Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A free-for-all in domain names?

One of the biggest shake-ups in naming of internet sites has been approved by the relevant global authority, ICANN. They have opened up the top level domain (TLD) names to virtually anything. (See www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-13835997 for the relevant news article.)

Now, there are 22 current TLDs - these are the likes of .com, .net, .gov, .org and so on. These are not to be confused with country level domains like .uk which are often suffixed to TLDs but can be used alone. The plan now is to allow any organisation to apply for ownership of any new TLD name.

There is a down side to this: the minimum bid will be $185,000, but then if you gain ownership of a domain like .music or .sport you should be able to sell a lot of URLs to web site owners. After all, the tiny Pacific island state of Tuvalu now gains most of its export income from selling domain names using its country level domain .tv (including for example Channel Five's www.five.tv).

So what can we expect from this? Well, various global brands have already announced their intention to buy their brand name - for example, .canon and .nike. If they don't intend to have various domains within the TLD, then they will have a website which can be addressed simply as http://nike. One might imagine various global superbrands will follow this route. Even if the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Google and so on did not particularly want to change from current well-known URLs, they cannot sit back and allow someone else to acquire a TLD with their brand name.

Then there will be the "domain name investors" who will acquire the names which will be saleable as domain suffices. Besides the examples of .music and .sport already mentioned, there could be many more: other category descriptions from .air to .zoo; location domains like .london or .scotland; perhaps even some corralling of the, shall we say, specialist portion of the internet behind .porn or .adult.

One of the biggest expansion areas is expected to be for the likes of China, Japan, Korea and the Middle East, as non-Latin character sets will be able to be used for the first time in domain names.

What will it mean for smaller, sub-global companies? Well, one impact is that the increasing trend towards longer domain names may be averted for a while. I was lucky in that (a) I have a relatively unusual surname, and (b) I bought my domain name around 2000, when .biz was a comparatively new TLD and so there was an opportunity to get the www.emmens.biz name I wanted (the .com and .co.uk variants were already taken back then). These days, I'd probably have to go for something unwieldy, like www.emmensconsultancyservices.co.uk - definitely a candidate for one of the 'short URL' services if tweeting! I've also encountered medium-sized businesses with 20 or 25 character names which also use the email convention of firstname.surname@25charactercompanyurlname.co.uk, and when an employee with a long name like Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen - well, you get the picture. There's no doubt that shorter, snappier URLs are more likely to be remembered and typed than long ones, but at present the only other option is to find a weird, made-up company name that won't already be registered as a domain name, like zxrg421. (Yes, that one is still available, I checked. Feel free to claim it, I won't charge a finder's fee.)

Is there a down side? Well, there is some concern about organised crime getting hold of specific domain names that could enable them to spoof corporate network locations (see www.theregister.co.uk/2011/07/04/dotless_domain_security/), but I would expect ICANN to be fairly careful with the release of sensitive TLDs, so the risk should be small for most of us. There will I guess be a proliferation of web sites with the same name but different TLDs, which could get confusing, but no doubt as most of us find a site through a search engine, it won't be too much of a minefield. Wait though for the first law suits as for example small independent shopkeeper Mr. Clarke sets up his web site as www.clarkes.shoes, and the big corporation gets all proprietorial!

So in general, I look forward to the brave new future with more and more names available to choose. I'm off to relax with a www.glassof.beer!