In my last column, I discussed some of the challenges of moving an existing Web site to a new vanity generic top-level domain (gTLD). In this installment, I will provide a review of several existing gTLDs, and discuss the branding and search impact, and also the process of applying for a gTLD.
For a quick recap, ICANN, the governing and administrating body over all Internet addresses, voted in late June of this year to allow individuals and corporations to apply for .anything, or literally any word or phrase exceeding three characters not taken. A new top level domain can be used as a registry, or for one's own Web presence. Under the new policy, the following names are true possibilities as a home for an online Web presence:
Let your imagination run wild. But first, let's take a look at other existing generic TLDs.
The branding of a TLD - why .com will always be king
If the marketing novelty of the vanity gTLD seems to outweigh all other considerations, it may be a good exercise to first analyze the current landscape. Ever heard of .Museum? Yes, it's a real working gTLD (see this redirected URL for http://nyc.moma.museum; their main URL is http://www.moma.org), though the average Internet user is wholly unaware of its existence. .Travel has been in existence for almost two years, but very few travel sites have adopted it as their primary address on the Web. More commonly, major travel and hospitality brands have reserved these names and pointed them at "Brand.com" as a matter of driving traffic, and for brand and trademark defense. Other extensions such as .Jobs and .Pro have yet to gain mainstream appeal, even though their categories have wide potential within their respective theme-space. Another highly anticipated extension, .Mobi, has also failed to gain mainstream adoption as the default address of the mobile Web, with most major brands choosing to host their mobile presence on their legacy brand.com or subdomain (ex. m.cnn.com), targeted to mobile devices.
Your own awareness of these gTLDs (or lack thereof) is a direct reflection of how well that TLD was branded. Enterprise marketers will face the same challenge if/when they change over their existing .com presence to a new extension. Hosting your Web presence on .com benefits from a TLD brand that everyone has helped build. The .Com domain had no brand until U.S. advertisers got behind it, and a valid question to ask is whether or not your new gTLD is ready to compete against this level of awareness and trust. The answer is really simple - no single advertiser has the budget to match up to the amount of collective ad dollars that have promoted .com - it is synonymous with the Internet, more so than any other domain brand. This may be obvious to most readers, but marketers should keep this fact in mind as discussions around changing to gTLDs progress in their respective organizations.
The birth of the search-optimized Top Level Domain
Shifting gears a little bit, let's pick back up on the natural search aspect of gTLDs. Having a generic keyword theme in a vanity gTLD also doesn't guarantee natural search success or authority. Just like a new domain, the Top Level Domain still earns its authoritativeness in the search engines. It has long been recognized by SEOs that engines have shown bias and trust towards content and links on .Edu, .Mil, and .Gov domains (among others), due to the fact that these are carefully managed TLDs, and have content that is generally trusted and relevant to particular types of queries (for example, .Edu overwhelming skews toward authoritative academic content). I also believe that other specific TLDs that have not been managed well are running at a disadvantage in natural search, based on the amount of low-quality and spammy content that resides within the extension. I'll save that discussion for a later date, but the bottom line is that whether you choose to host a Web presence on your TLD, or open it up for registrations, how that registry is managed directly relates to how well it will perform in natural search for both your Web presence and other secondary domains residing within the TLD.
Vanity gTLD application process will be long, expensive, and tedious
Many major corporations are expected to be among the first to start the ICANN TLD application and approval process. In this early stage, it appears it will be time consuming, and will require significant investments in terms of application fees, technical, and other resources. The basic application fee for one gTLD is $100,000, and final approval may take up to 18 months.
Applications will be reviewed for technical capabilities of hosting a TLD at the root level, and they will also be opened for public objection based on the following criteria:
1) String confusion
2) Existing legal rights
3) Morality and public order
4) Community objection
Names with multiple applicants may also go into an open auction, and will be awarded to the highest bidder. See this PDF for a flowchart of the application and approval process: http://www.icann.org/en/topics/gtld-evaluation-process-16jun08.pdf.
Hosting a root level domain will push the cost of management up quite a bit. The good news here is that many experienced TLD registries are developing plans to provide third party support for root level management.
Are new vanity gTLDs just another trademark pain for big brands?
My prediction is that most corporations will not choose to move their legacy Web presence to a vanity TLD, though there may be some exceptions, particularly with media companies that have the resources to rebrand and educate their audience. But Web presence aside, I would expect that many Fortune 500 companies will be lining up to get a vanity TLD (or several) for the purpose of brand trademark protection, and they will redirect the TLD to their main domain, just as they would with a defensive .Mobi, .Asia, or .Jobs registration. On the flipside, some brands may be able to exploit the novelty of a vanity TLD, and they will win big. But if they don't proceed carefully, they just might end up confusing their audience, at the expense of their brand and otherwise positive natural search equity.
Any way you look at it, we are witnessing a new chapter in the history of the Internet, and it will be fun and interesting to watch and participate in its development.