There’s been valid debate over how influential keyword and exact match domains are in search engine optimization. Whether or not the latest Google or Bing algorithm takes the words in your domain name into consideration, the reality is that searchers — those consumers actually choosing to click your link — most likely do.
The phenomenon has been dubbed “domain bias,” defined as a user’s propensity to believe that a page is more relevant just because it comes from a particular domain. While search engines generally reward good content with good rankings, there are certain qualities that make a domain name seem more reliable to the consumer’s eye and ultimately dictate where they click.
Microsoft coined the term [domain bias] last year after conducting an in-depth study on domains that appear in search engine results and the ones that users ultimately click. The lengthy study had some important key findings for those looking to buy a domain name for their company, or for those looking to build their domain portfolio.
First, the study found that searchers prefer to click on exact match domains, and are actually 25 percent more likely to click them. In other words, if Joe Searcher is looking for “Home Football Jerseys” to wear to a big game, he is more likely to click on FootballJerseys.com than Overstock.com/sports or GoTeam.com.
Taking this a step further, the study found that users are much less likely to click on a domain that lacks their keywords if they aren’t familiar with the site. This occurred regardless of content quality. In a blind study asking users to choose between two articles on heart disease, people preferred an article from GeneticHealth.com until they found out the other was from WebMD.com.
This goes to show that a site’s ability to brand itself and build its reputation can be just as important as the content it holds. Users will click on the domain of the brand they trust first, and if they don’t see a familiar site, their second stop is a domain name that contains their keywords.
This held true regardless of where the exact match domain appeared on the search results page, suggesting that your exact page ranking may actually be less important than your domain name itself. This is important as businesses and marketers consider where to spend their budgets — you may be better off investing in a relevant domain name than you are investing in a shot at a number one ranking for each desired search term.
One final surprise from the study was that users reported higher levels of satisfaction with the content from exact match domains — even when the content was pulled from other websites. That’s right — Microsoft researchers were able to completely replace content found on the exact match domain, and regardless of what they put in its place, users were still more pleased with the information they found on an exact match domain.
While many other studies have been conducted on domain bias, the scale and scope of the Microsoft study gives more definitive verification that the phenomenon exists. Though not as measureable as a page ranking vs. clicks ratio, all signs indicate that domain bias has real effects on SEO and click-throughs.
Domain bias is reemerging with renewed relevance as new generic top level domains (gTLDs) are expected to begin hitting the market later this year. If you’re unfamiliar with gTLDs, they are essentially “dot-anything” domain extensions that go beyond .com, .net, .org and the other familiar domain endings that we see to the right of the dot. The new gTLDs could be anything from .shoes or .nike to .app and .music.
When ICANN (the Internet’s governing body) first announced the new gTLD program, there was much controversy. Those in the domain community debated over whether the new gTLDs were going to confuse consumers and navigation. They wondered if valuable .coms would remain king, or if the extension would fade away.
Brands considering whether or not to apply to run their own gTLD asked if the expensive application process was just a ploy to raise money for the organization. ICANN’s answer was that the Internet is a growing place, and that new gTLDs would spur innovation and change.
As anticipation grows for new gTLDs going live this year, “innovation and change” are undoubtedly in the air, but there is still much uncertainty surrounding the program. We don’t know if Google and Bing will modify their algorithms to account for the new domain extensions. We don’t know if consumers will embrace or ignore the new extensions in direct navigation.
Companies looking to optimize their domain name within search engine results, however, should be aware of domain bias. While consumers today may choose to click on FootballJerseys.com, tomorrow they may see HomeJerseys.football as a more appealing alternative.
With hundreds of potential new domain extensions coming online in the next year, the chances of securing a domain that contains keywords and will look appealing to consumers will be easier and more affordable. There are still many unanswered questions, but investors and brands need to be careful not to drop the ball by at least considering the possibilities and investigating their options.