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Search Engines want to Eliminate Domain Names

Search engines want to eliminate domain names.

There, I said it (again). Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Years ago I said it out loud to several people at a meeting, repeated it in conversation many times at domain industry meetings and SEO conferences, and in a few venture capital/startup private meetings. I believe I slipped it in one of my search talks in 2008. To date, I have not enjoyed any good, serious debate about that inflammatory suggestion. A few people have disagreed. One scoffed at the thought with blithesome disregard. No good counter arguments or convincing support yet.

Search engines would love to see URLs come under their complete control, so they could eliminate them altogether.

Domain names have value right now. The traditional value is in direct navigation: the tendency of a fraction of the Internet using population to type into their browsers the URL of exactly where they want to go. Some people actually choose to go to Candy.com to look for an online candy store. Candy.com has a high value not because it is famous as an online candy store, but because of the value of direct navigation. One could easily sell candy on candy.com, goes the thought.

But domain names are also a depository for Internet market value. We call developed domain names “assets” because we have difficulty accounting for that stored value. Accounting methods allow for “intangible assets” such as “intellectual property” and “good will”. If you build a successful site, you do it on a domain. When the site is no longer active, the domain retains a significant amount of “stored value” from the previous market success.

Search engines want to take back that stored value, or perhaps keep it for themselves. On many fronts, the domain name is in the way.

I won’t go into much detail here, but if you look at the way search engines have been evolving, and some of the actions they have taken or tried to encourage, you see very little support for domain names. You see search engines creating mashups, extracting unique content from domains and serving it in a new context, associated topically or in some other channel separate from the domain name. You see search engines like Google stepping into the domain industry late (Google parking programs) but with power, forging “contract” relationships which took control of parked page profits. You see browsers built without “location bars”, forcing every user request through a search engine (Google’s Chrome eliminated direct navigation altogether). Every time I engage in futures research on the search marketplace, I am reminded of the problem the domain name presents to search engines. And that makes me think.

  • It reminds me that when traffic is the currency, Google and domain owners are competitors, not friends.
  • It reminds me that while branding is most easily accomplished with a good domain name, there are other ways to brand, and those other ways can be encouraged and supported by those who control traffic flow. Are search engines working on those more attractive alternatives? Consider Google Knoll, Google Profiles, Facebook, etc etc etc. Rather than brand the destination, why not brand the content or content creator, or better, the “authority”? People can find them through search engines.
  • It reminds me of how we as a society have (so far) neglected assigning the label “civil right” to Internet access.

Like everything else of value in our society, until we protect it with some basic tenets, it will be co-opted by commercial concerns (like search engines). Google censors the Internet now. So does Yahoo! and every other search engine, whether via algorithmic bias or intention.

We are still early in the evolution of this Internet thing, and there are still many reasons why domains are essential for the operation of the web and the success of search engines. Short term thinking shouts out reason after reason why it is ludicrous to think search engines want to eliminate domains from the web. They need them… domains are the fundamental basis for the Internet. The URL is *everything* — one could not even index content without URLs, which by the way have a canonical root that is the very definition of “domain”.

But it won’t always be that way, and there are many great reasons for eliminating domains. There is a lot of money tied up in the domain name, not only due to the nature of navigation (which we see can be co-opted),  but that pesky stored asset value. If only that could also be controlled or eliminated…

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18 Responses to “Search Engines want to Eliminate Domain Names”

  1. Barry Welford Says:

    A very interesting theory, John, but although the search engines may have that motivation, I don’t think they can win out against the opposition.

    After all, the father of the Internet, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is a staunch defender of the One Web Principle, where everything is uniquely defined by a URI. It is so much easier when there is a precise identifier. The search engines have a problem being sure which URL is most relevant for any given keyword search. If they were better at it, then that Google ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button would see much greater use.

    Perhaps there will be a sizeable portion of the population who go along with what the search engines offer as the most relevant web page. However I don’t think they will manage to convince the more sophisticated members of the population.

  2. anon Says:

    Google promotes authors of news items http://googlesystem.blogspot.com/2009/06/authors-are-more-visible-in-google-news.html

  3. anon Says:

    Google trucates ULS in display
    (2006) http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3000659.htm
    (2009) http://www.vertical-leap.co.uk/blog/Google-Changes-URL-Displayed-in-Organic-Results-Page-SERP.asp

  4. anon Says:

    Google Knoll promotes authors over content http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=40548

  5. aaron wall Says:

    It seems everything Google puts trust on they eventually want to abuse for profit. Links, brands, domain names…it is just part of the cycle.

    Once more semantic shopping stuff appears more of the organic search results will be some vertical database of shopping ads. Did you see Google’s new product ads announcement today?

  6. Stefan Juhl Says:

    If you could control, or even own, a bridge (possibly the only one) to an island, then you can take the cut you deem ‘fair’ of any transaction where crossing the bridge is part of it. So anyone with a commercial intent would be stupid not to take a go at it.

    Navigation on the web is no different. So why wouldn’t search engines aim to control/own the path used by internet users? Domains doesn’t serve their agenda. For Google et al. it comes down to receiving and serving any request a user makes – what we currently refer to as keywords..

    We aren’t far from such a situation and use of search engines, but to me it seems there’s a one big problem. Due to the ever changing nature of SERPs they don’t serve well as a reference point. I can’t tell a mate to just make a search for X, as he’ll get a different result than me. I can’t go back two weeks later and search for the same thing and expect whatever content I wanted to see again, to show up.

