iMedia Connection

What new gTLDs mean for your brand

Joshua Bourne

By the time this article is published, the application period for new generic top-level domains, or gTLDs, will have been open for a matter of a few weeks and will run until April 12, 2012. Top-level domains are the extensions that appear at the end of domain names, after the "dot." There are currently 22 generic top-level domains (gTLDs) like .com, .net, and .org, and over 200 country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs) like .JP, .MX, and .UK. Shortly after the close of the application period, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization behind the New gTLD Program, will publish a list of all the applications for these new extensions; by some estimates, there could be close to 1,000.

What new gTLDs mean for your brand

Over the next year or two, we will begin seeing web addresses that end with terms like .shop, .restaurant, .music, and even .company, .product, and .brand extensions. This newly expanded naming system will significantly change how web addresses look, and what internet users expect when navigating online. If Coca-Cola, for example, acquires .Coke and begins advertising domains like Diet.Coke and Drink.Coke, consumers will eventually expect to find similar content for Pepsi at .Pepsi addresses.

But a new understanding of what web addresses will look like is not the only change that new gTLDs will bring about for the internet as we -- both businesses and internet users -- understand it today. While some companies may decide to apply for and operate their own gTLD or gTLDs, it will not be practical (or even feasible) for all companies to do so. However, they will still need to adapt their digital strategies to the new name space and how Internet users react to that new space. In this article, I will explore some of the additional changes that businesses will be aware of once new gTLDs become part of the domain name space.

Adaptation 1: Defensive registrations in other new gTLDs
One major cause of anxiety that businesses have felt around the impending onslaught of new gTLDs is the fear that they will have to spend exorbitant amounts of money defensively registering domain names across all new gTLDs in order to protect their brands and trademarks from being cybersquatted, as they had to with past launches of new gTLDs for extensions like .info and .biz.

But there's good news: First of all, I predict that approximately two-thirds of the estimated 1,000 applications for new gTLDs will come from businesses applying for their .company, .product, or .brand extensions. The majority of these companies will not sell second-level domains to third parties, so the risk of cybersquatting in these gTLDs is basically zero.

Second, this time around, ICANN has put into place at least some safeguards that will save businesses from having to defensively register their domains in every single new gTLD. These systems are not perfect, nor are they particularly cheap, but they can help businesses protect their trademarked names and will, to an extent, help prevent a complete digital free-for-all where cybersquatters scoop up your brand name before you have a chance to register it.

However, there will be certain cases where it will be wise to register, not simply block, your second-level domains in new gTLDs. I'm referring specifically to category or geographical-term gTLDs here. A major retailer like Nordstrom will likely find it beneficial to register Nordstrom.shop as well as other domains like Nordstrom.NYC, to use as dedicated sites for those local stores, or to redirect them to Nordstrom.com. As new gTLD registries begin developing new and innovative technologies on these platforms, businesses may find it beneficial to have a presence in those spaces. Of course, it will not be necessary for a company like Nordstrom to register domains like Nordstrom.auto or Nordstrom.scuba, because there is a very low likelihood that consumers will navigate to those domains expecting to find the familiar high-end apparel and accessories retailer. Instead, the company might wish to block use of its name in those extensions. What companies should do, once ICANN publishes the list of applied-for new gTLDs in earlu May, is determine which are applicable to their business and develop a strategy for which domains to register in each, as well as how to use them.

Adaptation 2: Get personalized
Companies that acquire a new gTLD will have the ability to provide personalized domain names to customers to use as customized portals, if they so desire. Consider Lowe's, which recently launched its new "My Lowe's" application that allows homeowners to store information about what brand and color of paint they used on the exterior of their house, or the type of tile they used in their bathroom. If the company acquired a .Lowes gTLD, Lowe's could give John Doe the domain name JohnDoe.Lowes, where he could have direct access to all of his stored "My Lowe's" information without having to navigate through the Lowes.com homepage in order to log in. Lowe's could even send John information about upcoming sales or reminders about when to plant bulbs for the following spring through a personalized John@JohnDoe.Lowes email address.

