Posted by Jonah A. Berger, Search Specialist, Natural Search
Have you ever dreamed of purchasing your very own domain extension? Instead of parking your domain at the everyday dot-com and dot-net, what if you could be identified by dot-your-brand-name or even dot-your-own-name? Starting in early 2010, these dreams just might become reality – with a catch, of course. Actually, 185,000 of them.
Several articles and blog postings are floating in cyberspace about the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ (ICANN) plan to add hundreds of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) to the mix starting in early 2010. For the exorbitant price tag of $185,000 (Lamborghini sold separately), you can have a domain extension all to yourself. Want to grab your brand name before anyone else? What about your own first and last name? Your favorite vacation spot like .australia or .massachusetts? Your favorite breakfast sandwich like .mcmuffin or .croissanwich? Go for it.
Wait, wait! Not just yet, Hotcakes. Maybe you’d like to take some time to see if it’s really worth it first? At least let me explain before you reach deep into your pockets.
There are two sides presented by those who are in the line of fire of the new domain extensions: those who think they’re a good idea and those who don’t. The former sees owning a domain extension as a chance to further build its online reputation and authority. If you think about it, wouldn’t Internet users be more apt to visit www.drink.coke than www.coke.com? And what about search engines? It’s not too much of an imagination stretch for them to give more love to dot-coke than coke-dot-com, right? … Um, right?
Those on the other side of the river are quick to talk about the new domain extensions leading to rabid cybersquatting and mass Internet user confusion. According to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor: "Cybersquatting reached new levels in 2008. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) handled 2,329 cases under its dispute procedure for Internet addresses, according to a recent report in Reuters. The BBC, Google, eBay, RIM Blackberry, Yale University, Arsenal Football Club, and Scarlett Johansson are among those who registered complaints last year."
Cybersquatting is the registering of a trademarked or celebrity name with the intent of unfairly profiting from it. For example, say five years ago someone decided to purchase www.vancouver2010.com with the intent of selling it to the highest bidder once the 2010 Olympic Games approached. It’s not so much the act of purchasing the domain that’s frowned upon in the Internet space; it’s the purchasing of the domain with intent to make a quick buck (or tens of thousands of quick bucks) that makes a person automatically don the scarlet letter (a “C” in this case for cybersquatter).
As for typical Internet users, it’s not by any means a stretch of the imagination to think that the creation of the new gTLDs could lead to mass confusion. For years, John and Jane Internetuser have programmed their minds to immediately think of dot-com or dot-net when searching for a Web site. It’s safe to say that when someone tells us to “go to Starbucks’ Web site,” most of us are more apt to type www.starbucks.com into the address bar than www.coffee.starbucks or www.double-mocha-latte-non-fat-no-whip.starbucks. People don’t always react well to change, and this could be an instance where they feel change just isn’t necessary. If you think about it, how plausible is it that people who first learn about www.drink.coke jump online to naturally look for www.drink.coke.com or something similar because that’s how they’ve used the Web since they first left the incubator?
To put cybersquatters and the dazed and confused on the backburner for a second (hey, keep your hands to yourself, people!), the new gTLDs definitely sound appealing to the Cokes and Wal-Marts of the world, but what about smaller businesses that can’t afford forking over hundreds of thousands of duckets without knowing what they’ll get – if anything – in return? A recent Reuters article said that a survey of 100 e-commerce managers showed that more than two-thirds of them were unaware of the upcoming changes. For changes that could prove to be rewarding in the search engine space down the road, it’s surprising to see such low numbers of stakeholders taking notice.
So are we as SEO professionals taking notice? Before discussing what this change means to the world of SEO, let's first break down exactly what domain extensions are with a quick history lesson. The year was 1983 and "Every Breath You Take" by The Police and "Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson were tearing up the Billboard charts. Sally Ride became the first woman astronaut in space that year, and compact discs became a more viable option to vinyl records. Over 100 million viewers said goodbye to M*A*S*H in ‘83, and that same year the FCC authorized Motorola to begin testing cellular phone service in Chicago. Cellular phone service? Yeah, that worked out well.
