Skip to content

Understanding TLDs

By Matthew Edgar · Last Updated: January 13, 2021

A top-level domain, or TLD, is the suffix at the end of the domain name. In the case of my domain, matthewedgar.net, the TLD is “.net”. In the case of Elementive’s domain, elementive.com, the TLD is .com. There are lots of different TLD options available—non-profits tend to use “.org” and educational institutions tend to use “.edu”. Outside of the USA, it is common to have a country-specific top-level domain, such as “.ca” for Canada.

What is a Top Level Domain or TLD? Do TLDs affect SEO performance?

What TLD Should I Use?

Naturally, the question becomes: what TLD should your website use?

One approach is to stick with what is popular. Despite how many TLD options there are, the .com TLD is used by 45.8% of all websites worldwide. Given this popularity, there is a familiarity with this TLD and that may mean that .com websites tend to perform better, including performing better in search results. Seeing the .com makes it seem like a “real” website, resulting in better clicks and, likely, more trust. (For non-profits and educational institutions, this would be true for .org and .edu TLDs).

Anecdotally, it does seem that clients I’ve worked with who use non-.com TLDs tend to have a harder time ranking in search results. Or, if they do rank, the click-through rate tends to be lower than you may expect given the position they rank in. I don’t think this has anything to do with the TLD itself—many factors go into your ability to perform in search results and it is unlikely Google puts much weight in what TLD is used. Instead, the poorer performance is likely seen with negative associations with less popular TLDs. Essentially, people skim search results and wonder if they can trust a company using a TLD other than “.com” in the URL.

Of course, with how popular the .com TLD is, it may be hard to find a good domain name for your business; somebody else might have purchased the domain name that you’d like to use for your company. However, you might find that domain name on a less popular TLD. This is often why you see a company using the “.io”, “.ly” or “.co” TLDs instead of .com. These TLDs can be a reasonable choice if you absolutely cannot find a domain with a TLD .com. Be mindful, though, that your target audience will still trust your website even if it uses a less popular TLD.

Recommendation: Stick with the standard

However, my recommendation is to pick a domain with the .com TLD. That might mean finding a domain name that doesn’t match your brand name. Or, that might mean finding an alternative domain name if your preferred .com domain name is taken. Whether that helps with search performance directly or not is somewhat irrelevant—you want your website and business to be seen as a “normal” business and using “.com” conforms to the standard.

If you are a non-profit or educational institution, I’d recommend .org or .edu respectively for those same reasons. Those are the standard/normal TLDs within those industries and using what is popular will make your organization seem more legitimate.

International Domains: ccTLD

The .com TLD is treated, by default, as a generic TLD (gTLD). The same is true for .org, .edu, .gov and more. A gTLD does not imply any specific location. That TLD could work for websites with a presence in any country around the world. In practice, though, .com, .edu, .org, and other gTLDs are typically associated with the USA.

However, because these TLDs are a gTLD, Google does not assume a location by default and can rank gTLD websites anywhere in the world. You can change this default geotargeting behavior by using a variety of methods, including hreflangs to communicate which country or language is targeted.

If you want to target a specific country with your domain, then it is best to use the appropriate country-specific TLD (ccTLD). Using a ccTLD provides clear and specific geotargeting. That way robots and humans know which country the website is intended for. This is why Amazon, as just one example, uses ccTLDs with Amazon.com for the US, Amazon.co.uk for the UK, Amazon.ca for Canada, and so on. Google will typically only rank ccTLD domains within the designated country and not rank those domains internationally.

Instead of ccTLDs, you can use subdomains or subdirectories to target specific countries. These do not send as strong of a signal. Read my article about subdomains and subdirectories for more details comparing those options for international websites.

Should You Switch TLDs?

As soon as I mention my recommendation is to use .com, the immediate follow-up becomes: well, what if you aren’t using a .com right now, should you switch?

The thinking is that making a switch would help your website perform better, including performing better in search results. Take my site as an example – the .net TLD isn’t so common. Does that mean my website won’t be able to rank (or rank as well) in search results and not get as much traffic? Would I get a boost by switching?

Not at all. My website performs well in search results, including ranking in several competitive searches. Using the .net TLD hasn’t held back my website and it hasn’t changed the overall tactics I need to employ in order to rank my website.

It isn’t just my website either. Some studies have found that while alternative TLDs may not always perform as strongly, certain alternative TLDs were able to rank for specific terms and were able to see pages getting indexed. That suggests we shouldn’t be too worried about using an alternative TLD for our website.

In short, there is no compelling reason to change your website’s TLD if your website is currently performing well in search results. If anything, changing the TLD could harm your website’s performance. By changing the TLD, you are making a change to every URL on your website. You can use redirects to communicate this change to Googlebot. Googlebot then has to follow those redirects, determine what the new URLs are, update its index, and update search results. There can be traffic fluctuations during this time, as well as overall traffic drops. Typically, I’ve seen websites go through this fluctuation and come out slightly lower than where they started. The best-case scenario I’ve seen is that websites come back to where they were. I’ve never seen websites make a major URL change and have the URL change result in a traffic boost.

There may also be more significant traffic drops with this type of change. A major URL change may prompt Google to recrawl the full website and reevaluate the website’s content. During that reevaluation, Googlebot may find other issues with the website and those issues may cause the website to fall out of rankings.

Bottom line: there are risks associated with a TLD change and few SEO benefits. Because of that, my recommendation is to avoid changing your domain name’s TLD unless you absolutely must. For example, if you are rebranding your company, then you are going to be faced with a domain change. In that case, since you are changing the domain name anyway, you may want to switch to a better TLD for the new brand’s domain name. However, changing a TLD shouldn’t be the motivation for switching your entire domain name.

That also gets to why my domain name is a .net instead of a .com. Twenty years ago, I didn’t know any better and thought the .net was cooler. So, I started using .net instead of .com, even though I own both domains. By the time I did know better, my .net site was already performing quite well. I’ve kept the .net site all these years later and refuse to change it because the disrupting TLD change wouldn’t produce enough gain (if any gain at all) to make that disruption worthwhile.

Brand Protection: Buy Multiple TLDs

My final recommendation is to purchase every TLD-variant you can for your chosen domain name. I use matthewedgar.net as my primary domain name, but I own matthewedgar.com. The reason for owning it is to make sure that nobody else can take that domain and pretend to be me (or compete against me using my own name). The same is true for Elementive, where we own many different domain variants all in the name of protecting our brand. As soon as you decide on your primary domain name, whether using a .com TLD or not, make sure you purchase every other variant you can.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, a TLD doesn’t matter that much to your website’s overall success. Yes, a .com might be more popular and that might give a slight advantage to sites that use a .net, including a slightly better click-through rate. But other TLDs can perform just as well—provided your website delivers good content and you put in the work to get people to your website. If you have any questions or need help improving your website’s technical SEO performance, please contact me.

You may also like

How to Use a Headless Browser

Learn what a headless browser is, why you should use a headless browser and how to launch a headless browser on your own computer.

Handling Out of Stock & Removed Product Pages

How do you remove products from your website without harming your users or SEO performance—or at least minimize the harm? In this post, Matthew walks through the different options available.

How to Check HTTP Response Status Codes

Every page on every website returns an HTTP response status code. How do you check the status code for your website’s pages? What tools can you use to test status codes? What do the status codes mean?