No — but yes. If only the world of digital marketing was clearer. Your domain extension does matter to your search engine optimization, but perhaps not in the way that you think. Mechanically the differences are small; most of the key issues involve usability. After all, an organic web search runs based on user behavior; even Google can’t tell how relevant a website is without links, popularity and other behavior-driven data.
Google, Yahoo and Bing do not take into account a domain extension when they promote a website, even if the search query happens to be government or education related. So whether you’re .net or .org, you’re probably safe in terms of Google’s matching algorithm. But that doesn’t mean that your domain extension has no effect on your organic search rankings, which is another common myth. There are still ways that your extension can affect your position on the SERP.
Consider this. Google most definitely uses links — and the quality of those links — to measure whether your site has prominence. Sites that have .gov, .edu or .org domains are generally considered to be more reputable in academic situations than .coms, so they are more likely to be referenced by high quality sites. Likewise, .coms are more often considered to be reputable than .nets. So it’s easy to see that having a specific domain extension can have a potential impact on your organic search ranking even if the search engine itself isn’t actively scanning for it.
And it isn’t just a question of search engine results — you also need to consider the human component. Namely, people are used to .com addresses and they are very unlikely to remember more obscure extensions. If your website is AwesomeWidgets.net, you’ll find a lot of people getting lost when they try to type in AwesomeWidgets.com. One way that some sites have gotten away from this is by directly incorporating the domain into their site’s name somehow. Fish.Net, for instance, is memorable.
People are also conditioned to treat domains that are not .com, .gov, .edu or .org with some suspicion. In particular, .net domains have always been referred to as “Nuts! Everything’s Taken.” It’s considered a last result domain name that only occurs through poor planning or fly-by-night operations. No one wants a .net domain name, the rationale goes, so one should be suspicious of someone who has one. Of course, as the proliferation of .com addresses has continued, this poor reputation has been somewhat reduced.
OK, so what about all those entrancing new gTLDs that just popped up? .butcher, .baker, .candlestickmaker? These new domain names are so specific and so out there that they require some additional consideration. gTLDs, just like other TLDs, don’t affect search directly. Google doesn’t say “Oh, it says .baker, I’d better send all queries about cakes there.”
But what a gTLD does do is it inserts a major keyword into every single URL. If you have .baker, and you’re, well, a .baker, you’re going to have that keyword in your URL every time someone searchers for a “baker” in your area. And this had led many people to believe that a gTLD might actually be better for SEO than an ordinary domain.
And that might be true — a little. Still, if you’ve been properly optimizing your site, you should already have your major keywords in your site’s URL — as it does “help a little bit.” But it doesn’t help a lot — remember, Google really mostly looks at the content of your site, not the URLs. And it may not help enough to alter some of the usability issues.
Mainly — users think it’s weird. Many users aren’t comfortable typing in losangeles.baker and having it actually go to a website. This also gives them one more thing to remember — they can’t just type in losangeles.com — and it makes them less likely to link to your site (because they can’t remember the URL). Obviously this isn’t true for all users, but it’s true for the majority of users. This might be different for a tech-oriented or youth-oriented website.
As developers and marketers, it can be easy for us to forget just how challenging small changes can be for a user base. When choosing a domain for your site, you should think largely about how that domain is going to be received by your audience. Google and other search engines really don’t care what your domain name is or what your domain extension is, but something that you think is charming, quirky or clever may actually be impossible to remember. Short, sweet and .COM is usually the best answer.