How to pick the right domain extension

How to pick the right domain extension

decisions

In ye olde days (early 2013), most of the thinking that went into choosing a domain name went to the name itself, not the domain extension. But now, with hundreds of top-level domains (TLDs) available to the public, picking the actual name of your site might be the easy part. How do you choose between all the TLD options? Do you go with .com? .co? Your local ccTLD? A descriptive word that aligns with your brand? Maybe .pizza (pizza goes with everything!)?

Before you spontaneously combust, let’s go through your options and add some notes from the smart people writing about the subject around the web.

  1. What domain extension gets the best SEO?
  2. Beware TLD spam indicators
  3. Local domain extensions can be good for SEO
  4. Does your TLD really matter?

What domain extension gets the best SEO

lisa simpson

I’m not a mind reader, but my guess is that you don’t really care what your TLD is, as long as it makes you rank on a Google search. That’s a good mentality to have, as pleasing the Google gods is often a fast pass to getting people to your site.

To please said Google gods, you have to think about Search Engine Optimization (SEO…Google it). Basically, Google has an algorithm they use to make their results more relevant to the humans using their service — an algorithm meant to promote usability and readability over spammy behavior. And because of that, an entire industry has popped up to try to teach people how to optimize their sites into whatever Google thinks is best at the time.

Most advice boiled down to “how many times should you write a certain word in a blog post to make it rank high in a Google search.” But then that quickly changed to “if you put certain words in your domain name, your whole site will rank higher for those words.” (People are still arguing over that… more below.)

So when the new gTLDs came out (the ones like .pizza and .blog), the thought was that they would become an easy way to boost your search rank for those specific terms. Then the official word from Google came out (emphasis mine):

Q: How will new gTLDs affect search? Is Google changing the search
algorithm to favor these TLDs? How important are they really in search?

A: Overall, our systems treat new gTLDs like other gTLDs (like .com
& .org). Keywords in a TLD do not give any advantage or disadvantage in search.

Translated, according to Google, your TLD doesn’t matter, at least when it comes to keywords. You can keyword target them to your brand (like .pizza to a pizza shop) and it won’t make any difference at all to Google’s algorithm (.pizza just isn’t any more “authentic” to actual pizza shops than something like .com).

In practice though, there’s some evidence that targeting keywords might help (perhaps humans are easier to manipulate than algorithms). Here’s one from Search Engine Land:

That’s why we commissioned Globe Runner, a Dallas-based SEO firm, to investigate the effect of moving from a .COM to a new TLD. The subject of this study was Jacksonville.ATTORNEY, a domain registered by Eric Block, a personal injury attorney in Jacksonville, FL. Eric’s migration from EricBlockLaw.com in March of 2015 was a great opportunity to observe domain metrics before and after the switch. What Globe Runner discovered is that moving to a new TLD very likely contributed to Eric’s site appearing at the top of many search results.

Within months, Jacksonville.ATTORNEY was sitting at or near the top of organic search results for some highly competitive keywords, ranking as high as the first overall match for terms like “Jacksonville attorney” and “Jacksonville attorneys.” This was a welcome change from EricBlockLaw.com, which often ranked several pages down, if they ranked at all.

Since the switch, Globe Runner estimated that the site generates the organic equivalent of $6,400 per month in 333 Google keyword phrases. Many of these searches don’t even include “Jacksonville” as a term, as Google’s results can already account for the location of the user performing the search.

And here’s another test on Search Engine Journal:

At first, when we first ran the ads, we found that we got more impressions on the .Diamonds ads, and the .DIAMONDS clicks were cheaper. The clicks on the .COM ads were more expensive, but ultimately the .COM clicks converted better. Eight months later, however, we ran the same ads again, and found that the .DIAMONDS clicks were still cheaper than using a .COM domain name. But, it turned out that the .DIAMONDS clicks were converting better than they had before.

I’m now recommending that if you’re running Google AdWords ads, consider using a keyword rich New gTLD domain name. You should, of course, do your own testing, but you may end up paying less for clicks and getting more conversions.

So what’s the answer to the original question, “Does Moving To a New gTLD Domain Name Help Rankings?”. The answer, honestly, is that we don’t know yet. We certainly have some proof that moving a site to a New gTLD domain or using a New gTLD domain for your brand new domain could help organic rankings, and it certainly won’t hurt rankings. If the migration is done correctly, a site won’t lose rankings.

