Bill Hartzer

Google Removing Domain Names From Search Results Increases Internet User Vulnerability

On Thursday, April 16, 2015, Google announced that they are beginning to remove the domain name from the mobile search results. Rather than displaying a URL in the search results or a domain name, Google has begun to display a website name or a website name and a breadcrumb of the website’s page. Domain names generally have been removed from the mobile search results. This move by Google is wrong, and ultimately increases internet user vulnerability to potential fraud and deception. Furthermore, it undermines the whole entire Domain Name System as we know it.

A simple search for “best domain names” using in iPhone, shown below, is a good example of this.

The same search query, on a desktop (a Macbook Pro Laptop) reveals a different search result, showing the domain names in the search results:

As you can see, the mobile search results don’t display domain names. There are a few cases where a domain name will show up on a mobile device in Google’s mobile search results, like for HTTPs sites. I have confirmed with a contact at Google that this is actually a “bug” and HTTPs sites are actually supposed to be included in this removal of domain names on mobile SERPs, and last time I heard they were going to get it fixed.

What Google Tells Site Owners
Rather than displaying a URL in the search results or a domain name, Google recommending that website owners use “a website name instead of domain name”, signaled by schema.org markup code. Simply put, website owners can choose their website name that may be displayed, rather than use a domain name in the mobile search results. It is still up to Google as to whether or not the domain name or a website name is used, but given this new option, most likely it is suspected that Google will use the website name that the website owner chooses.

Google points out, in their official announcement, that they have site name requirements (https://developers.google.com/structured-data/site-name). Some of the Site name requirements specifically mention domain names:

– Be reasonably similar to your domain name
– Be a natural name used to refer to the site, such as “Google,” rather than “Google, Inc.”
– Be unique to your site—not used by some other site
– Not be a misleading description of your site

While I recommend using structured data on your website, the option to include (or change) your site name in the search results is nonessential, redundant, and gratuitous. The search engines can obtain a websites name from other data provided, such information in a Title Tag, site content, or even information provided near a copyright statement on the website.

Allowing the website owner to choose their website name for display in the search results where the domain name is completely removed from display opens up the search results to fraud and deception. Simply put, dishonest website owners can choose a website name that does not describe the website or is fraudulent: a website owner could pretend to be another “brand”, fraudulently leading visitors to think that their website is another website or brand.

According to one of my sources, Google is fairly confident that there is (or will be) a strong enforcement program to prevent bad behavior.

I talked to my mother-in-law, and she did a few searches on her mobile phone, including a search for “best domain names”. We talked about those mobile search results, and she was concerned. “It’s just not right that they don’t include domain names. I don’t know what I’m clicking on..” was her comment.

To an extent, my mother-in-law is right. If we are searching for a restaurant’s website, if the domain name isn’t displayed, we don’t know if we are click on the restaurant’s website or a review of that restaurant, on another domain name.

The Domain Name System
The current system, the Domain Name System, allows for only one website to be associated with one unique domain name. When seeing a URL, i.e., a specific domain name in the search results, Internet users are more likely to click that search result when they recognize and trust that domain name. By removing domain names entirely from the search results, Google is compromising the trust that Internet users have in the Domain Name System.

According to the Domain Name Association, a “recent survey by security experts NCC Group indicated clearly that Internet users trust search results when they can examine the web address before clicking on the result. Search results without the additional indicia of authenticity provided by the web address are at the bottom of the trust pile.

Users most trust websites accessed through bookmarks. Sites accessed by typing the web addresses are the second most trusted source of information, followed by search results when the user can verify the destination by the web address or other indicia of reliability that accompanies the search results. Only 25% of Internet users trust search results without something more.”

A recent global Domain Name Preference survey conducted by the Domain Name Association in 10 countries indicated that 81% of Internet users check the web address before clicking on a search result.

There is a reason why Internet users don’t trust these new mobile search results, without domain names. These are some of the comments posted to the Google blog announcing the change and other blogs:

“This is not good for who spend nights creating good content and such great news for spammers.

“ This is a bit like telling people to have blind trust and just click the link sending them to a domain they don’t know and hope for the best.”

“Google said for years that building up trust for your website/domain name was very important so people knew they could trust going to certain sites found in search results.”

“As I understand it, the best element to check fake sites (the URL) will be hidden!”

“Not being able to see the domain means I cannot tell what site I am on for sure.”

“I want to know the URL I am visiting. In some cases, you cannot even tell what company it is by the “Real Name” especially when not in the title and what if I never heard of the company how does this help me? … I am sure the spammers will have a field day with this.”

“Trust is an issue. Black hat Search Engine Optimizers will stuff their site’s Internet address with keywords… So the breadcrumbs will say ‘Guaranteed Weight Loss. Fastest Results. Money Back Guarantee.’”

“This will denigrate the ability of SMEs to compete. Many SMEs barely comprehend what a domain or webserver is, let alone adding meta info to the web address to generate quality breadcrumbs, and changing your menu structure is so difficult for most site owners.”

“Spammers and phishers are going to love this. —- Right. Spammers. Phishers. Hackers.”

“This is a bit like telling people to have blind trust and just click the link sending them to a domain they don’t know and hope for the best. We all know that many searchers also pay attention to the domain name they are being sent too as they are trustworthy.”

At the end of the day, Internet users will have lost a valuable tool for safely navigating the Internet and Trademark owners will be more open to abuse. Removing domain names from search results undermines the entire Domain Name System as we know it.

Added:
CSC’s Digital Brand Services has a great post on their blog that gives some recommendations about how to deal with this change by Google:

“From CSC’s perspective there are two important issues for brand owners to consider:

1. Naming. The new format can lead to deceptive naming practices that could result in fraud, phishing and brand abuse, as well as competition with other trademark owners seeking the same company, product or service name breadcrumb. We encourage brand owners to monitor mobile search results, work with their website administrators to take action and develop a naming strategy to make sure search results are clear.
2. Traffic costs. This trend may be part of Google’s attempt to drive more traffic through its search engine. For brands, this could impact direct navigation to websites and lead to increased competition in search, potentially increasing search marketing costs and impacting online revenue. CSC encourages brand owners to stay connected with their customers by promoting their primary domain names and apps to drive traffic directly to their own web properties.”

I agree with CSC, there is the potential for deceptive naming practices. You need to monitor the search results and, especially for companies that have affiliates, make sure that your affiliates are not deceptively trying to manipulate this.

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