Domain name extensions, also known as top-level domains (TLDs), have become an important consideration in search engine optimization (SEO) over the last decade. With the introduction of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) like .site, .tech, and .club, there are now over 1500 different domain extensions to choose from. This proliferation of new domain extensions has led to questions about how the choice of domain name extension may impact SEO and website visibility in search engines like Google.
In this comprehensive article, we will explore the relationship between domain extensions and SEO. We will look at the history of domain extensions, examine research on their impact on rankings, discuss best practices for using domain extensions for SEO, and provide recommendations on how to select the best domain extension for your website. By the end, you will have a thorough understanding of how to leverage domain extensions as part of an effective SEO strategy.
A Brief History of Domain Extensions
To understand how domain extensions affect SEO today, it helps to first look at the history of domain extensions. The original top-level domains – .com, .org, .net, .edu and .gov – were established in the 1980s. For many years, .com was by far the most popular extension, used for commercial websites. The limited number of extensions meant domain names were scarce, and short .com domains could fetch high prices.
In 2000, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) introduced 7 new TLDs, including .biz, .info, .name and .pro. This expansion showed there was demand for more extensions targeted to specific types of sites. The door was opened further in 2009, when ICANN began accepting applications for new gTLDs through its New gTLD Program. Since then, over 1500 new gTLDs have launched, drastically changing the domain name landscape.
The flood of new TLDs created a host of new options for websites and enabled more businesses to get short, targeted domains. It also opened new questions around how these extensions may factor into search engine rankings.
The Impact of Domain Extensions on Rankings
So what does research show about how domain extensions affect SEO and search rankings? While Google has avoided making definitive statements, some key studies provide insight.
In 2009, search marketing company Stone Temple Consulting conducted a large study on TLDs and Google rankings. They analyzed rankings for ~200 keywords, looking at exact match domains (EMDs) using .com, .net and .org extensions. The study found no significant ranking advantage between the different extensions when comparing EMDs.
In 2012, Moz did an extensive correlation study between domain extensions and Google rankings. They examined the top 100 results for 15,000 keywords and found only minor correlations between certain extensions and rankings. However, the study emphasized there was no evidence of causation between extensions and rankings.
Google’s Matt Cutts responded to these studies stating Google uses TLDs as only a small signal in rankings. He noted lots of other stronger signals like page content, backlinks and user engagement matter much more.
Overall, these studies suggest domain extensions have little to no direct influence on search rankings. However, extensions can play an indirect role in SEO in two key ways:
- First, some domain extensions like .gov and .edu are restricted, giving a sign of trust and authority. Google has acknowledged giving a small ranking boost to .gov and .edu sites for relevant queries.
- Second, domain extensions can impact click-through-rates (CTR), which is a signal Google uses in rankings. Extensions like .info sometimes get lower CTRs compared to .com.
So while domain extensions don’t directly influence rankings, they can play a minor indirect role. But other factors are much more important for SEO success.
Best Practices for Domain Extensions and SEO
Although domain extensions have a negligible impact on rankings, adhering to some best practices with extensions can help avoid potential issues:
- Use popular extensions: Sticking to popular extensions like .com, .org and .net ensures maximum trust and memorability with users. These have stood the test of time. Uncommon extensions may confuse users or cause misspellings.
- Match extension to site purpose: If using less common extensions, match the TLD to the site’s purpose. For example, .tech for a technology site or .store for an ecommerce store. This helps reinforce the site’s focus for users.
- Prioritize TLD memorability: Some new extensions like .ninja and .guru are trendy but hard for users to remember. Using a cryptic TLD could lead to lost traffic from user confusion.
- Renew expiring domains: If a domain expires, the extension gets removed and it will need to be re-registered. This leads to lost rankings. Avoid this by keeping domains renewed.
- Redirect old domains: If you switch extensions, use 301 redirects from your old domain to transfer equity to the new domain. This preserves rankings and traffic.
- Use TLDs for brand protection: Register key brand name domains under multiple extensions like .net, .org to prevent cybersquatting.
Overall, focus on using straightforward extensions suited to the site purpose. Prioritize user experience and trust over trying to “hack” the system with obscure TLDs.
Choosing the Best Domain Extension
So when registering a new domain, how do you go about selecting the best domain extension for SEO? Here are some tips on evaluating the options:
.com – This remains the first choice for most sites. It’s widely recognized and trusted by users. If a .com version of your preferred domain is available, it’s hard to beat for a commercial website.
.org – A good option for non-profit organizations and community focused sites not selling products or services. Has an association with trustworthiness.
.net – Originally for network infrastructure companies, now used more broadly. Also seen as trustworthy but less common than .com or .org.
Country TLDs – Extensions like .co.uk, .de or .ca relevant to your country can be a good option for localized businesses.
