Does Your Domain Say “Trust Me?”


Do web searchers pay attention to the domain where the link in the search results leads them? A few years ago, I would have said “no.” For years, I’ve operated or advised websites that ranked at or near the top for various brand names, and found many users assumed the site WAS that brand. Even the most cursory look at either the domain or the site itself would show the site to be unaffiliated with the brand, but oblivious visitors would post inquiries about customer service problems, purchase locations, and so on.

Now, it seems, more web searchers are paying attention to what’s in the URL. A study by Stanford and Microsoft researchers 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.

Big Domains Dominate Search

The study notes that “Top 30” domains increasingly dominate search results:

Popular Domains Dominate Search Results
Popular Domains Dominate Search Results

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.

Trust, Credibility Drive Clicks beat even when content was switched.

One of the comparisons performed by the researchers was to label search results as being from, a popular and trusted health site, or, an unfamiliar site. By presenting the search results labeled with these domains with alternating snippets and positions, the effect of the domain could be tested. Results that appeared to be from got clicked more often, even when the actual content of the search title/snippet was switched with the lesser-known domain. (This is eerily reminiscent of the experiments showing people preferred soda labeled as Coca Cola, whether they were drinking Coke or Pepsi!)

Position, Relevance, & Domain

The position in the ranked results is still significant, as is the relevance of the displayed content to the searcher’s intent. What these experiments show is that the domain is now emerging as a factor of importance as well. A popular site can’t disregard search engine optimization and expect to get clicked even though it’s farther down the page. It’s still necessary to have diverse and useful content, too, as part of an overall SEO and content marketing strategy.

Marketing Implications

The authors of the study focus on the issue from the perspective of search engines, but there are implications for marketers there too. 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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Work to build your domain as a brand. Over time, you’ll gain clicks.
  • 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.

  1. bj says

    Google, Facebook and others are seeking to Balkanize the web. Unfortunately, this makes sense from their standpoint, since the Big Money is in Big Brands, and they’re paid to push those brands. It’s awful for the rest of us who actually want to use the web for something other than purchasing corporate goods. “Personalized” search makes it even worse, unfortunately, as organic results are pushed further and further down the page.

    The sliver of the web we are shown shrinks day by day, unless we purposely tear down the fences.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Bj, I think it’s less a conscious effort to boost big brands and more of the evolution of both search and the Web. Big sites used to be woefully ignorant about SEO. Now, they can combine big buck SEO efforts with their natural ability to attract links and social sharing. That’s tough for a little site, or a brand new one, to overcome.


  2. Tim says

    This makes a lot of sense. Thanks Roger. I know that I always look at the URL of a site in search before I click into it. I suppose more people also do it now too.

  3. Micah says

    It all comes back to branding. It’s been proven that people tend to trust the “things”(products, politicians, brand, domains,) that they are exposed to the most. The more you are see something, the more you tend to trust it.

    I think the message here is to really focus on your brand, and find ways to make it unique and accessible.

    For me, I am my brand. The picture you see in my gravitar is my “branding” picture. I use it everywhere. It also helps that my name isn’t the most common, tho that’s not exactly something you can control. On my blog I also have a strong logo, which I inject into every thing I can.

    It’s all about exposure and a unique experience. You have to know you market inside and out, and get yourself in front of that market in every why you possibly can, as often as possible.

  4. Brad Dalton says

    Its always the same old story. The big brands dominate. The biggest reason they dominate is money. They pay Google the most amount of it. Google is a business.And Google looks after its biggest customers first.

    The recent Algorithm updates support big brands. Its has nothing to do about the quality of your content. Its about the engagement, links and you scratch my back, i’ll scratch yours.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      One could argue, Brad, that searchers prefer the big brands – the point of the post was that consumers will preferentially click on the better-known domains, even when the SERP content is switched. If Google moves the brand up in the rankings, it makes it easier for the consumer to find what he will click on. The ideal situation for Google (my idea, not theirs) is that they deliver results in which people always click on the first ranked item first, etc. If the searcher sees the results and clicks on #5 first, Google has arguably delivered a less than perfect result.

      The downside is that pandering to consumer preferences makes discovering new sites more difficult and tends to reinforce the same old stuff.


  5. Nikolay Nikolov says

    So basically make a short and cool domain and do seo AND branding so in time people know you site. And eventually they will even start to search for it and this is another branding signal search engines use :).
    By the way the coca cola and pepsi experiment is really interesting. If I am not mistaken I first heard of it in a very awesome book you might have heard of: Predictable Irrational
    I recommend it to all 🙂

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