The mushroom cloud of gTLDs
ICANN is going full steam ahead with the expansion of generic top-level domain names (gTLDs), and soon, instead of having 14 gTLDs to contend with, we could have over 2,000.
The Top Level Domain is the last part of a domain name, such as dot com, dot net or dot org. When domain names were first created it was conceived that they would predominantly end with country codes, like dot UK or dot DE, with a few generic non-geographic names for global organisations. Unfortunately, businesses and organisations in the USA never bothered to use their dot US country code, instead deciding that all US companies, from the biggest corporation to the smallest burger van, were global, and there has been a scramble for domain names ever since. Added to that, domain names have turned into a lucrative business and are sold on a first-come first-served basis, with little or no regard for rights to the name or regulation.
ICANN's global solution to the name shortage is to allow the creation of more gTLDs. It has allowed major companies and organisations to apply to create and operate new gTLDs, and sell domains with those gTLD suffixes. Organisations which applied had to pay an advance and non-refundable fee of $185,000 per gTLD they applied for. ICANN, a not for profit organisation, has received more than 2,000 applications, and therefore received in excess of $350 million in fees. Despite that huge amount of cash slushing about to finance it, ICANN still had problems with its website during the application process, with numerous security problems such as inadvertently revealing the home addresses and contact information of the applicants, which has led to the site being offline for several weeks whilst the bugs were fixed.
Now that the list is published we can see that some of the TLDs applied for are very sensible, such as Microsoft's application to run a TLD called dot skype. Skype, the internet phone service, is a truly global communication service and it makes sense to use a top level domain to help with the identities of that class of user. Others seem to be about vanity, a few big companies feeling that a mere dot com address is no longer prestigious enough.
And then there are some with the potential to be truly confusing, like dot zip. Zip is so well established as a file format on the PC that most people, at present, if they saw documents.zip mentioned in an email would think it referred to an attachment to the mail. In future, it could just as easily refer to a website. To add to the confusion, another organsation has applied for dot zippo, and Amazon for dot zappos. More confusing still, two organisations applied to run a TLD of dot dot, which presumably means you could have a domain name of dotdotdot.dot and one of dot.dot.dot, both of which are spoken as "dot dot dot dot dot".
Apple has applied for just one TLD, that being dot apple, 13 companies with an eye on the mobile market have applied for the rights to dot app, and the biggest spender is Google which has lodged around a hundred applications, including applying for the rights to dot lol.
A lot of the applications are industry-centric, such as fashion, flowers, tickets and training, and on the one hand it opens up new space for people to find meaningful domain names, but on the other it opens up a minefield of concerns for brand protection. We already have enough troubles with just a handful of TLDs and the dot UK country code. If someone registers a domain name which would cause confusion with someone else's trade mark, (whether that is a formally registered trade mark like SKILLZONE, a family name that you have traded under for years or a long established society name), the domain registrars take no responsibility whatsoever in the matter. They will sell you anything you ask for.
Whilst ICANN has a dispute resolution procedure, it is not without its own costs and for most small brand owners there is little prospect of winning such cases. For most businesses, the only cost-effective way to protect your brand and reputation is by defensive registrations of variants of your domain name, domain names you will never use but need to register just to stop others exploiting them. Now, with so many new domains coming onto the market, the costs of defensive registration will sky-rocket and become prohibitive. One of the biggest criticisms of ICANN's plans to open up the TLD was the costs it would force on brand owners, and that was when people thought there might be 20 new TLDs. Now that there could be 2000 new TLDs, the problem becomes unmanageable.
People worrying about defending their brand names will be particularly annoyed to see applications for dot fail, dot sucks, and dot wtf, (with no less than three companies applying for the rights to the sucks TLD). If you think those are joke applications, remember the $185,000 application fee would make it a very expensive joke. I'm sure brand owners are not seeing the funny side of it either.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is whether the public will "get" these new domains when they start to become available from December 2012 onwards. Tell someone that your new domain name is smithandjones.associates, for example, and there is an exceedingly good chance that people will automatically type it into their browser as smithandjones.associates.com, or failing that, smithandjones.associates.co.uk, making those existing domains into much more valuable bit of internet real estate. Likewise with the dot London domain where I expect many people will really struggle to understand why it isn't london.co.uk. Think that won't happen? We see plenty of examples already where people get their own domain names wrong in emails, and can't remember whether it ends in dot com or dot co dot UK. I expect some domains will become very popular and useful additions which are quickly adopted, but others will just fail to take off, with the danger that people who adopt them could find they've made expensive branding mistakes.
30th June 2012
This article comes from the SKILLZONE email newsletter, published monthly since January 2008, and covering topics related to technology and the internet. All articles and artwork in the SKILLZONE newsletter are orignal content. If you would like to receive the newsletter direct to your inbox each month, please SUBSCRIBE here. It is free, and you don't get added to any other mailing lists. It uses best-practice confirmed opt-in only, and you may unsubscribe at any time.