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Understanding TLDs

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 over half 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. Granted, this could also be due to other issues with the company’s size or branding—many factors go into your ability to perform in search results beyond the use of a TLD.

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. But maybe that domain name is available on a less popular TLD—for instance, this might be why you see a company using the “io” or “ly” or “co” TLDs instead of .com. These are reasonable choices to make if you absolutely cannot find a domain with a TLD .com.

However, my recommendation remains that you should pick a domain with the .com TLD when you are starting out. That might mean finding an alternative domain name if your preferred .com domain name is taken. My reasoning is that, in this instance at least, following the crowd and using the popular TLD will make your website seem more legitimate. 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.
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.

If you are targeting a specific country, then it is best to use the appropriate country-specific TLD (ccTLD) for the country you are targeting. This helps clarify to humans and bots what language or country you are specifically targeting. This also helps distinguish your content between countries—here is my content for my visitors in the UK, here is my content for visitors in the US, etc. Note that if you do have a ccTLD in use, it will be difficult to get that country-specific website ranking highly in another country. So, if you intend your website to rank in multiple countries, it might make sense to avoid the country-specific TLD.

All that said, if you have a personal website, like a resume website, then using an alternative TLD might be acceptable. The objective here, though, is somewhat different than a business website—you aren’t trying to earn a lot of search rankings and you aren’t trying to drive a ton of traffic. Rather, you are sending potential employers to your website which means you have more control over how your audience gets to your website.

Should You Switch?

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 quite nicely in search results, including ranking in a few 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. There are studies that 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 at a normal rate. That suggests we shouldn’t be too worried about using an alternative TLD for our website.

But, still, maybe it could be better if it was a .com instead. Well, if anything, the reverse would likely happen – by making a switch to your domain name, you are making a change to your entire website. Google’s bots then have to figure out what this new website is. During that time where the bots are reevaluating your website, which can span from weeks to many months, you are going to see an overall decline in traffic. Is that hit worth it? Rarely, if at all, do people see a boost in performance by changing their domain name.

My recommendation is to avoid changing your domain name unless you absolutely must. For example, if you are rebranding your company, then you are going to be faced with a domain change as well. In that case, since you are changing the domain name anyway, you may want to switch to the 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

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 who 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.

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