It has come to our attention via one of our clients that the DVLA, the UK’s government body for vehicle registration data and licensing, has recently moved its commercial personal (private) registration number sales website from its own domain (dvlaregistrations.co.uk) to dvlaregistrations.direct.gov.uk. Indeed, they have followed best SEO practice by making this a permanent 301 redirect.
This raises a serious concern – DVLA Registrations is a commercial entity selling “private” car registrations, putting it in direct competition with numerous other resellers (who all have access to the same DVLA database of registrations). Now that in itself raises a query about whether the government should be competing in an open market, but our particular issue is with the move to the direct.gov.uk domain.
The problem lies with the inherent authority that a .gov.uk domain possesses and the rules regarding use of a .gov.uk. By making dvlaregistrations a sub-domain of direct.gov.uk, the site effectively becomes part of the direct.gov.uk website and thus in the eyes of search engines, benefits from its authority – the links, history and other factors that determine how much trust a search engine should place in any website. So for example, the DVLA Registrations site has gone from its own domain with 828 links to direct.gov.uk with over 4 million links!
The net effect is that the site has rocketed up the search results for numerous competitive keywords in this industry and the private companies competing are losing out as a result. We are told by our client that several companies have noticed a significant drop in sales. The questions is – should the DVLA have been allowed to do this? The rules on the use of .gov.uk domains are quite clear – no private or charitable organisations. Of course, it doesn’t state “no commerical entities” and that is how they will argue around their own rules. DVLA Registrations appears to be part of the DVLA, not a separate company, so it’s isn’t a private organisation.
So there is no rule or law against this, but it seems pretty naughty to me. There is a big push by the government to reduce the number of domains it uses and push most people to Direct.gov.uk or one of the other hub sites (HMRC etc.), but I don’t think that justifies this move – it’s pretty obvious that some SEO-type suggested how this might benefit the site, which it has certainly done at the expense of companies already operating in choppy market waters.
Of course, this kind of thing can be an issue for many industries – all it takes is a big player with domain authority (a well-known supermarket, Amazon, a university) to move into your area of business and suddenly there’s an 800 pound gorilla playing in your park. This is why it’s so important to try and build your own domain authority – good old fashioned link building and now, social media mentions and links too, so that your own site stands a chance against the big boys. Not easy, but the only defence in Google’s world – this is what they mean when they say “brand”; lots of links from a diverse range of places, lots of mentions and activity around the brand on other sites (i.e. social media) and presumably plenty of people searching for that brand on Google. SEO isn’t just about keywords in a few of the right places!