New TLDs and SEO: The Big Picture

One of the first questions everyone asks about new domain extensions is how they rank in search engine results. It’s a fair question. The purpose of a website is, after all, to be found and any tool that increases the odds of that happening is a valuable asset. As a leader in t he new domain extension program, we’re excited and invested in this topic and focused on developing an understanding of how SEO works and how new domains fit into that picture. We don’t have the final answer but we have lots of data-driven insights. But first…

Getting Started with New TLDs

Have you ever wondered how Google or Bing decide which sites to show? At the most basic level, they look at the text on billions of pages and match that up with your query. But for almost any query, that results in millions of possible pages to show. So how do they decide which ones to show first?

Put simply, the search engine assigns a score to each possible page, then orders the results using that score. The score is calculated using hundreds of different factors. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice of trying to modify how a site is scored in order to make it show up higher (earlier) in the results. Both the specific factors and the relative importance of each of those factors are closely guarded secrets (and change constantly), but by observing the results for different queries we can get an idea of the most important ones.

Breaking Down new TLDs

The scoring factors can be divided into two types: onsite and offsite.

Onsite factors are those that come from the website itself. They include (among hundreds of others), the following examples:

  • The keywords in the URL (both the domain name and the “path,” or additional text that identifies the specific content on the site)
  • Text on the page that users see
  • Text stored in special hidden fields on the page (hidden to site visitors, but viewable by the search engine)
  • Whether the site displays content to mobile users in a readable way (usually called “responsive design”)

Off-site factors are those that aren’t directly affected by the site itself. They include details such as:

  • The number (and “quality”) of links from other sites to the page
  • The number of Facebook likes and shares
  • The number of Twitter followers and mentions in tweets
  • Google+ circle inclusions, reviews, etc
  • Reviews on Yelp, Google+, etc

With this background, we can start to think about how a website built on a new domain extension will be ranked by a search engine. Most of the factors are not affected by the fact that a domain extension is new. The text on the site, external links, social media mentions, etc all work the same way whether your site extension is .NINJA or .COM. In addition, representatives from some of the search engines have stated that there are no factors that explicitly favor or discriminate against new domain extensions. However, there are a few areas where new domain extensions can be helpful, and a few where they may be at a slight disadvantage.

The Cons of New TLDs

Let’s start with the possible disadvantages. First, one of the suspected factors is domain age. All else being equal, an older domain name will rank above a newer domain name. Since at this point all domains on new extensions are (by definition) relatively new, this factor may affect a new site’s ranking. Note that this is just as true of a domain on any extension, though: a brand new .COM domain will be treated identically to a brand new .ROCKS domain. It’s not really a disadvantage of new domain extensions themselves, but since you can’t buy an old .DENTIST or .LAWYER domain, there isn’t any way to address this.

The second, and more important disadvantage, is a lack of inbound links. The number and quality of inbound links to a site is an important ranking factor (this concept is the essential element of Google’s original advantage over the other engines: the PageRank algorithm and accompanying patent). A new domain will not have any inbound links, and is therefore less likely to rank highly. As with the previous factor, note that this is not intrinsic to new domain extensions; any new domain will be in the same position.

Both of these potential disadvantages will become less relevant over time, as domains using the new extensions age (and potentially become available on the aftermarket).

The Pros of New TLDs

So, how might a new domain extension compete against other sites? There are a couple of possible scoring factors that could lend new domain extensions a significant advantage. First, the keywords present in the domain name have a big influence on ranking. This is due to multiple factors, though the most direct is a straight analysis of the words in the domain and how they compare to the query. In the simplest case (often called “exact match”), the exact same terms in the query appear in the domain itself. For example, the domain “www.jacksonville.attorney” is clearly a great match for the query “jacksonville attorney”, and that is a factor in the rankings; the last time I checked it appeared as the first result on the first page of Google’s results, and the second result on the first page of Bing’s results. (In a follow-up post I’ll show many more examples of “exact match” results on various engines.)

Another, less direct but still very important impact of the keywords comes from another major ranking factor used by the search engines. To understand the importance of this factor, think about the ultimate goal of a search engine: to show sites that the user finds useful. The best way to tell if the sites shown were useful is to track whether the user visited them, and the best way to tell which of the sites shown were most useful is to track which one from the page of options was selected. Therefore, a measure of the likelihood that a visitor selects a site shown in the results (usually called Click Through Rate, or CTR) is an extremely strong scoring factor.

So what does this have to do with new domain extensions? The user receives little information about each of the 10 or so results on each page. They see the domain name and path (aka URL), the title of the page, and a short snippet describing what is on the page. Since there are so many similar sites for most queries, often the title and description are very similar across many different pages, so the domain name becomes an important factor in deciding which result to visit. A domain name that is obviously about the right topic may be more likely to be chosen before one that is ambiguous, and domains using new domain extensions (especially vertically-specific domain extensions, like .BAND, .DENTIST, .LAWYER, etc) will clearly stand out. It is difficult to separate this factor from the previously discussed one, but the relatively large number of sites using vertical domain extensions appearing in search results indicates that is likely significant. Examples include high rankings for exact matches like “www.daa.consulting” (first page, first result on both Bing and Google), “www.hearne.software” (first page, first result on both Bing and Google), and “www.blvd.vet” (first page, first result on both Bing and Google for “boulevard vet Chicago”).

One way the impact of this factor can be seen is by looking at how a site ranks for a query over time. The search engine will choose a position for the site initially based on all of the other factors, then adjust that position as it gathers user feedback in the form of clicks on the site (or lack thereof). So if we see a site’s ranking improve over time, that indicates that users are finding it to be a good result for that query. Conversely, if we see it get worse over time, then probably users aren’t clicking on it. There are other factors that change over time, of course, but this one is important enough that it is likely in play if you see significant, uniform change over time.

One example we’ve recently observed was for the extremely competitive term “agile consulting.” The site “www.agile.consulting” appeared on page 9 on May 13, 2015. Just a few days later (May 16) it had moved up to page 8, then all the way up to page 5 by May 23. On June 4 it made it to page 4 and by the end of June was up to page 3. Since then it has vacillated between page 3 and page 5, most recently appearing on page 4.

agileconsulting with a new domain
Improved Google Ranking for “agile consulting”

This is especially important for domain-specific brands. Bands are a good example of this. Let’s say you are interested in the band “Underbelly.” Searching for the name “Underbelly” will return results for the TV series, a number of entertainment companies, a pile of documentaries, etc, on many different domains. Seeing “www.underbelly.band” will immediately tell the user they may have found the right site. So when the user picks this site, the search engine records that fact, and the next time it calculates the rankings for the different possible results, it will be more likely to show “www.underbelly.band.”

Future conversation about TLDs

As mentioned earlier, search engines use many factors to determine which sites to show and which order to show them. Choosing the right domain for a site can have an impact on these factors, and the specificity of many of the newly available domain extensions makes choosing a great domain much easier than in the past.

Because of the complexity of search engine ranking, and the fact that changes to competitive sites, as well as algorithmic changes in the engines themselves will affect ranking, SEO is a dynamic and never-ending process. In an upcoming post I’ll show some examples of how we’ve seen domains using new domain extensions climb the ranks over time.

In future posts I’ll also show a number of examples of extremely well-ranked Exact Match sites, as well as a couple of examples where a domain using a new domain extension gets a competitive edge against highly-optimized competitors.

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