Top level domains and search engine rankings.
How compatible will new top level domains be with search engine optimization?
The issue was thrust into the limelight following ARI Service CEO Adrian Kinderis’ article on marketingmag.com.au yesterday.
The money line was this:
Will a new TLD web address automatically be favoured by Google over a .com equivalent? Quite simply, yes it will.
In a rare direct and immediate response to an SEO rumor, Google’s Matt Cutts responded that this simply isn’t the case.
Cutts knows more about SEO at Google than anyone else, so this is pretty damning. He’s also addressed this same issue before.
To be fair to Kinderis’, that one line isn’t indicative of his whole explanation. But he put it out there as a certainty, so he set himself up for it.
So if Kinderis is wrong, what should people planning to launch new TLDs consider when it comes to search rankings?
A lot of people argue that a newer top level domain such as .biz doesn’t carry the same weight as an older one like .com. But these people fail to control the variables. They point out the lack of a certain TLD on the first page of Google for a given search result as proof that newer TLDs don’t rank as well.
Here are two variables they’re missing:
1. The number of web sites on that new TLD compared to .com (it’s much less)
2. The age and history of those web sites
Should you expect example.biz, which has been around for a couple years, to rank higher than example.com, which has been around for ten years, has tons of backlinks gained over that time, and much more content? Of course not.
A lot of people think .edu and .gov carry more weight than .com. But in reality, it probably has more to do with many .edu and .gov sites having authority themselves.
On the flip side of the coin, Google has publicly said that it may reduce the weight of search results from a “spammy” top level domain.
In Cutts response to Kinderis, he said “but I don’t expect a new TLD to get any kind of initial preference over .com, and I wouldn’t bet on that happening in the long-term either. If you want to register an entirely new TLD for other reasons, that’s your choice, but you shouldn’t register a TLD in the mistaken belief that you’ll get some sort of boost in search engine rankings.”
Here’s what I think both brands and registries should think about when considering new TLDs and SEO.
Frankly, one of the biggest issues for brands thinking about launching a .brand is the SEO hit they will take if they try to transition their web presence from one domain to another.
Think about this logically. Let’s take a simpler example first. Let’s say Nike wants to transition from Nike.com to newNike.com.
That’s a huge undertaking. Nike.com has been on the web for over a decade, collecting links from many sources, and with lots of fresh content. It’s technically possible to send some of this value over to NewNike.com. But it’s not easy. I know people who have done it. Not only did the transition planning require lots of resources, but it’s never done perfectly. You’re going to take some sort of hit.
Now consider if Nike wants to transition to .Nike. This isn’t just a huge undertaking. It’s massive.
Keep in mind the new web address won’t be just “.nike”. It would likely require a multitude of second level domains, such as shoe.nike, basketball.nike, fuelband.nike, etc.
So now you’re going from one dominant, authoritative, long running web site to dozens of brand new, fresh, second level domain names. That’s not easy.
Making matters worse, at first you’ll need to basically alias typo traffic. Promoting Basketball.nike in an ad? Better have basketball.nike.com forward to that.
This is why some new TLD consultants I’ve talked to said brands shouldn’t consider replacing their existing web address with their .brand. They should just augment it.
2. Generic and community TLDs
What about .web, .football, and .catholic?
The good news is that domain names at these addresses won’t be penalized compared to .com. That doesn’t mean they’ll rank as high as similar .com’s at first, but that has nothing to do with the TLD (see “History” above).
What it does mean is that registries need to be careful to keep the reputation of your top level domain clean.
An easy way to attract web spammers to your TLD is to offer cut rate pricing. Just ask .info and .cn. This will be a major problem with .free if it doesn’t set in place and enforce appropriate policies.
One last thought on .brand: if .brand does give brands an SEO advantage on the web, that’s really bad news. It will create a web of haves and have-nots.
3. Domain Bias
In his article, Kinderis discusses domain bias.
Domain Bias refers to a report by Microsoft researchers about how people favor certain web sites more than others when clicking search results.
If I search for “King George”, I may be more likely to click on a Wikipedia article about King George than johnsfunnyinfo.com. That’s because I know and trust Wikipedia.
Could this extend to new TLDs? Sure. In the negative, think about .free. Are you more likely to click on InformationSite.com or InformationSite.free?
I’ll click on the one where the guy thought his web site was worth a $10 domain instead of nothing.
Would people be more likely to click on shoes.nike than nike.com/shoes or shoes.nike.com? I don’t know. Maybe over time. But I wouldn’t say it with any certainty.
If people start clicking on search results based on the top level domain then we could see domains with more defined TLDs move up in the rankings. But that won’t happen overnight.
Could Google change?
The unleashing of over 1,000 top level domains will certainly be a big deal. There are only a couple hundred right now.
Is it possible Google will change how it handles TLDs in the future?
I think it’s possible Google will use the TLD as a signal in some cases. Right now, for example, Google considers the location of your web host when it returns results to people in different countries. Would it make sense to consider the .NYC domain if someone searches for “New York City restaurants”. Maybe; if .NYC does a good job policing itself.
And it’s possible that a well managed TLD could be considered as a ranking indicator. If .bank is exclusive, it could be a hint to search engines that the web site is legit. That doesn’t mean bankofamerica.bank would “automatically” rank better than bankofamerica.com, but it’s possible Google will consider it as a factor…in the long run.