Nearly 40 years ago, four simple characters changed the world. They later were at the center of the dot-com boom and the stock market bubble of the ‘90s: .com
As internet adoption and stock market investments in tech and online companies surged, this new lingo became a household term overnight as millions of people all over the world typed these four characters into browsers everyday.
For the everyday person, it’s a way of discovering information. But for companies, digital marketing agencies and developers, top-level domains (TLD) mean business.
The history of top-level domains (TLDs)
It was simple in the beginning. People adopted the habit of entering .com at the end of everything. We quickly got used to seeing domain extensions that help classify the institutions behind sites, such as .edu, .gov, .org and .mil, and country code top-level domains such as .eu, .mx, .ca and .ua.
Fast forward four decades and there are well over 1,500 top-level domains governed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). (Who knew!?) If you’re curious like I was, here’s the full list of TLDs used on the internet today.
The most popular TLD worldwide is .com, and the majority of the most popular domains on the internet are still .com. But we all know that because things are how they’ve always been doesn’t mean that’s how it will always be. Should companies pay attention to the evolution of the letters tacked on to the end of their well-thought out web domain?
Here are 5 things about the future of top-level domains companies should know:
1. Alternative top-level domains can set your company apart
Hard to think of the internet as crowded, but in the digital era we live in, the use of .com has become as congested as the 405 in LA. When a business isn’t using .com for its main site domain, it’s often because the .com version was already taken.
Variations in TLDs create the opportunity for distinction and classification of a website’s affiliation and content, (ie: .edu for education entities, .store for shopping), and with greater immediacy can more closely align with a consumer’s expectation of a site’s purpose and their UX once on site.
“This is already happening,” notes Brandon Caballero, Hennessey Digital’s Director of Analytics and Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO). “Some single-serving sites (SSS) already use the .io name, and .app is often used for mobile apps. My personal favorite is https://httpstatus.io/.”
At Hennessey Digital, we’re seeing this shift in the music and entertainment industry. In our work together with Radix, world’s second-largest domain portfolio registry, musicians, artists, YouTubers, companies, e-commerce sites and others are migrating to specialized TLDs such as .press, .store, .fun, .tech and more that more closely associate with their brand or product.
2. Top-level domains can affect your SEO
One of the most common questions we receive is whether or not it matters which TLD you use for your website. Marketers and company owners pour hours into deciding the right URL for websites and microsites. The decision should never be made in a silo and should include discussion with your SEO and web analytics experts. Choosing your top-level domain is an important decision especially when it comes to digital marketing, search engine optimization, and attracting traffic.
Explanation of how Google ranks new top-level domains states the search engine doesn’t treat gTLDs differently than more popular ones such as .com and .org. However, there are variables companies should consider when it comes to their website’s search engine rankings and TLDs.
“We know many factors are involved in determining how well a particular domain performs, including the quality of the content, link profile, and other criteria,” said Hennessey Digital VP of SEO Steve Guberman. “There are three types of TLDs – generic top-level domains, sponsored top-level domains, and country code top-level domains, and one thing is certain: the type of TLD used does affect your overall performance. There is a clear correlation between the popularity of different TLDs and their ability to rank highly in organic search results.”
This doesn’t mean don’t venture into new TLD territory, it just means when using a less familiar top level domain, be patient as results accrue – and ensure you have a stellar SEO strategy for your site.
3. New TLDs can make a brand more memorable, but need time for adoption
Something .com websites have in their favor is that typing .com at the end of everything in a browser is a habit we all have. “Straightforward use of your company name or brand in your domain will get traffic as many people assume it might work in some capacity by just typing it in,” said Caballero.
But different TLDs have the potential to make a brand more memorable and recognizable. Companies and brands successfully using alternate domain extensions include the interactive, live streaming service Twitch (twitch.tv) and the Dude Perfect merch store (dudeperfect.store).
