There is a great deal of interest and debate surrounding the question of how the new, upcoming top-level domains (TLDs) will affect search engine optimization. With quite a lot of this debate fueled by speculation, it's difficult to deliver a definitive answer. But looking at the available facts and making a few conservative assumptions, I believe the indications are that the new ".brand" domains will deliver search engine benefits if properly used.
Google and other search engines keep mum on their search algorithms for very good reason, but we can draw some sensible conclusions based on the reasoning and behaviors we can observe in Google search today.
For starters, consider these facts: Google is in the business of using all available information to offer the most accurate relevancy possible in its results. TLDs have the potential to be giant screaming indicators of a site's content. Therefore, it's hard to imagine that the experts in Mountain View will categorically ignore this indicator without at least checking it out to see if it makes results better.
There is incontrovertible evidence that Google is using TLD information to influence search results today. For example, you can easily find myriad instances in which preference appears to be given to .gov and .edu sites for appropriate search terms.
Do a search on "texas." The top result is the state of Texas's site at www.texas.gov. Second is Wikipedia's entry on Texas. Now, there's no way that the state of Texas has optimized its site to the level where it can go toe-to-SEO-toe with Wikipedia. What's happening here? Google is giving great weight to the fact that this site has a .gov domain. (Note that texas.com doesn't show up until number 30.)
If you believe that in Texas civil servants are SEO savants, then I'll point out that the same happens for "new york city," "memphis," "phoenix," "dade county florida," and many other place names. The common thread? Place names and .gov.
Do a search on "harvard" and you see the same thing with .edu. This time Wikipedia is number five, behind four .edus (and with more .edus below). Again, we see the same for "princeton," "ucla," "johns hopkins," and lots of other educational institutions. And again, it's the .edu addresses.
We also know that country-code domains (ccTLDs) are given extra search ranking when they match the geography of the searcher and are demoted when they mismatch. We know that some gTLDs like .biz and .info are penalized by Google search because they're considered to be zones that are lighter in relevant content, and in fact, in July 2011, we saw Google delist an entire domain space (.co.cc) for being too "spammy."
So clearly, Google is prepared to use TLD information to influence search results when it feels they improve accuracy. If that's not convincing enough, note that Google has applied for a patent on using TLDs as a contributor to search relevancy. Google Corporation's patent application 12/468,195, filed on June 17, 2009, states in part:
These pages can be differentiated and identified by, for example, a list of domain names; top level domain extensions, such as .biz, .com, .org, .edu; or web sites.
These two pieces together tell us that Google explicitly has considered how TLDs enter into determining search ranking and that the search engine uses this information today.
We haven't seen what Google will do with the new gTLDs. After all, they don't exist yet. But returning to the earlier point, we know the search engine's mission is to index and present all available information in the manner that's most useful to searchers. If the entity that controls a certain domain space uses it well, we should expect in the long run that this TLD will become a useful indicator. Likewise, if the entity floods it with useless content, then that TLD may actually be punished by Google.
For companies that control their own .brand TLDs, that's good news since they can ensure this domain space is filled with relevant, useful content. Just using it in the obvious way should do exactly that.
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Tim Callan is chief marketing officer of Melbourne IT Digital Brand Services (DBS), which helps 3,500+ clients, including some of the world's top brands, minimize risk and make smarter decisions in managing their online presence. Tim is a former board member of the Online Trust Alliance and once owned his own marketing consultancy.
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