Good afternoon RocketMill, and hello wherever you are watching along online. Philpott’s back, back again, tell a friend. Really, please do tell your friends…
This month, I want to talk to you about something topical. It’s always nice when SEO and the news collide because, as a marketer, it really is crucial to understand how global events and current affairs can impact your business. As an industry, marketing’s experiencing this at the moment through an eye of a needle with the relative GDPR legislation. But there is something else on the horizon which you might not have considered as having a big SEO impact, but it really could.
Why you need to migrate your website ASAP
And that’s why my talk today is called: “Brexit and SEO: Why you might need to migrate before Britain leaves the EU”. Now, before you start throwing rotten vegetables at me – and I’m looking at you in particular Helen – I’m talking about migrating your websites.
As I’m sure you are well aware, on the 29th of March next year, Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union. And when you hear about Brexit and politicians arguing for the best deal for their citizens, the news tends to focus on the free movement of people, and the free movement of goods, but it doesn’t tend to focus on the free movement of data and the impact that Brexit will have on digital as a whole. And so, with that in mind, it was quite interesting that one year after the UK signed article 50 and made it clear that they would be leaving the European Union, there was a somewhat unexpected announcement from – and forgive me, I’m going to have to take a deep breath here and just check my notes – the European Commission Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology, who as you can see have quite a broad remit! Amongst their responsibilities is looking after the official top-level domain of the European Union .EU.
What are the different parts of a website address?
And before I go any further, here is a quick refresher on the different parts of a website address, and in particular, what is a top-level domain.
So, here is the URL of the RocketMill website home page. And I’ll break it down into different parts for you. We start with a protocol, https, that tells the browser and the server to communicate over a secure connection and to send webpage assets.
We then have www., which in this case is the sub domain. Strictly speaking, we don’t need it, but it’s the de facto and it’s conventional, so we do tend to use it.
And then afterwards, we have the domain. That is the unique identifier of every single website on the internet. And within that, we have our top-level domain, or TLD. In this case, a cc TLD, a country code Top Level Domain. Now in Britain, we tend to pair this with “.co” or “.org” or something like that to make what’s known as a second level domain, but it has been entirely possible to redistribute .UK domains in isolation since June of 2014.
Now, that’s just one example of a TLD. Can you shout out any others? .com, .ie, .ac, .UK – that’s a second level. Actually, AC exists in a country code in its own right, it’s quite interesting.
Anyway, there are, believe it or not, 1544 different TLDs. That’s according to ICANN who oversee the technical bedrock of the internet. I’ve chosen just a few to give you an idea of their scale and diversity, some more salubrious than others.
I want to pull your attention though to just two, .EU and .SU. So, you can probably guess that EU stands for European Union. But everyone other than John Troung , what does SU stand for? Anyone? Think unions that may have existed over time. It is absolutely the Soviet Union.
Now this CC TLD was assigned in September 1990 for companies operating in the then USSR. However, on Boxing Day of the following year, the union ceased to exist. Despite this, Russia asked to keep its fledgling TLD for reasons ranging from commercial, to political, to patriotic. And indeed, the .SU domain is intact. And approximately 130,000 domains are still hosted on .SU, that’s the latest figure I could find from a guardian in 2013.
And as you can see, this is where you would go to register one, FID.SU, they’re the administrator. The key takeaway from these few slides is that, as our world changes, a precedent has been set to continue support for websites which use legacy top-level domains; CC TLDs. And so that makes the latest missive from the European Commission in Brussels especially interesting, and for British citizens and British businesses, rather worrying.
What will happen to the .EU domains?
So, what will happen to .EU domains after Brexit? Well, as it stands, the latest news we have is that if you are not otherwise in the EU, UK citizens and businesses will no longer be eligible to hold a .EU domain after Britain leaves the European Union. That means you won’t be able to register any new top-level domains with .EU, or indeed renew any which you already own.
Furthermore, the European Commission will have the right to revoke .EU domains registered in the UK straight away after Brexit with no right to appeal. Now, I must of course add that this is subject to any transitional arrangements which are decided between the EU and the UK. However, that does put just over 317,000 domains at risk.
Just to give you a stat here, one in every 12 EU domains is registered in the United Kingdom, with only Germany, the Netherlands and France owning more. Now, our government are aware of this. In fact, the European Scrutiny Common Select Committee met in January 2013 to ask the government for clarification, in effect, on the continuing rights of UK citizens to register .EU domains after Brexit. And you can just about see on the slide, they asked for confirmation of this by the 28th of February 2018. Clearly that deadline has now passed, and Brussels are putting their foot down and making it clear that UK citizens and UK businesses need to take this into account. Furthermore, I think that could be the tip of the iceberg.
Other TLDs might be affected
“.EU” might just be the beginning here because there are other CC TLDs which can only be registered in the European Union or in the European Economic Area, the EEA, which we would forfeit if we left the single market.
