 more McState domains were registered to McDonald’s Corporation on September 15, 2001. So, it looks like all but two states were available and were snapped up without issue.
  • As it turns out, McHawaii.com was never owned by McDonald’s (and still isn’t). It was registered on August 10, 1999 to Management Consultants of Hawaii (get it? M.C. Hawaii = McHawaii). They own the URL to this day. On October 21, 2001, McDonald’s registered McHawaii.net, which it still uses today (this has to hurt– it’s the one .com that got away).
  • The one mystery was McOhio.com, which is owned by McDonald’s today but seems to have a checkered past. I can tell that it was originally registered on January 3, 2001 (months before the others), but the historical WHOIS records appear to have been deleted (or, unlike the 49 others, not archived) before October 2006. This leaves a huge hole in the history of this domain. Adding to the intrigue, it looks like McDonald’s registered McOhio.net on the same day they registered McHawaii.net, which suggests someone else had control of the McOhio.com domain at that time.

So, what was going on at McOhio.com? The answers were found at the Internet Archive. A mid-2001 snapshot shows that it was used to promote “The Dr. McDougall Diet and Health Plan” — a $20 diet book and tape set containing “life saving facts you need to know!” The McDougall Diet ad stayed up at the domain through October 2005, at which point the domain went dead until March 14th, 2007 when it reappeared under the control of McDonald’s. Presumably, they were able to purchase the domain.

It looks like McDonald’s had a fairly easy time putting the portfolio together (with the exception of Hawaii), which only leaves one question: why bother? I’ve provided analytics to a few companies who were trying to assemble domain portfolios and they typically had one of a few good reasons for doing so:

  • SEO: In some cases, having a specific term in a URL can boost organic search rankings. This is only good for a finite set of domains, however, since it’s easy to dilute your PageRank “juice” if the portfolio is too large.
  • Perceived Expertise: the company sells a specific set of items or services, and having them explicitly named in a landing page domain name gives off a sense of domain expertise (no pun intended) for the products or services in question.
  • Local Brand Affinity: the company sells within extremely specific geographic areas and having the name of a town or county in their landing page domain name helps build trust with local customers.

The McState portfolio certainly doesn’t fall into any of these categories. You could even make the case that it’s a bad SEO move, causing brand and PageRank dilution, along with consumer confusion. If they wanted to, McDonalds.com could easily create state-specific landing pages within their main domain name that would dominate the state-specific organic rankings. The same argument holds from a functionality standpoint: there is no reason this couldn’t be done with less confusion under one domain.

As for perceived expertise and a local affinity, the domains don’t suggest any specific expertise, and McDonald’s would have to drill down a lot deeper than the state level to achieve any kind of affinity boost in local communities.

Some might argue that owning the portfolio is a defensive move against others creating sites that might be bad for the “Mc” brand. In fact, it’s quite possible that the registration of McOhio by a weight loss company (the irony just hit me) was what sparked this buy-up in the first place. To be honest, I absolutely agree with this logic and see the value in McDonald’s owning the portfolio. I just don’t see why they have to use it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s dinner time. I’ve been craving McNuggets all day.

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