The .edu and .gov myth?

One of the theories that has been gaining ground and generating discussion in the seo community is that links from .edu and .gov sites carry more weight. The main theory goes that since both domains have requirements in order to get one that the search engines consider them a more trustworthy link. But is that really the case? Are .edu and .gov domains better than the ordinary .coms and .nets of the world? Not according to Matt Cutts.

The first time someone asked me if either extension carried more weight my response was ‘only if they are related to your site.’ I held that belief for quite some time, but in recent months I’ve been seeing so many respected SEOs place their faith in .edu and .gov extensions that I must admit I’ve been getting drawn into believing them myself. Where I had once seen them as no different than other domain and a link from one no different than a link from any other site, I was beginning to think that maybe there was something to them after all. If so many in the community were seeing them as special who was I to disagree. Then along comes Matt Cutts to bring me back to where I started.

Apparently when I posted a few days ago Matt wasn’t done with the video response to the grab bag questions. The 10th and most recent to be posted is called Lightning Round and toward the end of the 5 minute video Matt makes mention of the two sought after TLDs (top level domain), and stating that neither TLD carries any extra weight with Google. In fact he says no specific domain carries any more weight than another based solely on the domain itself, not even the exalted DMOZ.

Now there are always going to be those that think Mr. Cutts is just putting out spin for Google. I’m not one of those people. I’m sure he gets some things wrong, but as I’ve said in the past I do think he’s an honest guy and trying to help. And I tend to believe him more often than not. It is important that the word of Matt isn’t seo law. He himself makes disclaimers that his comments are his opinion and not Google policy, and he fully admits he makes mistakes at times. He does usually try to clear them up later when he does, though. Matt also has no association with Yahoo, MSN, Ask, or any other search engines so just because he says Google doesn’t give special consideration to something doesn’t mean another engine won’t give it weight. Still I’m going back to what my instinct told me from the beginning. There is nothing automatically special about certain TLD extensions.

The .edu .gov Theory

Back to the theory. .edu and .gov domains are not easy to get. Neither is .mil, which is also part of the discussion though a little less since it’s much harder to get a link from a .mil site. They all require a lot more forms and validation than the typical commercial domains. Because the process is a stringent one the thought is they’re more trusted. They also tend to be seen as authority sites, which will typically carry more weight than just any old site. After all we’re more likely to believe an MIT professor about mathematics than we would the owner of the local 7-11.

Another part of the theory is you simply don’t get a link from those trusted TLDs by submitting your site to them. They’re not like a directory or getting a reciprocal link. The thought is a link from either is more of a natural link, one you earned and not one you asked to get. Additionally the sites on .edu and .gov domains are very likely to still be there a few years down the road. That’s not something we can say about every .com. I feel safe saying Harvard University isn’t going anywhere in my lifetime. I’m much less sure about my neighbor’s website selling his vacation slides. His site might be there in a few years, but the smart money is on Harvard.

The .edu .gov Myth

On the other side many argue that just because they are hard to get is no reason to think they’re any better. Not every .edu is a quality page. The most obvious example is that nearly every student in the U.S. has a page with a .edu extension. Those pages are not all winners. A few students could easily get themselves and their friends from other universities to all link to certain pages and manipulate search results for those pages. Sites also exist with .edu domains that were acquired before today’s process for getting one was in place. Those early .edu domains were not held to the same high standards they would be today.

Considering the links from student pages again, the links aren’t permanent. They’re there now and gone at the latest when the student leaves the school or transfers elsewhere. Particularly with Google permanence or longer term links matter. Not all educational institutions receive .edu domains. .edu is a U.S thing. The universities in other countries will have different extensions. Similarly .gov is U.S only and other countries will use different extensions for government sites. Giving .edu and .gov more weight gives the U.S. an unfair advantage. Of course some will probably say we get so many advantages here why not one more.

A Reasonable Explanation

There really isn’t any direct evidence that .edu, .gov, and .mil domains carry more weight, but in order for the theory to get discussed the way it has someone must have noticed something corollary. So what’s a reasonable explanation? If you watched the Matt Cutts video he gives a good one for why it may be more valuable to have links from these domains.

Because many .edu and .gov sites are authority and trusted sites they tend to get a lot of links pointing to them. Think of the site whitehouse.gov. Yahoo is showing almost 3 million links pointing to the domain. The site shows a toolbar PR of 9. It’s probably a good site to have linking to yours, but it’s not necessarily because of the .gov extension. Stanford.edu has just over 2 million links pointing to the domain and a PR of 9 as well. Another good link I’d say. But is it because of the TLD or because of all those other links pointing to it.

So what does it all mean for .edu and .gov sites? Assuming you accept the explanation above it puts them right back with any other link you might get. Some are going to be better than others. A link from the home page of the Stanford University site is going to be better than a link from a student page at a community college. If your site deals with politics getting the white house to link to you is pretty good and something you should certainly celebrate. But getting links from .edu and .gov domains solely because of the extension isn’t really such a big deal.

Something tells me the debate is far from over and that many of this week’s threads at seo forums around the web will be devoted to this very subject. I’ll read and listen to the arguments and keep my mind open as always, but I’ll also remind myself not to get too caught up in the discussion. Not like I was getting many .edu or .gov links in the first place.

Resources

Thought I’d leave you with a couple of forum threads from the last couple of months debating the issue. You can see both the arguments for and against and also the usual polarization between SEOs that occurs with just about any theory or rumor in the industry. There are plenty more forum threads out there about .edu and .gov links if you want to search, but these were two of the more interesting ones.

.edu And Gov Links – Highrankings
Weight of .gov links – Cre8asite Forums

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3 comments

  1. I was quite pleased when i see Matt Cutts was going to let us know if .gov or .edu domains were more trusted, I was also pleased to hear that they are not.

    It makes sense that they become authoritive sites because they usually have good content and attract good backlinks, But it’s nice to know google doesn’t automaticaly trust them more than a regular .com or .net.

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