You may not know it yet, but the dotcom world is about to become a dot-anything world – and it’s likely to impact the way you use the web.
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Starting Jan. 12, the nonprofit organization that governs Internet domain names will begin accepting applications for an almost infinite variety of generic top-level domains, or gTLDs. If you’re thinking a “gTLD” must have something to do with “The Situation”, know that it’s actually a term used to describe what appears to the right of the “dot” in most web addresses. (For instance, in FOXBusiness.com, the gTLD is “.com”.)
Right now, there are 22 gTLDs in use, many of which are familiar to consumers (i.e. – “.com,” “.org,” “.net”). In the not-so-distant future, almost any assemblage of letters could represent a new domain – from “.shoe” to “.apple” to “.yourfirstandlastname.”
The organization responsible for approving these new domains is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN, which manages the domain-name space by way of a contract with the Commerce Department, expects that the first batch of new domains will go into use sometime in early 2013. It is not yet clear how many will be approved, though estimates range anywhere from 400 to 1,000. The fee to apply for one new domain is $185,000.
The new gTLD plan represents a big shift in the web world, and one that has been met with harsh criticism. While ICANN says that lifting the lid on gTLDs will encourage innovation and build brand strength, an alphabet soup of trade associations claim the move places unnecessary cost burdens on businesses and will confuse consumers.
If ICANN’s plan moves ahead in its current form, here are three things every web user should probably keep in mind.
1. It could become harder to tell which sites are legitimate and which are not.
One of the biggest complaints businesses have with ICANN’s plan is that it will open the door to more fraud, counterfeiting and cybersquatting.
As it is, scammers have mastered the art of registering web addresses that sound like authentic sites, but they only have 22 domain extensions in which they can operate. When the new gTLDs go live, brand owners say fraudsters will have the chance to register sites on hundreds or even thousands of new domains.
“Instead of ‘coach.shoe,’ they’re going to be registering ‘cooach.shoe,’” said Alan Drewsen, executive director at the International Trademark Association (INTA). “The risk of counterfeiting is going to increase… and it’s already a serious problem in the gTLDs we have.”
Just to be clear, the concern isn’t really that scammers will be applying for and operating gTLDs (not when the application fee alone is $185,000!) but that they will register misleading sites on new gTLDs. That’s the thing about owning a gTLD: once you own it, you’re essentially operating a registry. If you own the domain “.jewelry”, for instance, you can decide that only your company will use it, or you can decide to sell domain-name registrations to whomever wants their web address to end in “.jewelry.”
The fact that consumers will be generally unfamiliar with new web suffixes will likely compound the confusion over site credibility.
“A company like Gap is going to have to buy ‘gap.retail’ and ‘gap.store’, and ‘gap.sfo’ just to make sure that their customers aren’t scammed,” says Mallory Duncan, senior vice president and general counsel at the National Retail Federation. “If they don’t do that, they run the risk of getting ill will from customers who don’t realize ‘gap.nyc’ may not be owned by the Gap.”
Drewsen at the INTA says the best way for customers to avoid visiting a shady site is to avoid typing web addresses directly into the address bar and instead use a search engine. While it’s not yet clear how Google or any other search engine will rank new gTLDs, the assumption is that a search engine will bring you the most credible results first.
2. You probably don’t have to worry about a company abandoning its current web address.
Large companies may choose to own several new gTLDs, but that doesn’t mean their “.com” sites will go away. In fact, there’s a very good chance that until companies know how exactly they want to use their new gTLDs, most of the new sites they build will be redirected to their “.com” anyway.
“We know that it would be imprudent to move content from ‘eBay.com’ to ‘.eBay’,” says Josh Bourne, managing partner at FairWinds Partners, an Internet strategy consulting firm. “Even for companies that own a ‘.brand’, they will still maintain their sites.”
So what’s the incentive to buy gTLDs, especially for businesses with no clear plan on how they’ll use them or what the ultimate value may be? Bourne says that businesses may not necessarily want them, but they don’t want their competitors to have them either.
“Companies are saying ‘do we really want to be in a situation where somebody else gets to extract some hypothetical benefit? What if they’re right and we’re wrong?’” he says.
Still, it’s important to note that not every company will choose to invest in new gTLDs – in fact, it’s possible that many won’t. Drewsen at the INTA points out that major companies don’t always buy up the “.net” or “.biz” versions of their sites today.
3. You’re going to see companies do some pretty cool things to engage you.
From a marketing perspective, ICANN’s plan allows companies to engage customers in new and interesting ways. Bourne at FairWinds Partners says a company like J.Crew could decide to offer their best customers a personalized secondary domain name (think “JaneDoe.jcrew.com”) that would look like the main J.Crew site, but be configured to reflect a customer’s size, color and style preferences. The overall effect would be to create a “customized shopping hub.”
“J.Crew could give.JCREW domain owners exclusive access to new collections or sales before making them available to the general public. It could store customers’ tailoring history, making it possible to get a pair of pants or a skirt hemmed to just the right length with the click of a button,” he wrote in an August 2011 blog post.
Bourne acknowledged that he has spoken with several large companies that are interested in pursuing this sort of experience.
Jeff Ernst, an analyst at Forrester Research, offered similar possibilities in a post he wrote for Forbes in June, explaining that Nike could create “a community of running fanatics” by buying up a gTLD like “.run” and offering people email addresses and personalized secondary domains through which they can track their mileage and pace. Ernst also says a company like networking-giant Cisco could allow its distributors to register under the “.cisco” domain, making it easier for customers to determine whether or not a distributor is Cisco certified.