For the past several months there has been a lot of talk and speculation as to whether or not ICANN will be opening up their gTLD-global top-level domain(extension)-registration in late 2010. ICANN stands for 'Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers' and is essentially the Internet's governing body, focusing specifically on domain registration. If ICANN's new gTLD program launches as planned, in late 2010 corporations, interest groups, cities and anyone else who has the financial means can apply to have a custom domain extension created. This doesn't come easily, however. ICANN's gTLD application fee is set at $186,000, not including the infrastructure and legal support needed to successfully launch a new domain extension. It is reported that several large corporations including as BMW(.bmw) and EBAY(.ebay) are already planning on creating their custom gTLDs.
What does this mean for search engine rankings?
While Google has not disclosed whether or not they give preference or weight to different global domain extensions, they have acknowledged associating country-specific domain extensions to their respective region in search.
As part of a post regarding Google's new Webmaster Tools, they released a brief statement on the subject. "If your site targets users in a particular location, you can provide us with information that will help determine how your site appears in our country-specific search results, and also improve our search results for geographic queries. You can only use this feature for sites with a neutral top-level domain, such as .com or .org. Country-specific domains, such as .ie or .fr, are already associated with a country or region."
Despite Google's overall silence on the issue, there are debates that certain domains such as .edu and .gov are more trusted than others and therefore receive higher rankings. Others argue that .edu and .gov websites often have a very high number of backlinks which create high rankings and the illusion of search engine preference. Either way, one can't ignore the possibilities that ICANN's new gTLD program may bring to search.
Google already hints to giving geo-targeted preference to country-specific domains, a promising concept for the large cities (New York, Paris) considering their own TLD. If New York secures .nyc, registering a domain with this extension may become crucial to small businesses staying afloat in local (New York) searches. There have also been speculations that search engines will begin considering keywords found in specific domain extensions. For example, a global initiative in the hospitality industry is pushing to have the TLD .hotel created for use by hotels around the world. With an estimated 100,000 domain names registered each year with the keyword "hotel" inside, having an extension of .hotel would eliminate the need to include this keyword in the root domain and in return would create a loss of a major on-site ranking factor for Google. Some speculate that Google will offset this by factoring in the TLD.
Although ICANN's program is not scheduled to launch until the end of 2010, staying on top of the issue may prove critical for businesses and search engine marketers alike. To keep up with ICANN's latest gTLD news, visit http://icann.org/en/topics/new-gtld-program.htm.