It looks like Google may send traffic your way for domain names you don't even own. How?
First, a little background. Over here in Holland, there has been some hubbub about the "Nederlandse Publieke Omroep" (the Dutch Public Broadcasting Company), most generally known as "NPO" - a government organisation - buying the domain name npo.nl for 100.000 euros. From a group of pigeon owners. Using tax payers' money.
According to a spokesperson, the reason for buying the domainname was "findability". My respected colleague from Dutch Open Projects, Bert Boerland, had this to say on Twitter:
npo.nl nodig voor vindbaarheid… het idee… dat een domainnaam IETS met vindbaarheid te maken heeft volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2694/Int…
— bert boerland (@bertboerland) April 3, 2012
Roughly translated: "npo.nl required for findability... the idea that a domain name would have ANYTHING to do with findability..."
Findability, if you mean searchability, i.e. finding a site in a search engine like Google, indeed not so much. If the NPO decides to start using the npo.nl domain name as their primary domain (i.e. they redirect all traffic to their other domain names to this new domain), they might even rank a little higher on the actual acronym NPO. Also, it's a little shorter than their current domain, publiekeomroep.nl. If they simply redirect the domain to their existing domain it's unlikely to do much.
But, concentrating purely on SEO considerations, there is one factor being overlooked, and that is people entering a domain name into their address bar. One point for NPO.
But how many people actually do that? There seems to be a trend that people simply start out at Google and type anything into its search box. Even domain names. For illustration, have a look at this interesting video of Chris Pirillo's dad using Mac OS X. I think he actually uses the Google search box as an address bar at some point, although I couldn't find it. In either case, the first bit of the video is actually sufficient illustration that he is completely unaware of the address bar or at the very least it's far from ingrained in his surfing behaviour. (Anyone who uses it regularly or even once in a while would have gone to Google by typing google.com in the address bar). I also have enough anecdotal evidence that other people do this. (And why not? It's the strength of Chrome's smart bar; just type anything in it, and you'll get what you want; site, or Google search).
So, time for a little experiment. As you may know, I maintain the website for a fairly large auto club here in the Netherlands, the Mini Seven Club Nederland. It lives on the domain minisevenclub.nl, but I would some day like to get my hands on the domain mscn.nl, just for those people that may guess it is our domain. Also, it might be nice for our own short URL service. I certainly won't pay 100.000 euros for it, and I'll probably just wait if it expires sometime. But Bert's tweet got me thinking; what would happen if I typed "mscn.nl" in Google's search bar?
Now, in all fairness, the domain isn't actually active, at the moment, i.e. there is no site behind it, which might mean Google favours a different site that scores on the term(s) in the domain name. But interesting none the less.