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Microsoft Research Study: Domain Bias (preference) during Search

Understanding Domain Bias is absolutely essential if you fall into one of the following categories:

  • Startups considering domain name acquisition
  • Business investing SEO budget for higher organic page rankings
  • Business investing in paid search results like Google Adwords
  • Exact Match Domain Owners appraising domain value

Several studies in the past decade have shown that certain domains are more likely to be clicked. Microsoft conducted an in depth study on the subject, published in February, 2012.

Why is this news today? Domain Bias is significant today and growing. It’s particularly relevant to the value of your domain and the choices you make in acquisition. So, whether you read all the buzz back then or not, you may want a brief overview now!

The Microsoft study showed that users look at the keywords in the domain related to their search results.  Not only do they look at the domain, but they more often click on the domain with their query keywords- specifically because they think it will provide them with answers to their search. And as a cherry on top, the researchers even switched content for an incredible discovery: users were happier with the content when they trusted the domain name!

What is “Domain Bias?”

Frankly, I’m not a fan of the term. It sounds like a problem. Well, then again, I suppose it is a problem for companies who choose domains without understanding… Search engines already have other “bias” terms that refer to other things, so Microsoft slapped the nametag onto this as well.  In essence, researchers found and explored how users have a preference for clicking on certain domains.

Advantage #1: Users Prefer to Click on Exact Match Domains

Microsoft researchers explored this preference, or bias, by searchers. Domain bias describes a user’s tendency to believe that a site’s reliability is based on the keywords in a domain name.  So if Glenda does a search for “Designer Baby Clothes” to dress her new tyke, she would be at least 25% more likely to click on DesignerBaby.com rather than iOffer.com/baby or CutsieTutsie.com.  In addition, Microsoft’s Domain Bias Study states that users are far less likely to click on a domain that does not contain the keywords, if they aren’t familiar with the brand. This is important information for premium domain owners!

There is one trump- if the search consumer recognizes a brand like Amazon or WebMD, they are far more likely to click on that, even if it has less relevant content or is lower in the search results than another domain.

So, domain bias means users are preferential based on much the user trusts the domain name, whether due to brand recognition or keyword search terms in the domain name. There seems to be a clear order, and Microsoft tested quite a few different ways. First, a user will click on a domain because it’s a brand they trust. If they don’t see one, then they will click on a domain name that contains the searched keywords.

Advantage #2: Users Click on Exact Match Domains Regardless of Page Rank

The study determined that people clicked on exact match domains over others because they trusted that the site would prove more relevant to their search, no matter where the exact match domain was displayed within the page of search results.

Users placed far more confidence in the domain name than they did in search rank placement. That’s also good news, since not everyone has the budget or competitive advantage to be ranked #1 for each desired search term.

Advantage #3: Users Are More Satisfied with Content on Exact Match Domains… (even when it wasn’t really their content!)

Thorough as can be, the research team changed the visual display of the results…put this domain here, and that one there…and users still very strongly preferred the domain that contained a familiar brand or keywords!

They showed users the content from one website but tested showing them different domains as the associated URL. They tested the opposite content/domain pairing for other users. Hands down, users stated the content satisfied their search when the domain name was a known brand or contained their search keywords.

That’s another reason to cheer, because these findings aren’t as dependent on a search engine’s algorithm as they are on human behavior.  And we know how much humans stick to behavior patterns!

What Does This Mean for My Business?

Domain bias is very significant for exact match domain owners understanding their value. It’s also heavily relevant to startups in the domain name acquisition process. Whether you plan to show up in organic or paid search results, understanding domain bias gives you an advantage.

Search Engine Land provided a fabulous overview:

“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.”

This research means that owning a domain with strong keywords can increase your traffic, and that they’ll be happier when they visit.  Instead of cyclic spending on your SEO, consider contacting your domain name broker to find a premium domain that encourages trust, familiarity and confidence just by being itself!

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