But we just don’t have enough data to give anyone a final answer to this question, there aren’t enough New gTLD domains with live sites on them.

Practically, I think it’s safe to stick to Google’s recommendation that it really doesn’t matter what TLD you choose, as long as your site contains high-quality content. But if you like to be on the cutting edge of things, trying out a domain extension that fits your brand might be a savvy longterm move.

Plus, putting aside SEO, I really like this take on the potential future by Karn Jajoo for The Next Web:

A new TLD is often just a natural fit: take the example of ‘Lily’, the world’s first self-flying camera drone. ‘Lily’ could refer to the flowering plant, a common first name, or a small town, and its .com is registered by Lily Transportation Corp. Therefore, the Menlo Park robotics startup behind this drone used a simple, elegant domain to disambiguate its product – lily.camera.

Ever heard of the case of Nissan computer vs. Nissan motors? Uzi Nissan, a reseller of computer hardware and peripherals, registered Nissan.com on June 4, 1994.

Five years later, the Nissan Motor Corporation (which was called Datsun in the late 1970s) filed a $10 million lawsuit against Nissan Computer claiming cyber-squatting, trademark infringement and trademark dilution.

Perhaps if new TLDs had existed back then, Nissan.computer and Nissan.auto would have solved this contention without the lengthy legal dispute that has allegedly already cost Mr. Uzi $2.2 million in legal fees.

In addition to providing endless new namespaces for people to register short, memorable domain names (good .com’s can be hard to find these days) , the new gTLDs could act as a natural category structure for the web. And that’s just cool.

Beware TLD spam indicators

you blew it

There are some TLDs though that may hurt your cause. Beyond Google’s algorithm, the other factor to contend with is human emotion. We’ve been trained for decades now to avoid things that seem unsafe online, and all these new domain extensions are just another new thing to be afraid of.

And it’s not unwarranted. Some TLDs do have a higher percentage of “shady” (as Symantec puts it) actors, and while the general public probably doesn’t keep up with such lists, once you get a reputation, it’s hard to shake it. For this reason, many people simply settle on .com — it’s so big at this point that it’s practically too big to fail.

I don’t frequent the afraid-of-new-things camp though. Instead, I just keep an eye on a few lists, like the ”Badness Index” list from Spamhaus. It’s made up of “representing domains seen by Spamhaus systems, and not a TLD’s total domain corpus,” formulated with this algorithm:

(Db/Dt) log(Db)

where

  • Db is the number of bad domains detected
  • Dt is the number of active domains observed

As of 28 August 2018 the TLDs with the worst reputations for spam operations are:

  1. .gq
  2. .cf
  3. .tk
  4. ml
  5. .ga
  6. .men
  7. .top
  8. .link
  9. .work
  10. .date

And here’s the Symantec list of Shady Top-Level Domains.

Shady Percentage is a simple calculation: the ratio of “domains and subdomains ending in this TLD which are rated in our database with a’shady’ category, divided by the total number of database entries ending in this TLD”.

Here are the Top Twenty Shady TLDs, as of the close of 2017:

  1. .country
  2. .strean
  3. .download
  4. .xin
  5. .gdn
  6. .racing
  7. .jetzt
  8. .win
  9. .bid
  10. .vip
  11. .ren
  12. .kim
  13. .loan
  14. .mom
  15. .party
  16. .review
  17. .trade
  18. .date
  19. .wang
  20. .accountants

And finally, just to bring us all back to Earth, here’s SURBL’s list — no algorithm here — showing us that .com is still the spam leader (there’s just a lot more .com domains floating around to help the ratio, so you don’t see it on other lists).

  1. .com
  2. .men
  3. .tk
  4. .biz
  5. .ml
  6. .ga
  7. .cf
  8. .gq
  9. .us
  10. .work
  11. .top
  12. .net
  13. .date
  14. .info
  15. .org
  16. .shop
  17. .review
  18. .loan
  19. .stream
  20. .trade

These lists change all the time as domain registries modify their policies, so don’t think of any of this as a permanent indictment. But if you start seeing the same extensions appear year after year, it’s safe to assume that the public will eventually notice. And that’s something you just don’t need in your life.

