The introduction of new website suffixes (known as new top-level domains) such as .ibm, .afl, .law, and .shop is set to cause a shake-up in search engine land. Websites ending in .com, which currently dominate the internet real estate market, are about to get some new competition on the block and face possible relegation down the rankings.
Applications for new top-level domains (TLDs) are currently open and they’re expected to hit the web in early 2013. They will allow brands, entrepreneurs and governments to own a branded version of .com – moving from iinet.net.au to .iinet for example – dramatically changing the way internet users around the world navigate to find content online.
There are more than 131 billion searches conducted online each year (or more than 175 million per hour) and with a large proportion of these queries leading to the $8 trillion worth of ecommerce transactions made every year, there is a lot riding on the results. This means your position in Google search results is of paramount importance and any impact from new top-level domains could be significant to the digital economy.
The biggest debate (some may call it ‘heated discussion’) among search industry experts has been around the potential impact of a new top-level domain on a brand’s ranking in Google.
Will a new TLD web address automatically be favoured by Google over a .com equivalent? Quite simply, yes it will. I’ve been researching this topic since development of the new TLD program first began (around 6 years ago) and have closely followed the opinions of the many search industry experts who have taken a great deal of interest in the introduction of these new domains and the impact they will have.
The more I research, the more I have no doubt that a new TLD address will trump its .com equivalent. And here’s why.
Why will Google prefer .anything over .com?
We can partly answer this question by observing the way search engines like Google handle information contained right of the dot (.com, .info, .biz, etc.).
The basis of good search results is having the ability to present the most useful and relevant information in ascending order. An easy first step in this process is an assessment of the TLD the website is located within. We know this currently occurs because you can see search engine preferences to .edu websites for educational search topics, likewise with .gov websites for government related search topics.
Google bases its results on what it believes the intent was behind a search. For example if you type in ‘Nike’, Google assumes it’s more likely that you’re looking for the Nike website versus a shop that sells Nike runners (it’s a clever machine). So for searches where intent is clear, brands that own a .brand will have extra weighting behind them and are likely to rank higher.
But there’s even more benefit than that.
Domain name bias in action
Where I actually believe new top-level domains will have the biggest impact is with what the search industry calls ‘domain name bias’ (aka website credibility). This is when a web user chooses to click on one domain name in the search results over another because it looks more trustworthy.
In Australia, internet users have become biased towards .com.au domain names because they’ve learnt they’ll end up on a site that belongs to an Australian business. The same applies with .co.uk, so I’m sure users will become biased towards other TLDs if they’re taught it contains trustworthy and relevant content.
A research report by Microsoft found end users have learned to trust some domains over others. The report states that, “Viewing content on the internet as products, domains have emerged as brands. And users have developed such fierce brand loyalty that their clicks are tainted by domains.”
Think about when you search for information. Say you typed ‘tax rates’ into Google. Have you ever noticed yourself scanning the search results for a website that looks more credible? If the top search result wasn’t a trusted authority on tax (e.g. a government website), you probably would have skipped down to the government website, even if it was ranked 4 or 5 on the list.
That’s domain bias.
Ask the experts
I wanted to validate my opinion so I contacted a few experts and sought their advice. Karen Nelson, independent search marketing expert, spoke about how SEO benefits might occur:
“New TLDs are likely to be built with a sense of community and a specific audience in mind – so if the owners of new TLDs put restrictions in place for who can apply for web addresses at the second level, that would create exclusivity and trust in the domain name, which consumers will begin to recognise.”
“From a credibility point of view, new top-level domains will get more click-throughs from search results – even if they’re not ranked at the top. They’re shorter, neater and more appealing for the millions of eyes that scan Google search results every day. Behaviour change will start to happen and Google will pick up on this – that will be a strong benefit for brands.”
Ruth Stubbs, president of iProspect and Digital Media Asia Pacific, reinforced the notion of domain name bias:
“Google’s organic search results have a strong bias towards domain names, I believe. Therefore, if you can afford it, it’s an easy way to get yourself above the noise, particularly if your brand happens to be a competitive keyword.”
Zoe Warne, co-founder of award winning digital agency August and Committee Member of the Australian Interactive Media industry Association, spoke of the importance of online trust and relevance:
“Today’s internet users are quick to adapt and learn online trends. Not only do they seek instant gratification, they are also lightning fast to judge whether or not they trust an online source. And once you lose them you don’t get a second chance. For a brand to own its own trademarked TLD presents a rare opportunity for them to reassure consumers they are in the right, most relevant place. New TLDs have the potential to act as a lighthouse for brands online.”
Ultimately, the big question is: will car.insurance rank higher than carinsurance.com (for example)? All the evidence suggest the answer is yes, provided that the .insurance namespace builds value and perhaps verification into its space to ensure it is a signpost for good, trusted and authoritative content. That is where the real winners will come from in the new TLD program.
It’s here I remind marketers that buying a new TLD isn’t just about buying a key word to the right of the dot – it is about buying an entire slice of the internet. So whilst a new TLD provides clear Google ranking benefits and domain name bias, a first class content strategy to underpin a new TLD will help even more.
Define a target market, create credible content for your new TLD community and the Google results will follow.
More importantly though, it seems the credibility and trust that comes with a TLD is invaluable. Whilst behaviour change takes time, internet users do learn to acknowledge the credible content under TLDs and this can only be of advantage to new TLD applicants.