Domain names & the “Google Effect”

01/16/2002

Dan Gilmour has recently argued that the “Google effect” – ie. the fact that Google and other search engines are now so good that they can locate extremely accurately what someone is searching for – will reduce the demand for new domain names.

“The most interesting from a domain-name point of view is this: With the rise of search tools that unerringly bring you to the page you want, the need for a highly specific domain name — one that a casual Web user would be able to guess — has practically disappeared.”

I should start off by saying that this statement is of course true. But it’s not the same as saying that the use of search engines like Google will radically decrease demand for domain names. Because what he’s concentrating on is an individual’s attempts to find for the first time a specific type of website or online service by guessing the name. There are many other types of searches, and many other reasons for a domain names existence. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Here, in a nutshell, are my five reasons why the Google effect will not seriously compromise the take up of domain names:

Boring reason 1: Repeat traffic. If I am an e-commerce based retailer then it does me no good if people only come to my site for a very specific purpose (one product) and then depart never to return, unless of course that’s the only product I sell. Because relationships between shoppers and shopping sites are developed over time – the shopper has to trust the company to sell to them. And that means that they have to visit a number of times – each time with a slightly different agenda. Other sites also rely on repeat traffic – even personal site like weblogs operate on the principle that an individual will become involved in reading the content, and return regularly. This actually goes right down to the point where it can be recognised that to a large number of people – finding a site like a weblog through a search engine probably isn’t going to be useful to either party. The weblog is unlikely to answer their query like a pure information site would – and is designed for a completely different approach to reading. Memorable site names aid repeat traffic.

Boring Reason 2: Authority. Do you believe what you read on the internet? All of it? Without question? If so then you are incredibly foolish – because for every light-hearted spoof there is a hate-mongers site or a rampant charlatan. If I search for a page about cancer treatments, I want to go to a site that has a name that I trust – my first point of call wouldn’t be to a page on GeoCities. The (right) domain name is like a badge, which affiliates you with the institution that you purport to be from much successfully than merely saying that you’re from the FBI or MacDonalds. All sites which have a function that requires a relationship of trust between the parties or which needs to come from a trusted source is more likely to achieve that function with a domain name than without one. A domain name suggests you are who you say you are.

Boring Reason 3: Advertising and branding. Because repeat visitors and a relationship of trust are so important to most serious sites, advertising and branding has become tremendously important – from the top (Amazon) to the bottom plasticbag.org). Domain names make this process significantly easier.

Boring Reason 4: How people actually search. The previous three sections have described reasons that domain names remain important. This section goes the other direction, and suggests that while they are important, they have never really been important in the way that Gilmore describes. There are lots of types of searches that people make on the internet. Most of these searches do not fit into the two narrow categories that he elucidates. In fact most of them have never had any relationship to domain names. If you are attempting to ask a question by reference to the internet – you are unlikely to end up at the front page of a site. Once you get past people searching for things like “Hotmail” or “Amazon.com” you are left with searches based on current events, celebrity gossip and searches made to answer all the hundreds of thousands of questions that people want answered. Gilmour makes it sound as if searching had previously been synonymous with the guessing of domain names (albeit much more successful) when in fact guessing a domain has never been a particularly important path to most of the pages on the World Wide Web.

Boring reason 5: And anyway – doesn’t the domain name help the search engine? I’m not going to push this too heavily, as there are now many other factors that a search engine takes into account when it’s figuring out the relevance of it’s search results – but the presence of a domain name certainly doesn’t hurt

Let’s go back to the beginning and think about it logically. In fact the search approach that Gilmour describes has only really ever worked in very specific circumstances – like when you’re attempting to find a company by using it’s trading name or when you’re searching for generic domain names – like sex.com or bookshop.co.uk. Once you’re outside the remit of those particular limited circumstances, his argument loses much of its plausibility…