So here are a few of them. Six belong to France in some way, and to be honest, the ramifications for the UK are fairly niche. So, for instance, you might use .RE from Reunion for your short code. I’m glad you appreciated my GCSE French. You might use .TF if you’re a player of Team Fortress Two. So, it’s all quite niche, and actually not that big an impact.
The big fish, however, is Italy, because their .IT CC TLD is used creatively by Information Technology companies amongst others. And, in fact, .IT domains owned by UK individuals and businesses are very much on the rise. Almost a quarter more were registered in 2017 than in 2012. So far this year, the UK has registered around about 6000 brand new .IT domains. And furthermore, they’ve renewed another eleven and a half thousand.
These are all at risk of being annulled after Great Britain leaves the European Union. Ironically, that means that if Brex technology was not registered in Sardinia, but actually registered in Sully Hall, the domain Brex.it would be at risk after Brexit.
What to do if your website uses a European-only domain
So, what should you do if your website uses a European only domain? You have three options.
Carry on registering within the EU
The first of which is just to carry on registering your domain within the EU.
If you can’t stay in the EU, maybe you have an Irish passport, or an Italian or French office, move your domain ownership away from the UK and you’ll be able to register and renew as you did before.
There is a wildcard option here and that comes from one of my favourite countries, Estonia. Yes, Estonia. I love it for several reasons. The first of which is that if you write all the letters of the English alphabet in order of frequency of usage, the seven most popular letters in the English alphabet are an anagram of Estonia. And that’s probably why I chose to acknowledge that by going on countdown, in 2004, dressed as the Estonian flag. Admittedly, the stripes are in the wrong order. It’s really close to their variant Nordic Cross design. But the key think to bear in mind is Estonia is a very forward-thinking country, to the extent that you can become a digital-only resident of Estonia. You never have to visit. All you have to do is send off a few bits of air mail, a few online forms, bish bash bosh, you are a resident of Estonia.
Migrate to a generic TLD
The second option, if you want a more sensible approach, if you don’t want your domain to be lost after Brexit, is to migrate your website to a generic top level domain, or to use the CC TLD of the country where you are based.
See what happens…
Your final option is to think back to Shaun of the Dead, channel Simon Pegg, and go to the Winchester until this all blows over. I’d just like to apologise for the quality of this gif. I couldn’t get my Shaun of the Dead Blu ray to rip. So, you’ve only got 576 lines of copyright infringement.
The key takeaway is the government is devising legislation for continuity after Brexit on a number of levels, and it’s not really surprising, but the top-level domain is not top of the agenda. If we do have to forfeit our right to register .EU in the UK, there would probably be a transitional period.
And again, that has some precedent. So .YU was assigned to Yugoslavia. That was no longer necessary when Serbia and Montenegro became separate countries and their residents had two and a half years to move to a new domain.
So, three options, what do we normally recommend to our clients? If someone was to come to us and say: “Protect our website after Brexit Chris,” what would we suggest?
Consolidating international domains
Typically, we are going to recommend consolidating all of your international domains into a single domain with a generic TLD. So what does that look like? Let’s imagine that RocketMill expanded beyond Brighton and opened offices in Berlin and Bologna. My Italian no better than my French. It wouldn’t be sensible to host our new German and Italian content on a .co.uk domain, the reason being that we would lose international search visibility. It just wouldn’t be clear. We could move to a generic top-level domain and create sub folders for each language.
This brings several benefits. First of which is reduced maintenance, reduced costs, there’s only one domain, there’s no need to worry about domain squatting. So, if we want to launch in another country, we don’t need to bear in mind that someone might have already registered that top-level domain with RocketMill in front. We just make a new sub folder. Links to our website aren’t being spread across multiple domains. They’re amalgamating in one single node of the internet.
And finally, it’s very easy to set up geo targeting at a sub directory level in Google Search Console. So, it’s easy from an SEO perspective. We could go a step further still and use one of the new generic top-level domains to highlight our industry.
However, bear in mind that your TLD does not count towards your keyword optimisation in the eyes of Google, and probably other search engines. So, what does that mean in practise? It’s a bit of a cautionary note and it’s important because it should affect the domain name you choose for your business.
For example, let’s imagine you run a music shop. And you are chuffed that you have bought the domain “buy.guitars”. Remember, Google does not count key words in your TLD, ergo this is roughly equivalent to “buy.com”, which isn’t going to be very helpful if someone searches for buy guitars.
Why you need to act now
Anyway, in summary of today’s talk, the European Commission has the right to switch off UK owned .EU domains as soon as Britain leaves the EU. It’s unclear whether other European TLDs, such as .IT, will be available for UK citizens and businesses to register after Brexit. The government are aware of this and are, of course, working on a smooth transition away from the EU, but their focus is on trade, commerce, migration. It’s very unlikely that digital is front of mind.
And so, if you have a European top-level domain, and you don’t want to risk your website being switched off after Brexit, I’m afraid you need to act now.