The future of vanity TLDs (top level domains) and their effect on SEO grew murkier at a recent adult-entertainment industry conference sponsored by YNOT, where a panel convened on the upcoming rollout of the .XXX TLD. Like other “vanity” TLDs, this new adult-oriented TLD (launching at the end of 2011) raises more questions than it answers about the future of search engines and SEO.
The panel, featuring Connor Young (President and CTO of YNOT Group), Vaughn Liley (Director of Sales for ICM Registry), Tom Hymes (AVN) and Eric M. Bernstein (Attorney at Law), revealed fears by the industry that a new TLD “just for them” would force them to proactively purchase domains just to protect copyrights and trademarks. ICM’s Liley made only weak assurances that companies and individuals could protect their copyright/trademark or name, and only by taking the right of first refusal to register them at $60-70 per domain. Anyone not pre-registering their domain would have to fight any interlopers legally through ICANN’s standard domain name dispute resolution process, which commonly costs around $5,000 for multiple domains involving a single trademark.
What is of greater concern are individual-named URLs. Obviously “www.lindsaylohan.xxx” will be protected, but what if you (or your 8-year-old child) share your name with a legitimate adult-industry actor? The skies further cloud over with the imminent release of a slew of vanity TLDs targeting commercial trademarks.
The vibe from conference attendees was mostly negative, with many seeing it as a “shakedown” of legitimate companies that will have to defensively register many dozens of XXX domains per brand. Brand protection may become much more complicated with unlimited vanity domains on the way.
There has been no official word from the major search engines if they will index vanity domains or not. ICM’s Liley mentioned that the registry may create it’s own search engine for the XXX domain, leading many to suspect Google, Bing and Yahoo will not index this TLD, but it is hard to believe they will completely turn their backs on the opportunity to grab some advertising dollars from this multi-billion dollar industry. This SEO expects to see an opt-in option on search results in the near future, just as you can opt into adult content on Google image search now.
Vanity TLDs and SEO
While the XXX domain may only concern adult-industry SEOs, the imminent onslaught of commercial TLDs (e.g. “.APPLE”, “.COKE”, etc.) throws a wrench in conventional SEO strategies, because search engines are most certainly going to index the new TLDs.
Since TLD is already a known metric for weighting search results (.EDU and .GOV hold special relevance in search rankings, and .COM still holds precedence over geographic TLDs), it remains to be seen how search engines intent to weight the vanity TLDs. Will “iphone.apple” have greater relevance than “iphone.apple.com”? What about “geico.insurance” vs. “geico.com”? Will companies adopt a protect-and-hold strategy (i.e. register the domains but not use them)--effectively defeating the use of vanity TLDs—or will this usher in a new era of usability issues and URL confusion?
Assuming the standard rules of SEO apply, companies will have to decide whether to consolidate their brand around a .COM identity or a vanity TLD, or perhaps split their SEO between a public vanity TLD and reserve their .COM registration for corporate use. In terms of SEO, the former can be handled properly through the use of redirects, but it remains to be seen how search engines will weight the new TLDs. Even worse, the latter would involve splitting relevance between two websites and negatively affect search rank as a result.
Bottom line: you’re still going to have to have a single point of presence for maximum relevance, and for the forseeable future the current TLD weighting still applies.