Domain names with ccTLD extensions rank higher in the relevant countries
A lot has been written about the relationship between domain names and search engines. Google has always asserted simply that all domain names are treated the same way. Nevertheless, websites with domain names that use country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs) get higher rankings in the relevant countries than they do elsewhere. In practical terms, if you're searching in the Netherlands, a website with a .nl domain name will typically sit higher in Google's results than a .de website, while in Germany it will be the other way around. So, because .amsterdam is technically a generic TLD, a website that uses that extension should appear behind a similar .nl website, even if you are googling in Amsterdam.
Perceived differences studied
At least, that's what you'd expect. In practice, however, a .amsterdam website appears to rank well for search engine users in Amsterdam. And .com seems to have the edge over less familiar extensions. Such perceptions tend to make content providers cautious about using domain names with new extensions. As the domain name industry's umbrella organisation, DNA therefore decided to investigate whether the perceptions have a factual basis. Their study involved registering certain key words as domain names with relatively small and little-used extensions, and linking websites to the names. The search engine performance of the websites was then compared against sites with similar domain names under .com.
Domain name and extension together need to make sense to the user
DNA's conclusion was that unfamiliar extensions can perform well if the combination of the domain name and its extension are a logical match for the user. For example, the domain name 'seo.agency' was registered for an SEO service provider. It wasn't long before users searching for 'SEO agency' were seeing the experimental site at the top of their hits. That's an impressive outcome, given how much competition there is amongst SEO agencies in the US.
Striking semantic combinations lead to good organic rankings
What the research shows is that relatively unknown generic extensions such as .agency aren't necessarily inferior to .com. Although the report doesn't explicitly say why that is, it's likely to be down to human factors. All the domain names that the researchers looked at used striking semantic combinations, including 'seo.agency', 'thefun.singles' and 'diamonds.pro'. When ranking hits, Google places a lot of emphasis on a site's relevance to the user. It seems that such combinations appeal to users enough that they're easily inclined to click the link. And that in turn boosts the site's organic ranking.
Findings require further research
DNA's research doesn't say for sure whether Google treats all domain name extensions the same. For one thing, no sites with country-code domain names were included in the study. So we don't know, for example, how 'thefun.singles' would perform in the Netherlands compared with 'thefunsingles.nl'. Nor was any light shed on factors influencing the ranking of competing .com domain names during the study period. Perhaps this is a topic my colleagues at SIDN Labs would like to look at?
Think like a user
What the study makes very clear is that, when it comes to choosing a domain name, the most important thing is to put yourself in your customer's shoes. What's going to appeal to your target audience? What are people most likely to click on? Ultimately, answering those questions is more about intuition than hard data.
The full report is available to read at www.thedna.org.