Local domain extensions can be good for SEO

go local

By design, the internet is a global marketplace. No matter where your website is being hosted, anyone in the world can check out what you’re offering. But in many instances, people and businesses don’t need a global reach. Restaurants, regional banks, local politicians—these people and places are focused locally, and can often benefit from local TLDs.

Here’s what Moz has to say:

Important in international SEO, ccTLDs are the single strongest way to show search engines and users where the site originates. This means that, all things being equal, example.fr will likely rank better in a French user’s SERP than example.us or example.com

Note that Google Webmaster Tools will not let you geotarget a ccTLD because it is, by definition, already geotargeted.

In practice, Google does its best to give the most relevant results possible. If you’re looking for Mexican food in New Zealand, having a .nz domain will help you rank higher (although you can target generic TLDs like .COM to specific places, too… it’s just an extra step). Here’s how Google puts it:

Q: What about real ccTLDs (country code top-level domains) : will Google favor ccTLDs (like .uk, .ae, etc.) as a local domain for people searching in those countries?

A: By default, most ccTLDs (with exceptions) result in Google using these to geotarget the website; it tells us that the website is probably more relevant in the appropriate country.

The story is a little different for the new city extensions:

Q: How are the new region or city TLDs (like .london or .bayern) handled?

A: Even if they look region-specific, we will treat them as gTLDs. This
is consistent with our handling of regional TLDs like .eu and .asia.
There may be exceptions at some point down the line, as we see how
they’re used in practice.

My guess is that city TLDs will start to get hypertargeted at some point, but that’s only a guess. If you’re using your domain for a local audience (and have no plans to go international), a country code TLD (ccTLD) like .nz, .ca, or .uk is what you’re looking for…

… unless you live in the United States. For whatever reason, no one in the US uses the .us domain extension. It’s what happens when everyone becomes a brand that’s for sale — you get a bunch of people who identify as commercial entities.

When going local goes wrong

There are a few instances where trying to go local doesn’t actually mean the internet thinks you’re local. Here are a few:

  • The common initials for the state of Delaware is DE, but .de is the ccTLD for Germany. Your customers might think it’s cool, but Google’s going to think your brand is in Germany, not Delaware.
  • Like Delaware, Sussex in England uses SX as their abbreviation, but .sx is the ccTLD for Sint Maarten. Definitely a different place

The best rule to follow is to know what your TLD stands for before you register it (if it’s a ccTLD that Google considers generic, you’re fine).

Does your TLD really matter?

han

From Pando Daily, in an article titled ”What’s In A Name? The fading tyranny of dot com”:

For someone like Michael Heyward, who co-founded anonymous social networking app Whisper in 2012, as a mobile first company, he says, there was not an ounce of trepidation at not having the Whisper.com domain name. (Whisper.com itself is a junk address, filled with spam links.)

Heyward says that 99 percent of Whisper’s exposure comes from its app. The company has a Whisper.sh landing page, to showcase popular posts from the app and publish legal and company information.

In 2014, Americans spend more time in apps than they do using the Internet on desktop. With social media sites becoming a greater engine for content discovery, new sites such as Quartz are popping up that don’t really even have an official homepage.

Think about that. For the foreseeable future, we’ll all need domain names to run our platforms and blogs, but discovery is changing fast. Really fast. On a given day, almost all the content I personally read online comes from links on content aggregators like Techmeme and Hacker News, or social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And because I trust the sources I’m finding sites and articles with, the domain itself doesn’t matter. It could be “ten words long dot anything” and I likely wouldn’t know the difference.

Putting on my future hat, my advice would be to find the TLD that you’re most comfortable with and go with it. .Com, .io, .limo—no matter what it is, if you commit to it, you’ll probably be fine.

I’ll leave you with this nugget from Christopher Steiner at FoundersClub:

But everybody knew, even then, that a company needed a dot-com domain. That wasn’t debatable. But it seems a subject that is up for discussion now, judging by data. Promising startups still end up with dot-com domains more often than not, but the margin at which they do is decreasing.

ycombinator .com trending downward

The percentage of Y Combinator companies with dot-com domains has been following a downward trend since the the winter class of 2014, when dot-com domains comprised 80% of the class. Before that point, almost all classes were well into the 90-percentiles for dot-com names, with seven classes at 100%.

The last three classes at YC have been: 79.4%, 75.3% and 68.0% dot-com domains.

The times are-a-changin’.

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