A top level domain (TLD) is the abbreviation at the end of a website address, and if you’ve ever tried to claim a .com or .co.uk for your business, you’ll appreciate how tricky it can be to get the web address you’re after.

If you’ve not been able to register your preferred domain, you may have turned to one of the many alternative TLDs out there, such as .eu or .net, or even created your own bespoke TLD to one specific to your industry or brand name – Barclays bank, for instance, now uses the .barclays TLD for its home.barclays website, which runs alongside barclays.co.uk.

But while making the most of an alternative or bespoke TLD may sound the ideal solution – you get a catchy, exact-match URL for your business without having to pay through the nose for a ‘.com’ – there’s a risk it could undermine your search engine optimisation efforts and have a negative impact on your brand.

How an alternative TLD can damage your SEO

There’s no doubt that making good use of an alternative TLD, such as .design, .taxi or .london can help make your web address more memorable for users, but the flipside is it could have a negative impact on your rankings.

The use of keywords in a URL traditionally had a positive effect on rankings, with some companies have even seen a boost in rankings following the change to a keyword-specific TLD (read more about domain name alignment). But, Google has warned that changing a TLD with the sole purpose of giving your rankings a push could actually have the opposite effect and lead to a drop in position.

Although Google released a statement last year to confirm new TLDs would be treated like all other TLDs, meaning results would still be ranked according to their relevance to each search query, there are still concerns that using new or bespoke domain extensions carry the risk of damaging your search ranking.

One reason for this is that websites with .com tend to rank better in search engines than similar sites with other TLDs, and while there’s no evidence to suggest search engines discriminate when it comes to TLDs, the fact is we’re all wired to think .com domains carry more authority and so we’re more likely to click on them.

While Google maintains that click through rate (CTR) does not affect rankings in any way, simple reasoning and a little testing would suggest it does – so if your CTR drops, there’s a good chance your ranking will too. It’s for reasons such as this that the experience and expertise of a well established SEO agency can be invaluable in navigating the world of digital marketing.

How does click through rate affect search positions?

Click through rate measures the number of people who click a link against the total number of people who had the opportunity to do so, and while Google refutes any suggestions that this is any way used as a ranking signal, common sense suggests it probably is.

It’s not just a matter of common sense either as Rand Fishkin, co-founder of Moz, ran the following test and found queries and clicks could influence Google’s results more than anyone ever expected, and while not conclusive, the results were enough to warrant further testing – so watch this space…

It’s a claim Google continues to refute though, as Gary Illyes, Chief of Sunshine and Happiness at Google, or so his Twitter bio claims, has outlined: “Google uses clicks made in the search results in two different ways — for evaluation and for experimentation — but not for ranking”.

Even so, the effect of CTR on rankings is one of those SEO theories that just won’t go away.

As Larry Kim put it in this Moz blog: “If a page is ranking in position three, but gets a higher than expected CTR, Google may decide to rank that page higher because tons of people are obviously interested in that result.”

By this logic, a drop in clicks would lead to a drop in rankings – but why would a simple domain name tweak stop people clicking on and visiting your website?

It’s all a matter of trust.

How an alternative TLD can damage your brand

On the one hand, changing your TLD to a keyword specific one could encourage more clicks, as search terms are displayed in bold and users may feel this makes this makes a result  more relevant to their search query.

For instance, if you have a dental practice with a .co.uk or .dentist domain, this is how each will show up in the search engine results pages (SERPs) following a search for ‘dentist’:

DrTeeth1

DrTeeth2

While this is only a minor difference, the second is arguably more eye-catching as the ‘dentist’ search query is shown in bold on all three lines, including the meta title, meta description, and URL.

However, although using an alternative TLD can make your search snippet stand out more, there’s evidence to suggest choosing something other than a .com, .co.uk, or .org, could make your URL appear less trustworthy and, in turn, affect CTR and search rankings.

Varn, a UK-based digital strategy agency, surveyed 1,000 UK internet users of all ages, and found more than two-thirds of internet users don’t trust alternative website domains.

The survey asked this simple question:

Do you trust companies with .co.uk and .com domains more than those with other newer domains like .eu, .biz, .net, .fashion, .london, .digital etc?

While answers varied between genders and age groups74% of women trust ‘.com’ and ‘.co.uk’ domains more compared to only 67.3% of men, and 77.6% of users aged 25-34 trust ‘.com’ and ‘.co.uk’ domains more compared to 61% of those aged 55-64 – the overall findings were that 70% of users don’t trust alternative TLDs.

Security was the main reason for this mistrust, with respondents outlining how they associated these domain names with spam, or fear the site may not be secure and so put personal information and payment details at risk.

This suggestion was supported by the results of our own Twitter poll, which showed that out of those newer domains, almost three-quarters (73%) found the more authoritative ‘.eu’ domain the most trustworthy, while the slightly more superficial sounding ‘.biz’ TLD got no votes at all.

If users don’t trust your domain name, this can have a negative effect on the perception of your brand as a whole – after all, it’s going to be making appearance on all of your marketing output.

How to ensure your TLD doesn’t have a negative impact

There’s no real way of telling exactly how changing your website’s TLD or using an alternative one will affect its search position, as there are at least 200 other ranking factors to consider alongside it.

What is clear is that you need to be careful when choosing your TLD – get it wrong and you could send out all the wrong signals to search engines and customers alike.