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Top-level domains: What they are and how to use them

Top-level domains: What they are and how to use them

Learn how top-level domains, like .com or .org, signal to visitors what a website does, who it’s for, and whether it can be trusted.

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Top-level domains: What they are and how to use them

Top-level domains: What they are and how to use them

Learn how top-level domains, like .com or .org, signal to visitors what a website does, who it’s for, and whether it can be trusted.

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Written by
Sara Gates

What’s the difference: .com vs .org vs. .io vs .tech?

What do those final few letters at the end of your website address actually mean — and why do they matter?

Well for starters,those letters are all examples of top-level domains. And they can say a lot to your potential visitors about what your site does, who it’s for, and whether it can be trusted. 

Let’s take a closer look: 

What is a top-level domain (TLD)?

Top-level domains, also known as TLDs or domain extensions, are the final segment of your website domain. The most popular TLD is .com, but there are many others: .net, .edu, .org, and .tech, just to name a few.

TLDs don’t just appear out of thin air. Their development and usage are managed by an organization called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a non-profit that coordinates and maintains IP addresses, domain names, and root servers — basic functions that keep the global internet stable and navigable. 

Types and examples of top-level domains

There are a handful of types of TLDs that ICANN recognizes and manages, each with different purposes and registry requirements. If you really want to dig deep, the ICANN website maintains a list of all valid top-level domains

gTLD: Generic Top-Level Domains

Generic TLDs are the domain extensions you’re already familiar with, such as .com and .org. While the intent is for a website to use a domain relevant to its purpose — like .com for a commercial business and .org for an organization — gTLDs are available to anyone. 

In the earlier days of the internet, there were only three gTLDs available: .com, .org, and .net. As demand grew, ICANN developed more open domain extensions, and as of 2011, started permitting companies or individuals to register their own branded gTLDs. 

While .com is still the most common gTLD by far, more unusual gTLDs are growing in popularity. That’s why you’ll see Canon using global.canon, Fage using usa.fage, or business websites ending in .team, .pizza, .dog, or other “novelty” gTLDs.

sTLD: Sponsored Top-Level Domains

Certain TLDs are restricted to specific types of entities, like .gov (used by the US government), .edu (used by accredited colleges and universities), and .mil (used by the US military). 

ccTLD: Country Code Top-Level Domains

These domains represent countries, such as .us (USA), .uk (United Kingdom), and .br (Brazil). Some of these TLDs are restricted to residents of the area, while others are open. Google and other search engines may use ccTLDs to geotarget your website. 

Other types of TLDs

There are a few other TLD types that are less common or reserved for specific purposes, like infrastructure (.arpa) or testing (.test, .invalid, .example, or .localhost).  

How domain extensions impact customer trust and experience

At the end of the day, domain extensions give your website visitors information about what to expect when they come to your site. For example, typing in companyname.io suggests you’re about to visit a tech company’s website, while going to companyname.pizza implies it might be to order dinner. 

Beyond common-sense relevancy, though, TLDs can play a big role in customer trust. There’s a long history of .com domains being perceived as more legitimate, while TLDs like .biz, .zip, or .review  may be seen as more likely to be “scammy” or untrustworthy. And since customers are more likely to click on or visit links that they trust, this perception matters. 

It’s also important that your would-be website visitors can remember your site’s URL. Since .com is the most popular domain extension, it also tends to be the most memorable, and people may even assume that’s your site TLD when they go to look you up online. Most mobile browsers even auto-suggest .com when users are typing in a URL. 

According to one study, .com is rated as the most trustworthy domain extension by users (3.5 out of 5) and earned the highest marks for memorability (44%). The .co TLD came in second on both metrics (3.4 and 33%, respectively), and .biz was the least-trusted (2.9). 

How TLDs impact SEO

Search engines like Google obviously catalog and display top-level domains, but you won’t see a direct relationship between search rankings and TLDs. This means Google’s algorithms will treat a .com just the same as a .pizza when it comes to crawling, indexing, and sending traffic — all else being equal. However, keep in mind that customer trust and perception impacts click-through rate, and click-through rate absolutely impacts SEO efforts.

There is a technical reason to pay attention to top-level domains and SEO: the profile of your backlink TLDs. You want quality sites to link back to your pages, and .gov or .edu sites are likely to carry more authority than a .biz or .info site. Monitor your backlinks, and if you see a high volume of spammy TLDs, you may need to consider disavowing those links.

Choosing the right TLD for your website

Selecting the right top-level domain for your site depends on your company or organization’s purpose. But generally speaking, if the .com for your brand or company name is available, it’s probably best to snatch it up. 

Given the tremendous popularity and limited supply of .com domains, you may not be able to find — or afford — a relevant option for your site. If that’s the case, consider the following alternatives:

  • If you’re building a site for a non-profit or community group, using the .org for your organization name is a safe bet. 
  • If your site is localized, you may be able to use the ccTLD or a city-specific TLD, like .miami or .nyc.
  • Look for industry-appropriate TLDs you can adopt, such as .io, .ai, .store, or .team. (Just keep in mind that tech-related domains tend to be more expensive.) 

If none of these cases apply, creative yet relevant top-level domains like .pizza or .fish could be a clever alternative. While you may trade off in memorability or recognition, a unique TLD might be a better fit than settling for an irrelevant, bland, or lengthy .com domain. 

And if you need more ideas, you can always use a domain name generator to help brainstorm.

Changing your TLD

If you want to change your TLD, you can — but migrating your entire site to a new domain does present some SEO risks. So you’ll need to plan carefully to create a new sitemap, implement proper 301 redirects, and submit your old and new sitemaps to search engines for faster crawling. 

This process can be quite complex, especially if your site has a lot of content, so be thoughtful and make sure the benefits of changing your TLD outweigh the costs and risks.

Ready to get started? Check out our guide to buying a custom domain and connecting your domain to your Webflow site

SEO and Webflow: the essential guide

Get 13 need-to know tips on website SEO — whether or not you use Webflow.

Get SEO smart
SEO and Webflow: the essential guide

Get 13 need-to know tips on website SEO — whether or not you use Webflow.

Get SEO smart
Get SEO smart
Last Updated
April 26, 2022
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