Understanding the .com bias and what it means for your small business

Understanding .com bias and what it means for your business

My friends, did you know that we're currently living in the year 2016? And remember back in January when we were all making jokes about "sweet '16, don't be mean"? Considering how brutal this year has been, it's safe to say that many of us wish we could erase it from memory. But we can't. We're still here.

And at this point, did you know that the internet has bee around for....several decades?! About thirty years, in fact! That's a long time - even older than me and I'm basically geriatric.  

On the grand & glorious world wide web today, there are over 1 BILLION websites. 1 billion! That number is insane and totally cool. There really is a place for everyone online.

However, the numbers don't lie - although most websites were/are built on the .com top-level domain (TLD), there simply aren't enough possibilities for every single website to be build on it. Eventually, we will run out of .com options and everything will have been purchased already.

With that came the invention of other TLD options. If you're even a moderate web browser (which I assume you are, you savvy thing), you've probably come across them before : .ca, .net, .org, .co., .xyz, etc. 

So now that we've established that while many websites end in .com, not all websites have to. That's good news - right?! Well, hold on a minute.

As much as it pains me to admit it, we need to have an honest discussion about the .com bias and what it means for you - and your business.

Choosing a domain for your business is one of the most important steps of starting a website so it's important to have as much information as you can in order to make the right decision for you. 

Related: The Dos and Don'ts of Setting Domain Name Renewals

History of .com

Let's begin with a quick history lesson about the troubled .com

.com is the most common and recognizable domain suffix and the "com" stands for "commercial". Anyone can purchase a .com domain and it is not restricted only to businesses. 

During the nineties, there was a veritable rush to purchase domains as the web exploded. It was like buying a little piece of real estate in a virtual world and at the time, .com was pretty much the only option available.

As such, most of us who grew up/came of age with the web, or who began using it as it was in it's infancy, have become accustomed to .com as the domain TLD of choice. It's not that .com is better than the other options - it's simply the most recognizable and what people are familiar with. 

.com Bias Explained

Even though there are other TLD options besides .com, many people still favour .com and hold a bias to it. In fact, a lot of people outside the tech/online world don't even know that other TLDs exist!

No disrespect but have you ever tried to explain to your Granny in a flyover town that your website isn't a .com, it's a .co? Good luck with that.

Like many things in life, people are biased to what they know and have an association with. This is certainly true for websites since the .com ending is what people are most familiar with and it's what many fingers naturally type in the Google search bar.

It would be very hard to argue against the idea that .com still dominates for most people, although the popularity of other TLDs is undoubtedly growing.

Why businesses often prefer .com

Because the .com bias exists, many businesses will fight tooth and nail to have their website on a .com TLD. 

Many people and business owners who are extremely concerned with building a successful & brandable domain/website will do everything they can to get a .com domain. Here are a just a few reasons for this:

  • easier for customers to remember
  • fewer typos and missed searches
  • often results in higher traffic
  • domain is more valuable if the company ever gets sold

Having a .com is less important to some businesses, specifically those whose clients are not primarily acquired online or who have more of a word-of-mouth marketing effort (for example, the town dental clinic or the local coffee shop), but many people still prefer it because it's what people are used to.

On a personal note, when I tried to purchase charlotteohara.com a few years ago, I was SOL. A right-wing politician down in Kansas, also named Charlotte O'Hara, already owned the domain and had her website up and running. Needless to say, she wasn't about to sell that domain to me while she was using it, which is one of the reasons why I opted for the .ca TLD - that plus the fact that I live in Canada and that's kind of our thing. FYI : the other Charlotte O'Hara and I don't have a whole lot in common and it has made for some entertaining small talk between me and prospective clients when they go to Google Search me :)

The value of .com domains

In the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, "you can't always get what you want". This is especially true for .com domains. 

Many businesses will not get the .com domain right off the bat (usually because someone already owns it or has snatched it up to hold) and they will be forced to go with another TLD - for the time being.

