Customized TLDs: SEO Heartbreak or Hero?

Exploring the potential ramifications.

Google is not the only one customizing the web experience these days. ICANN (International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has recently announced some big news. Although the [ambiguously big brother connotation] of ICANN’s name may lead to confusion about its true purpose, ICANN governs website domain suffixes. Until now, these endings have consisted primarily of .edu, .gov, .net, and of course, the ubiquitous .com. However, ICANN is now allowing custom TLDs (Top Level Domains). Essentially, this means that any word, combination of letters or numbers in any language is now available for purchase as a URL ending. [While the branding implications of customized TLDs are obvious, the ramifications of SEO are, as usual, unknown. 


How is this going to work?

TLDs were originally organized to follow a logical breakdown to include countries, categories and multiorganizations. The endings most people are familiar with (.com, .gov and .edu) are included in the “categories” category. Thus far, TLDs have been governed by fairly strict rules. [You don’t see any commercial websites ending in a .gov, do you?] Now, however, ICANN is releasing their draconian control over TLDs, for a price.  For the one time application fee of merely $185,000, in addition to the $25,000 maintenance fee, domain registrants can secure virtually almost any ending they desire.  Applicants are not restricted by registered trademarks, and in the case of a dispute an auction will be conducted.  [The one caveat ICANN includes as a nod to established brands unwilling to join the fray of competition is the ability to register trademark domain names.]


URL Implications

Disregarding the legal and ethical implications of competing companies securing industry terms, the SEO impact hinges on how companies decide to proceed with their purchases, as described by the examples below. First, imagine Sorders is the top national seller of books and owns the TLD .books. Suddenly, Sorders goes under and takes the .books ending with them. Alternatively, suppose a national sandwich shop has built its business on making subs. The TLD .subs  becomes irrelevant as they begin to offer other options (Really? Pizza at Subway?). Although Google continues to decrease the importance placed on matching keywords in URLs, the remnant SEO impact will still hinder ranking efforts.


Certain domain endings are also known to command greater trust (.org, .edu) and custom TLDs may generate the same effect for existing .coms. Although the greater authority currently commanded by particular endings is related to stronger natural linking profiles and the tendency toward older domains, both occurrences will be severely limited for new custom TLDs.


The Big Brand Effect

Most of the SEO murmurings regarding custom TLDs see them as either negligible or having negative effects, but there is also a minority that whispers of Google’s preference for big brands. Any company willing and able to pony up the $210,000 to secure a custom TLD probably has the brand reputation to give searchers what they are looking for. In other words, Google may adjust their algorithm to recognize “big” brands and its rankings will reflect the preference. SERPs are already showing a preference for national corporations over local pages in a generic, non-localized search. Customized TLDs may provide an additional factor in promoting this nationalization trend.


The Biggest Problem

Even though nobody can say for sure what the effect of custom TLDs will be on SEO, consensus suggests the impact will not be defined in terms of authority, but because new URLs are being created for every page. If your company is adept at 301 redirects, submitting new site maps, and custom 404 error pages; you may not have a problem. However, in my experience, most Fortune 100 companies with websites of a size to reflect their global footprint have enough trouble changing a Meta title. These same companies may hit upon the most likely application of custom TLDs, which is to indicate location or community focus with specified endings. The locational terms may compete with existing country-specific pages and generate duplicate content penalties if canonical tags are not properly placed. The true minefield companies will have to navigate is not so much related to rankings, but more to increasing problems with subdomains and redirects.


Power to the People

At the end of the day, the only thing that will determine the success or failure of custom TLDs is the reaction of the public. The incentive for large corporations to use custom TLDs is another opportunity to reinforce their brand. [However, if the average user can’t remember the new custom ending to their favorite URL, that will be over $200,000 down the drain.] For SEO, driving visitors to the site through rankings and increasing an online footprint is irrelevant if customers are not returning to your site or completing a conversion.