Receiving a little (OK, a lot) less fanfare in 1983 was Paul Mockapetris’ invention of the Domain Name System (DNS). Very long story short, the DNS is a hierarchal naming system for all things Internet. Simply put, it’s the Internet’s version of a phone book that translates human-friendly computer hostnames into IP addresses. Within this Internet “phone book” are identification labels (aka addresses) known as domain names. There are multiple parts to domain names – the most common being the rightmost top-level domain (TLD) (e.g. .com and .org) and a sub-domain of that TLD (e.g. Google and Amazon are sub-domains of the .com TLD). There are nearly 300 current domain extensions (21 gTLDs and 250-plus country code TLDs (ccTLDs)) in play today, and with the changes being implemented in 2010, these numbers are expected to jump by the hundreds.
There are several categories of TLDs. As Internet users, some you know well and see all the time, like the aforementioned ccTLDs (e.g. .us, .de and .jp) and gTLDs like .com, .info, .net and .org. Then there are the sponsored TLDs (sTLDs) that have rules and restrictions attached to them. These include .edu, .gov, .mil and .mobi. And let’s not forget generic-restricted TLDs like .biz, .name and .pro that require proof of eligibility and the following of other guidelines before use.
Confused yet? Don’t be. To put it simply, this latest move by ICANN has the potential to add some serious competition to the gTLDs we’ve come to know and love all these years. Or does it? According to VeriSign's December 2008 Domain Name Industry Brief, of the 174 million domain names registered as of Sept.30, 2008, more than half – or roughly 89.4 million – were registered in .com and .net. These statistics don’t come as a surprise and beg the question: Can the new gTLDs put a chink in the armor of the .com and .nets? Would a searcher be more willing to click a search result for dot-brand than brand-dot-com? And, finally, what does all this have to do with SEO? Will search engine visibility and rankings change once all the new gTLDs are gobbled up by the big spenders? Let’s take a look at some of these questions from two viewpoints (you’ve already heard from the confused Internet user): search engines and those in the SEO know (aka us).
Search engines: Mmm, this extension doesn’t taste like chicken … must be new.
Other than country-specific extensions that can help with geotargeting efforts (e.g. if a foreign company does most of its business in Germany, it might make sense to use .de), we don’t give any known SEO value to domain name extensions. This doesn’t mean that once the new gTLDs are created that we won’t tweak our algorithms to benefit those who can afford the hefty $185,000 price tag. Until that happens, however, I think it’s safe to say that focusing on your .com and .net efforts is the way to go. Some of you might remember when our friend Google penalized several .info Web sites in May 2008 for reasons unknown (at least, none that I can specifically tell you here). The .info domain extension has been perceived in the past by some of us as “spammy” and often can be purchased with domain names for as little as 99 cents. It’s unlikely that some of the new gTLDs will fall on the same sword, but you never can tell what’s going to happen with our crazy algorithms until it happens.
Those in the SEO know: Along with Elvis and Michael, optimization is still king.
SEO is always changing and people like us who add a few heaping teaspoons of it to our morning coffee shouldn’t lose sleep – for now. It is well known that Google tends to give weight to keywords in domain names, and since it’s been established that domain extensions provide no known value to SEO efforts, domain names should continue to be the focus of URL optimization efforts. It’s recommended to use your brand in your domain name (e.g. www.yourcompany.com) and to make it as short, sweet and memorable as possible. Targeted keywords and variants work well in URLs, too, as long as they are related to the context of the page. As always, age of domain is one of many positive algorithmic factors, as are the quantity and quality of inbound links and optimized site content. Just continue to follow these and all other SEO best practices, those in the SEO know, and remember the eloquent words of Winston Churchill: “There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.”