Of course, businesses that do not acquire their own gTLD will not have this same capability. But we could begin to see an uptick of personalization in web browsing activity across the board. Consumers may begin to expect the websites they frequent to display information that is most relevant to them, whether it be a sports site that leads with information about their favorite teams or a shopping site that displays items in the styles and sizes they typically purchase. Even businesses that cannot offer their customers personal domain names may be expected to step up and provide a more customized, personal experience in the future.

Adaptation 3: A new era in search?
A major question from all businesses, across industries and regardless of whether or not they plan to acquire their own new gTLD, is what impact these new extensions will have on search engine rankings. Some, like Forrester's Jeff Ernst, have made a "self-fulfilling prophecy" argument, saying that because search engines strive to deliver the most relevant and authoritative results, if companies acquire new gTLDs, then search engines will have to adjust their rankings and will, as a result, give authority to these new gTLD domains. Others argue that domain names are not a big enough piece in the puzzle of search engine rankings to significantly tip the scales in one direction or another.

The fact is, search engines keep their algorithms close to the vest, so there is no way of knowing how, or even whether, they will adjust them to account for new gTLDs. Established brands that have worked hard to achieve the high search engine rankings they currently enjoy should, at least initially, employ a conservative strategy of redirecting new gTLD domains to their existing sites. Alternatively, they could begin by using new gTLD domains to host microsites for specific marketing campaigns until it becomes clear how search engines will adjust their rankings to these new domains.

Businesses that do not acquire new gTLDs should do their best to keep up with any shifts or alterations in ranking algorithms, and adapt their Search Engine Optimization strategies accordingly. This is also another place where owning domains in key category or geographical-term gTLDs can be beneficial: If search engines do start to show preference for new gTLD domains, then having a presence in other new gTLDs could provide companies a boost in the rankings, provided they create unique content for these domains and treat them as microsites.

Adaptation 4: What about great keyword .com domains?
In the current domain name space, keyword .com domain names are incredibly valuable. Many enterprises are willing to pay top dollar for great category-defining keyword domains because they automatically convey a sense of legitimacy and allow their owners to essentially own the whole category online: Just think of The Weather Channel's (TWC) Weather.com, for example. Owning this domain conveys that TWC is the online destination to get information about the local weather, or weather anywhere in the world. To get an idea of what a company is willing to pay for a great domain name, look no further than Salesforce.com, inc., which purchased Social.com for $2.6 million and Data.com for a sweet $5 million in 2011.

Digital experts are beginning to wonder whether great keyword .co domains will retain their value in an era of keyword .anything extensions. Will Weather.com remain as valuable in a space that also includes domains like Cleveland.Weather, Alerts.Weather, and Travel.Weather? My answer to that question is yes, at least for a little while.

I believe that keyword .com domain names will retain their value in the new gTLD space. As great as keyword domains in new gTLDs might be, I still believe that .com domains will convey a unique level of legitimacy that comes with .com being, for so many internet users, synonymous with the Internet itself.

Additionally, there are multiple businesses that have built their entire brand around great keyword .com domains. Cars.com, for example, is not likely to rebrand itself just because a .cars gTLD becomes part of the domain name space. The continued existence of these companies, and their continued use of these brand names, will also help to maintain the high value of keyword .com domains.

These are just a few examples of how new gTLDs will likely change the way businesses and consumers interact with the internet. With the proper preparation and diligence, both those companies that acquire new gTLDs and those that do not can keep up with these changes and utilize them to continue to grow and prosper in the new digital space.

Adaptation 5: Innovation has barely begun
New gTLDs will transcend marketing, legal, and IT concerns, and will require companies to consider the bigger picture beyond just branding or trademark protection issues. It's difficult to say what new innovations new gTLDs will bring with them, but my guess is it will be worth it for companies to stay tuned into the new developments in the space to find out. We've already seen inventors file at least one patent for new technology to help strategic enterprises with a gTLD registry do new things online, and I suspect there are many creative minds who are already thinking up new ways for global brands to tap into information and provide services previously unavailable to them.

Joshua Bourne is managing partner of FairWinds Partners, LLC

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