The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is currently in the process of evaluating 1,930 applications for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs), in the hope of ushering in a new era for the Internet and enabling organisations to register domains such as .shop or .bank alongside existing gTLDs like .com and .org.
Why would anyone care about their Web address? I hear you ask. Surely, in the age of search engines and social networks, a URL carries about as much weight as a telephone number – it performs an essential function but is ultimately invisible to most people that visit the website.
Vanity URLs have been around for some time, with social networking sites such as Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter offering users personalised web addresses that lead directly to their profile pages.
Some companies also take advantage of countries that do not ask for proof of residence to register their country code TLDs, allowing users to incorporate the two or three letters after the dot to help spell out a desired name, word or phrase. (Think Nathan Barley and Trashbat.co.ck – .ck being the country code TLD for the Cook Islands.)
One such company has been running the .co domain extension – originally the country code TLD for Columbia – since it won the tender in 2010. This is now one of the most successful top level domain extensions in history, with nearly 1.4 million Web addresses registered by people and companies in over 200 countries, including Twitter (t.co).
According to Juan Diego Calle, chief executive of .CO Internet, the company that runs the .co top level domain, a TLD is so much more than a telephone number; it is a way of defining your online identity.
Unlike .com, .net and .org, which have come to be seen as utilities, Calle has worked to build .co into a brand, describing it as “the domain extension where big ideas belong”.
In particular, the .co domain aims to appeal to entrepreneurs and small businesses. Owners of .co addresses get the added benefit of becoming part of a membership programme that provides access to education, support and marketing.
“We have a partnership with General Assembly, which is focused around education for technology companies and entrepreneurs. We give our customers access to some of those courses,” said Calle.
“On the networking side we give our customers access to the Startup Weekend events. The last component is promotion, so we give our customers access to things like a Google AdWords credit so they can start adversing on Google, or an opportunity to come with us to South by Southwest (SXSW), so they can pitch their idea or company to investors.”
Calle said that, in order to compete in a less restricted environment where there are many more domain extensions, the companies running the new TLDs will have to offer added value to customers, because they will not survive if they are just seen as utilities.
When .co first launched, there were 233,000 names registered within 24 hours, indicating a pent-up hunger for new domain extensions. Indeed, many of the good .com names were already long gone by then, and .co opened up a whole new world of web address possibilities.
But as time went on it become clear that its customers wanted more than just a domain name; they wanted to build something successful on the Internet. The company therefore decided to differentiate itself by building a community for tech start-ups and helping that community to be successful online.
“In the initial years many of these new domain extensions will struggle, but as more and more of them continue to invest and build awareness like we are, eventually that will reach the consumer, and website owners will begin to accept that building a website on something other than .com is OK,” he said.
“It's only a matter of time before we start seeing these domain extensions truly being successful and taking market share away from the legacy domain extensions.”
A lot of this success will depend on how companies choose to position their domain extensions. Some may choose to follow the .co model and go for mass-market adoption, whereas other may prefer to keep them exclusive.
For example, .radio, .blog and .hotel are likely to be going after a mass audience. These will require extremely robust infrastructure behind them, as well as fairly large-scale marketing initiatives. For example, .CO Internet has a network of servers in 14 different locations around the world, and is advertising at the Super Bowl.
By contrast, domains like .cisco, .horse and .diet are likely to be more niche. These companies can probably get away with running the domain extension on a few servers in their existing data centre.
Calle said that one of his favourite domain extensions, currently under review, is .ninja. He explained that many people – particularly in the US – have started using the word ninja to define themselves as experts. For example, they might say they are an SEO-ninja or a computer-ninja.
“It's very good for branding purposes, to identify yourself on the Internet, and it also has that sense that it can support a community around itself,” he said.
The biggest challenge for the companies running these new TLDs is that legacy domain extensions like .com and .org are ingrained into how people think about the internet. There is therefore a need to build consumer awareness that other domain extensions are possible and credible.
In the case of .co, the firm was fairly fortunate, as the word 'co' was already a recognised abbreviation for 'company'. However, Calle said that some of the proposed domain extensions are going to have a hard time positioning themselves so that they appeal to a large audience.
.CO Internet has applied for 13 new domain extensions itself, including .inc and .ltd, but it is competing against Internet giants like Google and Amazon to win the right to run them.
“It's going to be a tough 2013 in terms of trying to go after these domain extensions,” said Calle. “However, .co is our flagship brand, and frankly if I compare it with any of the 1,900 that may become available in the near future, I don't see any of those that are as unique as .co.”