Major advertisers are against a plan to add up to 1,000 new top-level domains (TLD) to .com, .net, .org, and other more standard options. The Association of National Advertisers fears the move by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) could increase brand squatting.
The implications for natural search and SEO could be just as weighty - and, unfortunately for search marketers and agencies, no one knows just how search could be affected.
First, while the majority of Internet users begin with search, direct navigation remains an important contributor to website traffic. Will consumers who now type a URL or portion of one into the browser navigation bar give up the practice when faced with trying to remember whether a company is .soda, .bev or .Coke?
"It's been happening for years, and this will cement it. People increasingly use the search box as the start, or use Google as their homepage. My sense is that as these new dot-whatevers get introduced, people will throw their arms up and not even try. It will be much easier to do a quick search and navigate from the results," said Derek Gordon, a partner in ReImagine Group.
Adoption of new top-level domains by big brands will probably be driven by consumer behavior, once some brave marketer takes the plunge.
"For now, our clients are waiting," said Rick Egan, VP of group accounts for The Search Agency. "Somebody will be an early adopter." He could see a company like Kraft Foods buying its branded TLD, and then registering everything from A1SteakSauce.Kraft to WheatThins.Kraft. "If it appears successful, others may start. But it will have to be someone that steps out there with a brand name."
How difficult will it be to retrain consumers? "Right now, we already have a mindset that if you type in Adidas.com, you will immediately arrive at the Adidas website,“ said Herndon Hasty, associate director of natural search for iProspect. Say Adidas acquires .Adidas. That's really cool. Do you need to retrain people to go to home.Adidas? It will take something big and remarkable in terms of people experimenting and figuring out a way to drive people there."
360i sees great potential for consumer adoption of TLDs related to industry-specific associations and trade organizations. "For instance, the American Banking Association is considering the use of the .bank TLD, which, if successfully adopted, would provide consumers with a renewed sense of security and confidence as all banking and financial institutions would serve content and emails from a unified .bank TLD. BOFA.bank or Chase.bank would be regulated by the ABA," said 360i Group SEO Director Chris Humber,
New TLDs and Google Juice
And what about search results? Will search engines take into account keywords to the right of the dot?
Egan suggested, "Search engines will tell you they are agnostic, but we have seen case after case where a .com outranks a .net, even if the .net is stronger." This bias has continued, in his experience, even after the previous introduction of new TLDs, including as .biz and .tv.
Hasty concurred, estimating that nine out of 10 natural search results will be .coms. He said if search engines choose to start taking keywords to the right of the dot into account, it's possible that a beverage maker's site registered on .soda might get a ranking boost - but he's doubtful that will happen.
"From what we've seen before, we would not assume there would be a bias toward these types of domains," he said. "But, you never know."
If brands do secure their trademarks as top-level domains, the search engines may give preferential treatment to .Kraft or .Coke, which should help with consumer adoption and retention, said Humber.
In any case, Rob Garner, VP of strategy at iCrossing, does not think new TLDs will change much for SEO. "You have to back up a domain with a lot of good content and links and work at it," he said. ICrossing has analyzed examples from the domains .info, .jobs, .travel and .asia, and found that no particular site ranks just because of its suffix. While there definitely is SEO benefit to a site that has exact keywords in a .com domain, Garner said, "There is nothing inherently about domains like .info that makes them rank."
A proliferation of TLDs will force marketers to increase their content optimization even more, noted Gordon, especially if there are competing top-level domains out there.
At the same time, brands that do take the plunge into branded TLDs will need to keep tight control of their content, Garner said, to avoid having their Google juice polluted by unsavory domains. "We saw that with .info, where thousands of registrations were used by spammers. You don't want your TLD to be considered a 'bad street' by search engines."
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Susan Kuchinskas has covered interactive advertising since its invention. The former staff writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, and M-Business covers technology, business and culture from Berkeley, CA.
March 19, 2014