Your Google ranking can mean the difference between success and obscurity. Some new gTLD registries are claiming a secret SEO sauce in their domains. Google claims otherwise. What is really going on?
It all began when CEO of ARI Registry Services, Adrian Kinderis, wrote a blog post for the Australian version of Marketing magazine back in April 2012.
In the piece, he went into some depth over how new gTLDs (which at that time were expected to come online within the next 12 months) were going to “shake-up search engine land” and dot-coms would “face possible relegation down the rankings”.
The logic is simple: if you have a domain that ends with the word that your website is about and if every website under that registry is about a similar topic then search engines are going to associate all domains under that registry with the same topic. Kinderis gave the example of car.insurance or carinsurance.com. Search engines will always try to provide their customers with the best results first. So it’s only logical for someone looking for car insurance that sooner or later dot-insurance will start ranking higher.
With search engine rankings – especially Google’s – often meaning the difference between a successful online presence and complete obscurity, the article received swift attention. One of those whose attention was drawn to the article was Matt Cutts, Google’s head of the webspam team and so one of the key architects for how Google decides how to rank websites for its billions of users based on what they type in the search box.
The same day that Kinderis’ piece appeared online, Cutts posted a very short post on his Google+ account taking issue with the claims.
“Google has a lot of experience in returning relevant web pages, regardless of the top-level domain,” he wrote. “Google will attempt to rank new TLDs appropriately, 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.”
Fast-forward two-and-a-half years, new gTLDs are finally online, and the question of improved SEO for domains with new endings appears all over again.
First, German search engine optimization (SEO) specialists Searchmetrics found what appeared to be a 1.18 position improvement in dot-berlin domains when web users were searching for information while physically located in Berlin. Search engines often use your IP address to deliver better results.
Then another set of SEO specialists based in Texas, Total Websites, discovered a similar pattern but this time on a global basis. They found that Google was using a domain ending as a factor in assessing its value. It took screengrabs that appeared to show how a domain ending in “company” would do better than an equivalent dot-com domain if someone used the term “company” in their search. It found the same pattern across other new gTLDs too.
What Google has said:
“As an engineer in the search quality team at Google, I feel the need to debunk this misconception [that a new TLD web address will automatically be favoured by Google over a dot-com equivalent].
“Google has a lot of experience in returning relevant web pages, regardless of the top-level domain (TLD). Google will attempt to rank new TLDs appropriately, 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.”
“It feels like it’s time to reshare this again. There still is no inherent ranking advantage to using the new TLDs.
“They can perform well in search, just like any other TLD can perform well in search. They give you an opportunity to pick a name that better matches your web-presence.
“If you see posts claiming that early data suggests they’re doing well, keep in mind that this is not due to any artificial advantage in search: you can make a fantastic website that performs well in search on any TLD.”
A number of other similar claims followed in quick succession. SEO expert Bill Hartzer said that he was finding new gTLDs were doing better against dot-coms.
And they in turn sparked a blog post by Paul Stahura, CEO of the largest gTLD registry operator, Donuts. It was titled: Early Data Suggests New gTLDs Perform Well in Search Environment.
The day after Stahura’s blog post appeared, a second Google staffer was again driven to respond on his Google+ account. This time trends analyst John Mueller weighed in (Cutts is currently on sabbatical from Google).
Mueller reshared Cutts’ 2012 post saying “It feels like it’s time to reshare this again,” before adding, “there still is no inherent ranking advantage to using the new TLDs.”
He went on: “If you see posts claiming that early data suggests [new gTLDs are] doing well, keep in mind that this is not due to
any artificial advantage in search: you can make a fantastic website that performs well
in search on any TLD.”
So is that it? Are those claiming that new gTLDs are outpeforming the trusty dot-com deluding themselves, using skewed datasets or simply trying to sell more new domains?
Online commentators were quick to disparage the studies. But dig a little deeper and the answer is not so cut-and-dried. What’s more, it could well be that choosing the right domain name for your website does bring with it some inherent SEO benefits.
In 2012, Cutts took issue with the concept that some registries are inherently more trusted and hence given higher rankings. Google is notoriously secretive about how its search algorithms but one thing it does not want to say, true or not, is that it ranks an entire registry higher than an alternative.
Cutts was right when he noted that we are some way off accepting that some registries are more trustworthy and hence more valuable, although that may change if domains like dot-trust or dot-bank have their way.
What the more recent SEO studies around new gTLDs have discovered though is that the domain ending is bringing specific benefits when people are searching for that term.
Mueller appears to acknowledge that when he notes “[new gTLDs] can perform well in search, just like any other TLD… They give you an opportunity to pick a name that better matches your web-presence.”
So will picking a domain name that more closely matches your business and content lead to you outperform others that don’t? It seems very possible that yes it does. At least until Google updates its search algorithm to account for all the people using that knowledge to try to game the system.