A security firm is releasing a report stating .hk, .cn, and .info domains are the most “dangerous” when it comes to threats of malware. Whether you like McAfee or not, search engines like Google and Yahoo and MSN are very likely to incoporate this “trust” factor into their operations, if they haven’t already done that. We know Google doesn’t like .info as much as .com, and this new “evidence” appears to confirm whatever rationale Google might give for that. I fully expect Google to have more data available on the topic than McAfee anyway.
Of all “.hk” sites McAfee tested, it flagged 19.2 percent as dangerous or potentially dangerous to visitors; it flagged 11.8 percent of “.cn” sites and 11.7 percent of “.info” sites that way.
We had some SEO conversation on this at dinner last night, at a waterfront restaurant near the SMX conference center (it didn’t earn a mention by name). Our questions concerned the way that Google integrates links into its analysis of sites, and whether links have a direct contribution or an indirect contribution. My position is that Google maintains these signals of quality on a per-domain basis, and uses them to judge measurable factors such as links. So, a link will be trusted in proportion to the trust it has established for the two domains involved in the link. (Note I didn’t say linearly…) Ditto for age and other considerations… some of which are market or SERP (definition of SERP) based. Of course this is an oversimplification, as URLs with inbounds likely earn their own considerations, secondary to the hosting domain, but I basically view these signals as grading the measures… trust is applied to ranking factors.
So does it help to be on a .info toplevel domain? No. Does it hurt?
Think through for yourself, how you would deal with the real world if you were Google, and you knew that a “respectable” company like McAfee agreed with your own determinations that .hk domains are more than 3 times as likely to host malware as .com domains, even though there are fewer of them. At the very least, in times of trouble, you would err on the side of caution and not-trust-as-much those evidently less-trustworthy domains, right? If you had cause for concern, would you consider that bias? Probably. If you didn’t want to expose your own internal research as public justification, you can now refer to McAfee.
Yet the .info domain space, for example, has very ligitimate appeal to audiences worldwide. In some cases, a keyword-match .info site can compete with an established keyword .com at a small fraction of the domain acquisition cost. In some cases, a .info can be more valuable than the .com, to users, because the .info launches with real purpose and content while the .com is parked or otherwise undeveloped. But, and this is the strategic SEO part, that .info will need to cultivate an environment of trust (which will be applied to its signals of quality, such as links) in order to do well by Google.
This looks like an issue for the registrars of the TLDs. Maybe they need to work to maintain the integrity of their domain spaces, if they want them to maintain value in the real world, just as neighborhood associations work to uphold the property values in their own communites.
I think the real concern involves sketchy practices or even legitimate web publishing which may appear to be questionable, even if due to human bias. Religious and political sites, for example, where the humans are already unfairly biased against objectivity (some might say “blind”), should probably avoid the .hk and .cn top level domains when serving the non-local markets. I certainly wouldn’t publish an ad-supported chiropractor information site on a .info, if I had other options for more trusted tld’s (more trusted, in a post-McAfee report sense). But I would certainly be upset if my quality chiropractic .info website didn’t rank well simply because it was on the .info domain. Google already trusts blatantly anti-alternative medicine zealots, despite knowledge of their anti-quackery quackery, simply because many humans like to be contrarian, like to believe conspiracy theories, and like to support causes that sound like underdogs. This McAfee “study” provides more fuel for such trust claims, and people’s assignment of authority to such reports is a very real factor to consider, deserved or not.