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.