Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Domain Name Free-For-All

With ICANN announcing that, with the cost of application starting at a mere $185,000.00, you can purchase your own top-level domain (TLD), we will soon experience a dizzying array of alternatives to the traditional TLD's (principally .com, .net, .org, .gov, .edu, .mil, and country domain names). I heard an ICANN representative declaring that soon we'll have .pizza and .movie TLD's, and I suspect he's correct, but... to what end? For example, will a single pizza company acquire the .pizza TLD, or will a third party acquire it and try to convince all of the world's pizza shops that listing their store as .pizza is a business necessity? Companies that presently attempt to manage trademark and reputation issues by purchasing domain names on the most common TLD's will... realistically speaking, have to throw up their hands in despair.

ICANN is promising to police new TLD's for name confusion, and promises also to try to keep past domain squatters and typosquatters from obtaining TLD's. Beyond obvious typos, good luck with that. If I want a TLD for nefarious purposes and fear that ICANN is going to deny my application due to my identity, I'll obtain it through a proxy. Some TLD's will be worth millions from day one - abuse is inevitable.

I do suspect that the new rules will have an impact on domainers who sit on single or double keyword domain names, as I expect that the changes will accelerate the use of "OneBox"-style navigation on browsers. Unless you type in an exact domain name the text you enter will be treated as a search instead of defaulting to (keywords . com) as was once the case. But beyond that, I expect that it will improve the value of established sites on .com domain names - because with few exceptions I think that a proliferation of TLD's will serve primarily to confuse consumers and that, just as they did when .com, .net, .org, .info and the like became competitors to .com, they'll either default toward .com or defer to a search engine. (When was the last time you intentionally browsed to, or even notices that you were using, a ".info" domain? How about ".aero"? Did you even know those TLD's exist?)

Why, you ask, wouldn't it make sense for people to type in a new TLD associated with a particular business or profession? Let's say a new ".law" TLD is created - why wouldn't people looking for lawyers or legal information gravitate to that TLD? Well, what if there's also ".legal", ".lawyer", ".attorney", ".lex", ".atty", ".lawhelp", ".lawinfo", etc.? What if the owner of .law charges an exorbitant rate for registrations, to recover the six to seven figures invested in acquiring that TLD? (Similarly, I'm not sure if ICANN's rules would deem ".car" and ".cars" too similar, but what about ".auto", ".vehicle," ".suv", ".truck", ".automobile", ".wheels", ".motorcar", etc. - the "non-confusing" variations quickly become overwhelming.)

The biggest winners here, I suspect, will be ICANN and the search engines. ICANN will take in millions in fees to review applications, and each approval will make ordinary people more dependent upon search engines to guide them to valuable online information. Second, unless the OneBox solutions are implemented across the major browsers, typosquatters will likely fare well. Third, people who have not been able to get memorable domain names should be able to obtain better names, but subject to TLD confusion - they will get better domains, but may lose some traffic to the ".com" variation. (Sites that used TLD's in a clever way, such as del.icio.us, still typically found it beneficial to acquire the .com variant once funds were available to do so.)

The biggest losers, I expect, will be people who have been sitting on "high value" domain names without developing them, in anticipation that their value will only rise with time. People who rely upon generic keyword traffic based upon their domain name as opposed to their site content will likely see that traffic siphoned away by an increased number of low-content sites competing for the same keywords. And the average person hoping to make some sense of the web behind, "if the business I'm looking for is truly important it probably owns the .com".

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