Are Search Engines Killing Domains?
The Atlantic recently had an article about "How Search Engines Are Killing Clever URLs." The article discusses how search engines such as Google are making the need for a good domain less important than "search rankings, social media, and mobile technologies." It argues that the "bet that entrepreneurs would jump at the chance to customize their Web addresses" by investors who "shelled out up to $185,000" has not gone well. The reason is that after three years there have only been "roughly 26 million new generic top-level domains...registered" while there are "164 million registered 'legacy' top-level domains."
This article makes interesting points, but I do think it misses a few things. First of all, let's break down that "legacy" TLD number of 164 million. This number is misleading mainly because .COM alone makes up at least 126 million of that number. It's also not clear what exactly they mean by legacy TLDs either. Generally, legacy TLDs are the first TLDs that were released back in 1985. These include .COM, .NET, and .ORG, as well as a few country codes (ccTLDs) and a few government restricted TLDs such as .GOV, .EDU, and .MIL.
Really though, if we're referring to legacy TLDs, we should only look at .COM, .NET, and .ORG. The reason is because they are unrestricted and not meant only for a specific country (and yes, I know some new TLDs do have restrictions and some are for specific geographic areas, but the vast majority aren't). If we only look at these three legacy TLDs, that number goes down to 150 million (with around 15 million for .NET and 10 million for .ORG).
Now, I know that 26 million is still much less than 150 million, but bear with me here because these so-called "new TLDs" aren't the only new TLDs to be released since the legacy TLDs in 1985. In fact, way back in 2000, ICANN had a call for new TLD proposals and after a period of public consultation, they added seven TLDs including .BIZ, .INFO, .PRO, and .NAME in 2001. Then, they did another application period in late 2003 that resulted in the addition of six more TLD launches in 2005 including .MOBI and .TEL. Finally, the last new TLD to be added before the most recent new TLDs was .XXX in 2011.
So, why am I telling you all this? Well, because I want to remind you that no TLD - legacy, ccTLD, "new" from 2000 to now - has ever come at all close to .COM's registration numbers. The last three "new TLD launches" from the early 2000s have all been - to use The Atlantic's word - "underwhelming." The biggest seller from the 2001 release is .INFO with just over 5.5 million registrations, while .MOBI leads the 2005 group with around 650,000 registrations, and .XXX has only 100,000 (and note these are their numbers to date).
By contrast, some of the top selling new TLDs over the last few years include .XYZ, which has just over 6 million registrations, .TOP with over 4 million, and .WANG with just over 1 million. And, going down the list, there are 24 new TLDs with over 100,000 registrations to their (domain) name. Now, obviously we have 26 million registrations spread out over thousands of new TLDs, which means that, yes, there have been some flops in the new TLD world. But is this really all Google's fault?
Now, let's return from our TLD tangent and talk about the claim that's brought up in the article. Have Google and other search engines doomed the domain? While I do agree that in today's Internet, search rankings, social media, and mobile technology is very important, I don't think the domain itself is necessarily less important because of these things. In fact, considering that it's harder than ever to find a good .COM domain, you could actually argue that new TLDs would be doing better if domains were less important now. The fact that .COM has remained king actually shows that the power of the domain has not been lost.
With TLDs such as .PIZZA, .ACTOR, and .TECH now available, it's far easier to find that exact match domain that you really want - and even save on characters by having it in your domain extension. So why does the pizza joint down the street have JanesPizzaSanMateo.com as their domain name when they could have Janes.pizza (and yes, it's available as of this writing)? The answer is because they recognize .COM (in fact, they likely don't even know .PIZZA exists at all), their customers recognize .COM (ditto on the not knowing it exists) - everyone recognizes .COM (and, yeah ditto again). I would argue that the real reason the new TLDs - and not just the most recent ones - are "underwhelming" is because most people still don't know about them. Until more people start to know about them and use them, the only TLD that will be considered "overwhelming" will continue to be .COM.
This post was written by Robyn Norgan, who also wants to mention that it is not in Google's interest to kill the domain as they are one of the investors who bet on the new TLDs (see Google Registry's new TLDs).