Hennessey Digital’s President & COO Scott Shrum notes other smart uses by online powerhouses. “A popular use for some of the newer TLDs (ones like .me) seem to be for URL shorteners for popular sites and services. For instance, Google uses goo.gl, Twitter uses t.co, and Whatsapp uses wa.me. These are good uses for these less common TLDs.”
Old habits are hard to break, and when coupled with phishing, spam and other online risks, new TLDs face challenges that can hinder adoption and trust from consumers when websites have a domain extension they don’t recognize.
Brilliant marketing and frequent impressions will create the behavior shift and website traffic you seek, but our head of analytics cautions not to put all the weight behind your URL while ignoring your company’s brand value.
“If your business or brand isn’t memorable, then a domain won’t help. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
4. Watch out for trendy top-level domains that are money makers for domain registries
In early 2022, Google Registry was behind the launch of a new TLD: .day
Intended to be a secure domain to bring awareness to any day, the potential for .day connected with the emotions and eye for opportunity of marketers and individuals as much as it did with the bank accounts of Google and its registry partners.
The .day domain was initially made available to brands and copyright owners, before going on the block to the open market for pre-sale with dynamic pricing – and prices over $12,000 per domain. The closer to launch day, the price of unsold inventory dropped before settling at a more familiar and reasonable two-digit price once the .day domain officially launched. (I jumped on the bandwagon and that’s when I grabbed mine.)
Eight months later I haven’t come across any .day websites or marketing for one in my life as a growth strategist, marketer, online surfer or soccer mom. But I’m holding out faith that one day I will come across one that brightens my .day as much as my click does for the person on the other end.
A more mainstream trend is the clever, successful use of TLDs where country codes are baked into the names such as Musical.ly (TikTok, Libya) and flic.kr (flickr, South Korea).
TDLs are a marketplace as much as they are an identifier for a website, so choose wisely. Jumping on a trend can be fruitful when strategically implemented, but can be costly and forgettably fade into the next trend. To be successful with an alternative top-level domain, be sure to choose something that is relevant to your business, and flex your new domain every chance you get.
“ICANN and the domain registrars need to make money somehow,” said Shrum. “Creating new TLDs is like developing new land that can then be sold to homesteaders. More options is not a bad thing, but the number of registered domains drops off quickly after you get past the original TLDs (.com, .net, and .org) and country code top-level domains (ccTLDs). Unfortunately, some of the newer ones are already pretty strongly associated with spam and phishing, in which case they may be permanently ruined in the eyes of consumers and search engines alike.”
5. .com is here to stay and you need it for your business
The proof is in the data: with billions of .com websites live today, companies with .com domain names tend to be more successful when it comes to traffic and conversions.
“The die has been cast, and .com is the default top-level domain that consumers expect,” notes Shrum.
Studies by Moz found that sites with a .com domain are more likely to convert, and that .com domains receive about 20 times more traffic than .org domains.
There are many different extensions out there beyond the standard .com, some of them are even free. So what do you choose and what matters? When choosing a top-level domain other than .com, it’s a good idea to expand your digital footprint and have a .com site as a safety net, whether it’s a redirect or relevant microsite for your business.
“This isn’t because of some magic spell. It’s simply because the .com extension is associated with success by consumers and by the world’s largest search engine,” said Guberman.
We’re living in the future of top-level domains
When choosing your top-level domain, go with what your research, strategy and brand vision tell you. If there’s ever been an era where creativity and standing out are accepted, the opportunity is now.
Still ahead for the future of web domains, expect to see Web3 become a bigger part of the conversation. In very simple terms, Web3 is a vision for the future of the internet and incorporates decentralization and blockchain technologies. It’s far too early to say that Web3 is disrupting the internet, but the innovation, investors and audience are there, and the internet could look and function quite differently in 40 years than how it has in its first 40.
“Looking ahead to Web3 and its impact on top-level domains, .io is well-suited for tech services and SaaS-type offerings, and .tv has some obvious appeal. I won’t be surprised if .eth domains stick, but it’s still early and a lot of dust needs to settle in that realm,” predicts Shrum.