However, many businesses (especially those who are focused on the online market) will stalk the .com domain and purchase it at the first available opportunity. Industry experts often recommend that businesses who want to scale and experience rapid growth should acquire the .com as soon as possible.

Here's a little food for thought, though. If you know that your end game is to acquire the .com domain, there is strategy involved.

Many people will hold onto domains in the hopes that someone will contact them about purchasing the domain, almost always at a higher price. This is called cyber or domainsquatting and we'll talk about this more below. If you show too much interest or demonstrate that you have deep pockets, you'll be looking at a hefty price tag to acquire your beloved .com.

So, my friends, a few words of advice : if you are backed by a VC in Silicon Valley, maybe don't mention that when you're in talks to purchase the .com domain - otherwise you'll see a few extra zeros added to the price immediately.

Cybersquatting / Domainsquatting

As a result of the .com bias, a random/annoying consequence is the phenomena known as cyber or domainsquatting.

WIkipedia covers the basics in this article but basically cyber or domainsquatting is "registering, trafficking in, or using an Internet domain name with bad faith intent to profit from someone else. The cybersquatter then offers to sell the domain to the person or company at an inflated price."

Beginning years ago and carrying on to present day, many people say the .com bias as a business opportunity and bought up a whole bunch of .com domains and have held onto them until the day that someone approaches them about selling.

Think about it : domains can be purchased for a few bucks a year and even if you hold onto a domain for 7 years and manage to sell it for $10,000, we can all agree that you've managed a great ROI. 

These cybersquatters know that .com domains are what people really want so they'll hold onto them, playing the long game, and have zero shame in making a buck when a new business comes knocking. It's impish behaviour but there's not a whole lot people can do - if you want the .com domain, often you'll have to pay for it.

Does Google care about .com?

One fear that many people have is that without a .com website, no one will find them.

Good news, folks - this isn't the case! 

Google (and other search engines) doesn't really care about your TLD extension - meaning you won't be favoured for having a .com or penalized for not having one. Instead, Google focuses on the domain's activity and things like site traffic, marketing, ranking, etc. and favours a website accordingly. 

So, if you are looking to buy a domain and the .com isn't available but the .co is, GO FOR IT! It's better to have something than nothing.

Related : Connecting Your Website with Google Search Console

Purchasing a domain

Now that you've been warned about the .com bias as well as the difficulties usually involved in acquiring a .com domain, you're already more knowledgeable than most online business owners out there. There are a few ways you can purchase a domain and test your luck getting a .com TLD.

Related: Expert Roundup: How to choose and purchase a domain name

To being, let's start by addressing domains and Squarespace. As you know, I use Squarespace for most of my client websites and recommend that you do the same. Whenever you create a website with Squarespace on the annual billing plan, you're entitled to a free domain. You can choose from a load of different TLDs, including .com. 

This is a great feature for anyone looking to start a website, but it's not what I recommend for everyone. 

Instead, I encourage people to purchase a domain from a third party provider (like Namecheap or GoDaddy) and connect that domain with Squarespace (which is super easy). This way you're not putting all your eggs in one basket and have that added protection and ownership of your domain. It's yours whether you use Squarespace or not. Knowing this gives me peace of mind in case something horrible ever happens to Squarespace (unlikely), I can rest assured knowing that I still own my domain and can move my website wherever.

Final Thoughts

While the .com is desirable, it's not the only option out there. If you are determined to have a .com domain, you'll either have to get creative with your domain name or else be prepared to purchase it in case it's already owned. The bias towards .com exists because people are more familiar with the .com ending but as more and more websites appear and web browsers become more savvy, things are changing. People are becoming more at ease with different TLDs (such as .co, .net., .org, etc.) and as a result, the bias towards .com domains is starting to lose it's footing. 

That's not to say that .com doesn't reign supreme but instead, we're more likely to see other high profile websites that use other TLDs in the future.

I'd love to hear from you so please share your thoughts! Do you have a website with a .com ending? Was it hard to get? If you use another TLD, how did you decide on it? Did you have any hesitations? Leave me a note in the comments!


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Charlotte O'Hara

Vancouver