Newer gTLDs – For newer extensions, evaluate user familiarity, whether it fits your brand, and potential confusion with other TLDs. Some examples:
- .io – Technology startups
- .blog – Blogs
- .website – Portfolio sites
- .store – Ecommerce sites
Branded TLDs – If your brand name is available as a TLD, e.g. .nike or .canon, this can make your site stand out. But it may have limited SEO benefit.
Evaluate these factors before selecting a TLD:
- Domain availability – Can you get the domain you want?
- User familiarity – How recognizable is the TLD?
- Trust and branding – Does the TLD reinforce what you do?
- Cost – How much does the TLD registration cost?
- SEO value – Avoid overvaluing SEO impact compared to other factors.
With so many options now available, you’re bound to find a domain extension suited for your website if you consider these guidelines.
Should You Change Domain Extensions?
If your website already exists under a certain domain extension, should you consider changing TLDs? Here are some pros and cons to weigh:
- Get a shorter, catchier domain name
- Match TLD to brand (like .nike)
- Increase trust with extension like .org
- Improve user experience
- Lose all current equity and rankings
- Confuse visitors familiar with old domain
- Require setting up redirects to forward equity
- Risk domain not being available
In most cases, the risks and disruption of changing extensions outweigh potential benefits. Just purchasing additional domains under new TLDs for brand protection can mitigate downsides without affecting your main domain.
However, switching may make sense in some contexts like:
- Rebranding website to new name
- Launching new startup without existing equity
- Securing a unique branded TLD matching company name
But never make a domain change without thoroughly evaluating potential downsides first. Migrating hosts is already risky for SEO – changing extensions at the same time only compounds that.
Should You Use Multiple Domain Extensions?
Some website owners ponder using multiple domain extensions pointing to the same site, hoping to maximize SEO potential. For example, registering both acme.com and acme.net.
In most cases, this is an unnecessary and ineffective SEO tactic. Here are some reasons why:
- Creates duplicate content issues – Google sees these as separate domains ranking for the same content.
- Divides equity – Link and ranking power gets split between domains.
- User confusion – Visitors may not recognize both domains point to same site.
- Development overhead – Maintaining multiple domains adds complexity.
The only reasonable use case for registering multiple extensions is defensive – if you own the .com, grab .net to prevent cybersquatting. But don’t actively use multiple extensions for the same site.
However, having separate domains for marketing sites, support portals, etc can be beneficial for brand clarity. But these should be distinct subdomains, not just other extensions.
Instead of dividing efforts across domains, it’s smarter to focus on one authoritative domain and make it as strong as possible in rankings.
Should You Use a Subdomain or Subfolder?
Along with selecting a primary domain extension, a related decision is whether to use subdomains or subfolders for additional sections of a website. This can impact SEO strategy.
Subdomains like support.acme.com and blog.acme.com are seen as entirely separate sites by Google. They can independently earn rankings and traffic. Use subdomains for:
- Completely separate sites or brands
- New sites you may later move to different domains
- Isolating risky or user-generated content
Subfolders like acme.com/support and acme.com/blog are part of the main domain. Google sees these as being interrelated. Subfolders are good for:
- Content complementing the main site
- Temporary sections that may move to main navigation
- Limiting access to certain user groups
Evaluate whether related content deserves to be part of the main domain or standalone in choosing between these options. Subdomains involve more work but allow greater flexibility.
Using Domain Extensions for International SEO
Domain extensions also play an important role in international SEO strategies. Google and other search engines use extensions to determine geotargeting for results.
For global brands targeting multiple regions, it’s beneficial to register country-specific domain extensions. Even if they point to the same site as your main domain, local extensions can help rankings by geolocation.
Some best practices for international domain extensions include:
- Registering the .com.au, .de, .cn version of your brand for local visibility
- Having country extensions redirect to local landing pages on your main site
- Using subdomains like fr.brand.com for France even if site is not fully translated
- Consistently using hreflang markup to indicate geographical versions of each page
- Being careful not to duplicate the exact same content across domains – localize where possible
Using smart domain extension strategies tailored to each target country gives you the best chance of showing up for local searchers. International SEO encompasses domains as well as content and languages.
In the evolving domain name landscape, new TLDs present both opportunity and complexity for websites. While domain extensions themselves have little SEO value on their own merits, they remain an important strategic choice that can indirectly impact rankings and traffic.
By selecting extensions aligned with brand and purpose, redirecting legacy domains, and consolidating efforts under authoritative main domains, websites can build trust and recognition with search engines. Registering local country extensions also aids international visibility.
While newer extensions provide options for namespaces and customization, .com domains continue to hold advantages in trust and memorability. The TLD is just one part of establishing website authority – well-rounded optimization across on-page and off-page factors is key to winning rankings.
By making informed domain choices and combining extensions with overall SEO best practices, websites can build their foundational strength and maximize discoverability.