Do web searchers pay attention to the domain where the link in the search results leads them?
Now, it seems, more web searchers are paying attention to what’s in the URL.
A Study by Stanford and Microsoft Researchers – http://bit.ly/JpTSMb [PDF] shows that domains are becoming a potent force in consumer click behavior. In a test they compare to a “Pepsi/Coke blind taste test,” they found that domains could flip a user’s preference 25% of the time.
This concentration would seem to create a self-reinforcing trend. If the top handful of sites get more clicks and create more user engagement, they will rise even higher in the rankings due to Google’s emphasis on such metrics as part of its post-Panda ranking algorithm.
One big takeaway is that life is getting tougher for marketers with lesser-known domains. First, it’s increasingly hard to rank well for popular search terms; it’s been many years since an SEO-savvy site-builder could publish a few pages and outrank the top brands for competitive terms. It appears that the most popular domains continue to gain ground against anyone else.
Second, even if a lesser-known domain claws its way to the top few results, it will face an uphill battle if the other results are branded domains familiar to consumers.
Here are a few quick prescriptions for marketers:
#1. If you have a domain name known to consumers, exploit that advantage by adding content and employing good SEO strategies and architecture. Site traffic will grow, and the process will reinforce itself.
#2. If your domain is unknown, focus on improving your rankings and your displayed info (title/snippet) to offset the domain bias effect. Position and relevance still drive clicks.
#3. Work to build your domain as a brand. Over time, you’ll gain clicks.
#4. Be wary of starting microsites on new domains. Trust/credibility will be higher on a recognized domain.
In short, use domain bias to your advantage if you can. If not, then recognize that better-known domains will siphon away your search traffic and strive to improve relevance, rankings, and, over time, your branding.