The internet is about to expand on a massive scale in 2013, and we can see the possible contours of that expansion with the recent release of the list of more than 1,900 applications for new generic top-level domains. When you consider that, currently, there are only 22 top-level domains -- the portion of a domain name located to the right of the dot, the best known of which is ".com" -- you can appreciate the impact that 1,900+ new ones will make on your brand's digital presence.
Reflecting the growing importance of tablets and smartphones, the most hotly contested new top-level domain, or TLD, is ".app," sparking 13 individual applications for the term. No matter which applicant earns the right to operate the TLD, brands will be watching the decision carefully to see how the ".app" affects their brand's mobile strategy.
Similarly, broad terms like ".store" and ".shop" may impact ecommerce strategy, at least in English-speaking markets. While the rules set by ICANN, the non-profit responsible for overseeing the domain name system and orchestrating this historic expansion, may preclude two similar names becoming reality, one of them is almost certain to be open for business in 2013.
Understand how generics impact your brand's digital presence
The first step for brand managers is to understand the generics that impact their business category -- terms like ".film," ".fashion," ".sports," and, yes, ".sucks." All of these terms represent actual applications that have been submitted; in fact, more than 1,100 of the applications are true generics, many of which come from entrepreneurs who hope to build businesses around offering the public the ability to register a domain name to the left of the dot, such as "brand.fashion," "brand.sports," or "brand.sucks."
There are also 66 applications for geographic terms, such as ".nyc," ".london," ".osaka," ".paris," ".rio," and ".capetown." If your brand has a presence in any of those locations, does it make sense to register your brand in that TLD and forge a stronger link to that area? Do those generics represent an opportunity for the brand to reinforce its digital presence or open new web possibilities? Or are these generics another potential headache from cybersquatters who take advantage of brand names and scammers who steal brand-bound traffic?
Given the wide variety of generics, it seems inevitable that domain portfolios will be burdened with additional defensive domain registrations, especially when you consider that, on average, large companies see about 80 percent of their portfolio dedicated to defensive registrations.
Even if only 20 percent of the generics make sense for your brand, registering domain names in a couple of hundred new TLDs isn't economically feasible, especially when you consider all the permutations involved -- your corporate name, product and service names, titles of movies, books, software or games, names of corporate officers. Now is the time to purge your existing portfolio of domain names that no longer justify their expense, so that, if necessary, you can afford to register key terms in any new TLDs that make sense for your brand.
Scrutinize your domain name portfolio
What's the best way to pare back your portfolio? Criteria may include domains which were registered, but never used, or products or services that were never launched. Perhaps internal policies or business practices have changed, yet your domain portfolio doesn't reflect those changes. Are there countries where you are not doing business but are still carrying domains for defensive purposes? Are there domain name variations that receive little or no traffic and no longer justify the expense of carrying them?
Make sure that you also evaluate domains that are no longer useful for promoting or defending your brand. Semantic terms fall in and out of favor as culture evolves, and a term that was useful five years ago may no longer draw traffic or cause concern. Do keep domain names that would incur high recovery costs if circumstances change and you find the name is needed after all.
Also, be sure to keep any domain names with a high likelihood of squatting, so scam artists can't monetize your traffic by luring your customers to shady net neighborhoods. For example, these days, every consumer is looking for a good buy, and domain names that include terms like "outlet," "cheap," or "wholesale" are extremely attractive to cybersquatters. They know that consumers are using these terms when searching for the best deals, even on expensive luxury goods like jewelry and watches.
Develop clear policies
In addition to reviewing your domain portfolio, this is also a good time to review domain management policies. Make sure to identify the individuals who are permitted to request, approve, and modify registrations. The latter point is especially important as we've seen cases in the last year of "hacktivists" targeting familiar domain names and modifying registration details to make a political or social point.
Be sure that you have policies that determine when new domain names should be registered. These conditions may include product launches and campaigns or the liberalization of country code TLDs (ccTLDs). Finally, your policy review should provide domain registration guidelines for important brand variations, common misspellings, or even combinations of terms, such as "brandshop" and "shopbrand."
Keep an eye to the future
There are also more than 600 applications for ".brands," in which brands applied for TLDs in their own name and for their own uses. Since the application period is now closed, brands who wish to apply for their own ".brand" will have to wait until applications open again. ICANN has not released a date for another round of applications and speculation ranges from a year to several years before the window re-opens.
Whether this historic expansion provides new promotional opportunities for your brand, requires additional defensive measures to protect it, or is a non-event, the big winners will be the brands that use this opportunity to create a stronger association between their brand and their web presence.
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