    That last part, about changing SERPs, is actually something I hear somewhat often. People complain that they can’t find “that page” again, even though they make the exact same query as last time. This can obviously be fixed through logging/personalization – so you’ll always see results you’ve previously clicked.

    But SE’s still have the problem of not being a steady reference point. I can’t avoid thinking if the current evolution with URL shortening is leading the way towards a solution to this? Although I don’t have any specific concepts on my mind, I do see this favoring the concept of a non URL based internet. At its most basic, it could be some sort of short code for a static copy of any given appearance of content on the web.

  7. Hugo at Zeta Says:

    I’m with you, John. Although, domains may never truly disappear, they will gradually be marginalized as search (which will mean something completely different as AI improves and begins to suggest content you didn’t even know you wanted yet) becomes the centerpiece of all media and communications.

  8. Geek Heaven Says:

    I’m of the same opinion that the search engines want to control the traffic as much as possible, and domain names take that away from them. I don’t think domain names will ever be eliminated since the really valuable ones (like the Candy.com example) will still get traffic with or without Google’s help.

    Long live the domains!

  9. TC Says:

    Lots of interesting truths here (IMO), however, it’s important to remember that google doesn’t own the content that it’s mashing up, scraping and earning $$ from. If it steps too far, webmasters can pull out and google has nothing but a search box with 0 results.

  10. Richard Says:

    Google controls how we perceive domains – for example, a few years ago .co.uk had little value relative to .com but is now almost essential for the Google.co.uk SERPS (a market Google created by launching Google.co.uk and then putting a high value on .co.uk domain names)

    As you say, Chrome is an attempt to remove the concept of a url from our minds.

  11. Rob Says:

    Even it it were true, big deal. It’s not going to happen. At the personal level people don’t want to give up their personal names obviously, and that will stop it alone.

    If you are looking for an argument on why not, here is an example. It’s just like the Feds. The U.S. Federal Government likes us to have our own names. It’s easier to keep track of us, and it’s easier to make an example out of the bigger names if they do something wrong. Search engines don’t want to be responsible for bad behavior.

    So search engines they need that same advantage as the Feds. They could try controlling everything and make us go through their channel, but the beauty of computers, everything is virtual. Don’t be surprised if you see “Internet Version 2, a Different WWW”. All it takes is a different network on a global scale, and I am sure something like that will be here before you know it.

  12. mdoherty Says:

    I hope you are wrong but I’m glad I saw this blog. Domain names currently hold so much value it would change the face of seo if search engines discounted them.

  13. Mark Says:

    Sorry. Ain’t gonna happen.

    When I want IBM’s website, I will ALWAYS type ibm.com into the url box. I will NEVER search it. Remove my ability to do navigate directly to the address and I think the lawyers will have a field day with everything from “unlawful taking” to “interference with prospective economic advantage” Oh – and just wait for the class actions from victims of phishing scams that could have been easily avoided!

    That’s like saying, remove all physical addresses and street signs from the houses and buildings and let the vehicle nav systems make their best guess at where you really intend to go.

    McFly!!!!

    John replies:  It won’t necessarily be Google who screws that IBM example up, Mark. You could just have easily said “hp” and been referencing the largest, most successful test electronics (and computer) company in the world. There was a time when HP was more important to test & measurement than IBM has been to computers. But you won’t be happy with hp.com, I guarantee it. And it’s not because of Google. HP is “all messed up” with brands, divisions,  and disjointed web publishing.  You need Google to find your HP stuff. The same can and will happen to IBM… look at the Thinkpad example, now 6 years or so into the Lenovo ownership? Domains are a mess… tech support through IBM, through Lenovo, through Thinkpad, subdomains, etc etc etc.

  14. Jay Tani kredyt Says:

    That’s an interesting article. Defenitely domains as search will gradually be marginalized, though I think that they’ll never be completely eliminated.

  15. deleted Says:

    I don’t think this is such good idea after all. I think that the best thing for search engines is to give people as many changes to advertise their sites and blogs as it is possible. The more elements and tools will be available for website owners the more money could search engines achieve. I think that search engines could earn more with not only commercials poping out of the screen but with more payed commercials. One or two of many kind could appear in results of any topic – the price of such commercial could be even ridiculously cheap, and based on search results of keyword.

  16. Ubezpieczenia Says:

    I don’t agree with it. I think that domain name (and url) is like a “Brandmark” of each site. Everyone whant to be reminded.

  17. Jerry Mark Says:

    I can’t understand one thing from your post “Google and domain owners are competitors” why the Google & Domain owners are competitors?

  18. anonymous Says:

    You know nothing, anyone can “idex” or bookmark a website without a “domain”. A domain is an easier way to remember your “ip” without a domain it would be hard to remember a website you wanted to go to. Domains will never go away, but the internet can be censored. Remember those search engines you are talking about are search engines only because of domains.

    John replies: Well, I doubt I “know nothing”, but thanks for the comment. Sounds like a comment from a domainer with limited vision of how the web actually works today. You see, that’s the point. if you care about success on the web, you have to care not only about the planned structure of the web (using domains and noting that blocking select domains is akin to censorship), but how it is IN REAL LIFE. Gripe all you want about Google’s bias, but Google is still biased. Go ahead and choose to fight that… but try not to be too blind to the truth or you might get hurt really bad.

    Here’s a challenge… hit the streets with a videocam and interview people. Tell them a 6 sentence story about a great new website, and mention the website domain 3 times during your pitch. Then ask them to name their 3 favorite websites. Ask them to name one website they visited in the past few days (any one). Then, ask them what was the name of the new website you told them about?

    I bet no one remembers your domain name.