Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dot Whatever - Some Thoughts on the ICANN Announcement

In what may be the biggest development concerning Internet address spaces to date, this week, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) announced its plans to approve new top-level domains (TLDs) to expand the current set of domain suffixes like .com, .net, .org, as well as country code suffixes (such as .ca .us .uk). A request can be made for any custom suffix that you desire, and can afford to pay for.

At $185,000 a piece and a 200-page application for approval and $75,000 maintenance fees, there are significant barriers to owning your desired top level domain, but this won’t stop the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Google and Coca Cola to register a multitude of suffixes for their products and services. For these large corporations that already spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on defensive tactics to register domains just to prevent others from using them, we can expect to see a further increase in their spend on TLDs that are closely linked to their market offerings. There will also probably be a surge in registration requests for generic suffixes like .cars and .systems in a bid to command a greater mind share leading to superior brand equity. Unfortunately, such tactics will remain out of reach for the smaller players who won’t have the resources to register the same site for every conceivable TLD.

From an end-user perspective, it will be a difficult and tricky road ahead for ICANN to create awareness around these TLDs. Most businesses and end users still operate in a dot-com-centric environment, and even previous attempts to augment the .com TLD with others like .biz and .info have been rather unsuccessful. Additionally, the introduction of multiple domain suffixes can result in a relatively flat namespace configuration as opposed to the current hierarchical structure of domain names, and this can lead to confusion among end-users. Ultimately, a search engine might be the best bet to get to the end-user’s target website. While this goes somewhat against the TLD expansion philosophy, recent research shows the importance and use of domain names to be already diminishing as larger proportions of end-users use their browser search bars to seek website addresses of their online destinations, either by directly typing in the business name or by conducting a generic term search. So an argument can be made that actual site addresses and domain names are becoming less relevant with our increased dependency on search engines.

Whether the introduction of new TLDs offer people new ways to express themselves and enable higher levels of customization for brand management is something that we’ll have to wait and observe.  What’s clear though is the need for sound governance and careful implementation of new TLDs to facilitate an efficient and equitable Internet experience for all.