Domain Name Matters: Searchers Pick Brand Over Quality, Study Finds

A new study from Microsoft Research confirms what most SEOs have known for years—that domain names are a crucial element for capturing clicks and conversions from search results. Unlike what’s been published in most search marketing forums, however, this research was not focused on SEO techniques or search engine ranking algorithms, but rather on observed searcher behavior, offering insights about how people actually respond to what’s presented to them in search results.

The results of this research present a good news/bad news scenario for search marketers. The good news: If you have a credible, trusted domain name, you’ve got an advantage, as searchers really do pay attention to the URL in search results before deciding to click. And this is true regardless of the position of the URL on a search result page.

The bad news, of course, is that it’s more difficult these days to acquire “credible” domains now that most single or even double word domains are in use or reserved. Add confounding factors such as personalization, Google changing its core algorithm more than 500 times a year, and the fact that most searchers don’t move beyond the first or second page of results and you’ve got a major headache for most SEOs.

Nonetheless, the study is worth a close read for anyone wanting to understand more about how to capture the attention and clicks of searchers, thanks to its wealth of data generated by observing real people and their search behavior. Probably the most significant conclusion from the study:

Surprisingly, we find that despite changes in the overall distribution of surfaced domains, there has not been a comparable shift in the distribution of clicked domains. Users seem to have learned the landscape of the internet and their click behavior has thus become more predictable over time.

In other words, even if search result rankings change due to factors like personalization or algorithmic tweaks, searchers don’t seem to care. They’re demonstrating a clear preference now for credibility and trustworthiness in a domain name now over simple ranking on a search result page. This is the strongest evidence yet that I’ve seen that an obsession with ranking is not only futile, it completely ignores the reality of how your site attracts users.

Key takeaway for bosses/clients: rank really doesn’t matter, if you’ve got a quality (trustworthy) domain name.

The study also has merit for anyone doing paid search, and considering what display URL is most appropriate for an ad. While advertisers are always limited to a display URL that corresponds with a top-level domain, the additional keywords shown in the display URL may be crucial in getting searchers to click. Also, even if searchers don’t have favorable “domain bias” for your main site, it may be possible to secure another more favorably-perceived domain for your paid search campaigns that serves as a microsite that ultimately funnels searchers into your main domain.

The report is thick with math and numerous citations to related work, but it well worth the effort for anyone involved in competitive search marketing.

Domain Bias in Web Search (pdf), Samuel Ieong, Nina Mishra, Eldar Sadikov & Li Zhang, Microsoft Research (Sadikov is now with the Department of Computer Science, Stanford University, but the study was done while the author was at Microsoft Research.

Related Topics: Channel: Strategy | Stats: Search Behavior | Top News


About The Author: (@CJSherman) is a Founding Editor of and President of Searchwise LLC, a Boulder Colorado based Web consulting firm. He also programs and co-chairs the Search Marketing Expo - SMX conference series.

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  • D.N.

    Search results are the first exposure most people have to a website, and a domain is a huge part of it as it’s the site’s brand/identity. If it looks bad, spammy, scammy etc., then what does that say about the site?

    That’s why it’s important to get a good domain, even if it will cost more to buy on the secondary market. Otherwise, your marketing efforts won’t produce the results you expect and you’ll be left wondering why.

  • trinity_hartman

    Hi Chris, Thanks for the excellent summary. It makes intuitive sense that people would avoid spammy-looking domains and so it’s good to hear that there’s research to back this up.

  • ECMC

    This is very true, I’ve seen even .info lame one page sites ranking higher for their niche domain over websites juiced around that topic in general but not holding a keyword domain…..very interesting stuff

  • Nick Stamoulis

    You have to be careful when it comes to the domain name. Searchers are smart. They know a spammy domain when they see one. It’s worth investing the money in a domain that will be trusted and building quality content on the site to improve rank.

  • Shari Thurow


    Sounds like information scent and usability are incredibly important…according to this Microsoft report. Something SEOs (who focus on search usability) have been saying for years….

    Nice for Microsoft to confirm what many of us have already known. Though I would like to see the domain bias study comparing navigational, transactional, and informational queries, as they mentioned in Discussion and Future Work:

    “As domain bias becomes stronger, user visits are concentrated on fewer domains, even for informational queries. Algorithms for distinguishing between informational and navigational queries may have to be revisited in the presence of domain bias.”

  • I.L.

    Only now will ignorant trolls finally realize the significance behind choosing a good domain name. Those ignoring such a vital aspect of the website have always had to suffer the misery of not having too many visitors coming over to visit their site. After this post, perhaps wiser senses would prevail!

  • Mike

    a study long overdue. kudos to the Microsoft team. there’s another complimentary paper that I know of which you may also want to have a read through, basically a confirmation of the above in the form of a case study using actual domains and ppc campaigns with some very remarkable results.- [PDF]

  • Ed Brophy

    What does this study mean to you as a clever marketer creating a new catchy domain name?

    Thunder and using exact match domains (EMD,s) are still good. Thunder is impressive; but it is lightning, not lightning bugs that get users attention most.

    Rank doesn’t matter as much as having a quality, trusted domain name.

    “Let me just give you a bit of color on this”:

    Strong brands are not at the mercy of Google’s organic search, which is forever evolving.

    If Google ever improves their search capabilities, then a great many generic sounding exact match domain sites will be left without the ability to market their content and credibility.

    See also::
    “Google’s Exact Match Domain Name Patent (Detecting Commercial Queries) By Bill Slawski, on October 25, 2011″

    How a company is known to it’s customers is its most valuable asset.

    “Domains can so drastically influence perceived relevance that users will favor some domains, regardless of content. Users have developed such fierce brand loyalty that their clicks are tainted by domains.”

    Leverage domain name branding to your greatest advantage, because human minds are essentially associating machines.

    Your brand, or reputation, is one of the most critical factors of your business success.

    It cannot be left to chance. Inspect what you expect.

    The personality of your brand determines how people react and listen to you…it even determines how much you sell and how expensive your product is.

    Customers don’t buy products, They buy certainty. They buy trust and likeability. they buy perceptions and reputations. “If it isn’t in Voque, it isn’t in Vogue.”

    “Users click on results from reputable domains even when more relevant search results are available.”

    Your company’s brand or even your own personal brand is what separates you from your competition.

    And it’s what will get your customers to buy from you over and over again.

    “Now if you are still on the fence, let me just give you a bit of color. that we have looked at the rankings and the weights that we give to keyword domains, & some people have complained that we are giving a little too much weight for keywords in domains. So we have been thinking about at adjusting that mix a bit and sort of turning the knob down within the algorithm, so that given 2 different domains it wouldn’t necessarily help you as much to have a domain name with a bunch of keywords in it. “- Matt Cutts, Google Search Quality Group

    As “filkertus” at the SEOBOOK blog tells us:

    “A strong brand transcends the search engines, has more staying power, is more flexible, and affords the business more control over its destiny.”

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