When Sir Tim Berners-Lee unveiled the World Wide Web in 1991, he anticipated that websites would only need a limited number of suffixes. A handful of global top level domains (known as gTLDs) were created to represent the world’s companies, educational establishments, Governments and so forth. Country code top level domains were also introduced for individual nations from the Ascension Islands to Zimbabwe.
The subsequent free-for-all within this largely unregulated industry led to mass acquisitions of domain names and a rapid depletion in available .com addresses. This in turn inspired the formation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – or ICANN – in 1998. ICANN was given overall responsibility for regulating the sale and ownership of domain names, and one of its first tasks was to reduce the overwhelming demand for company domains – the ubiquitous .com suffix.
There are now over 1,500 top level domains in circulation, from mainstream TLDs like .wiki and .army through to bizarre entries such as .duck and .pink. Some of these have widely and rapidly entered the public consciousness, while others are clearly going to remain niche choices. And this raises significant questions about how new domain names affect SEO, as well as whether a newly-registered company can afford to adopt an unconventional suffix for its online presence.
The main attraction of new top level domains is their relative affordability and availability. ICANN has long since achieved its objective of lowering industry costs, while the sheer diversity of domains means UK2 can provide a wide choice of suffixes for new web addresses. And having a .space or .ninja gTLD won’t adversely affect your search ranking – at least in theory…
Google has publicly declared that their all-conquering algorithm won’t prioritise one top level domain over another. This also means a brand or industry-specific suffix (like .sony or .dentist) won’t rank higher than a classic .org or .co.uk TLD. Locating your new dairy business’s website at cheesesofnazareth.cheese won’t help it perform any better than cheesesofnazareth.com in search results. Nor will a .london suffix help a business in Britain’s capital outrank a .co.uk or .com TLD.
Google’s arch-rival Bing still has a significant slice of the global search engine market, in tandem with its current partner Yahoo. And Bing adopts a rather different approach to calculating SEO. For instance, it prioritises older sites over newer ones, while placing more value on the quality of backlinks than the quantity. However, Bing did announce a couple of years ago that specific top level domains won’t have a significant impact on how it regards or ranks a particular site, bringing it into line with Google.
Despite Google and Bing’s admirable even-handedness, evidence suggests more obscure gTLDs still perform relatively poorly in ranking results. And that’s down to us. While search engines set the parameters for their results algorithms, human activity has a huge impact on a site’s eventual ranking. If people regularly visit a website, it performs better in search. If they stay on the site for a while, it performs even better. And if they link to it from their own site, it shoots even further up the ranking results.
This makes attracting regular site visitors crucial – and there remains significant prejudice towards portals with obscure suffixes. Put bluntly, people are less likely to trust, visit or buy from a website with a non-standard domain extension. Bing acknowledged as much when they admitted people have to like a site in order for it to achieve an optimal ranking position.
New domain names clearly have a notable impact on a site’s overall SEO, until they become well established. It is estimated that it takes ten years between launch and public acceptance, while quirky or niche domains may never achieve this. Some gTLDs are already on the road to respectability, but if you need a website to perform optimally from day one, a more established TLD will offer greater appeal to human audiences. There is an implicit sincerity to a .com or country-specific TLD that newer top level domains can’t lay claim to, in the same way a phone number starting in 01 or 02 will appear more trustworthy than a perfectly valid number starting in 05. Sometimes, tried and tested techniques remain the best option.