The Domain Name Shell Game

With the recent vote by The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to expand the number of top level domains (TLDs) on the Internet, some e-tailers may be asking not only if a rose by any other domain name will smell as sweet — but also whether its price will be as steep.

The Marina del Rey, California-based ICANN has been overseeing Internet domain registration for about two years, since it was formed in 1998 to take charge of the domain name system. The group’s move raises a lot of questions while providing few answers, but at the very least, it puts the Internet world on notice that there are going to be some fundamental changes to the naming system — and they are coming soon.

World Wide Web names seemed unbelievably complicated during the early Internet days. Users had to get used to thinking in meaningless acronyms, colons and slashes. Now, experienced Web surfers are comfortable with the naming conventions. Keeping track of an Internet address is usually as easy as remembering a key word and the appropriate domain suffix — “.com,” “.org,” “.net,” “.edu,” or “.gov” are the ones in common use.

Brand Building Names

Site operators like to adopt addresses that are obvious — coupling the name of their group, company or product with an appropriate extension — so that users can reach them intuitively rather than having to search. Such “good” names are exceedingly valuable, and in some cases, companies have paid in the millions (US$) to obtain them.

Last November, Web incubator eCompanies set a domain name price record when it forked over $7.5 million for “Business.com.” Some observers regarded the deal as a smart move, since the name itself would instantly accomplish brand building that could take a marketing department years — and a much bigger financial outlay — to develop.

Although there is no shortage of names available for new Internet addresses, there is a scarcity of such brand building names — hence, the decision to expand the number of available domains. In theory, the idea seems sensible. By adding such possibilities as “.banc,” “.museum,” “.union,” “.travel” and “.sex” to the list, sites can make their names more descriptive.

At What Cost?

In practice, however, it may not work out that way. The desire to protect their trademarks and intellectual property rights has already led many Internet businesses to purchase all the conceivable variations of their names — at no small cost.

Opening new Internet domains may put those companies in the position of having to buy even more variations — or they may find that they do not even have the option of purchasing the new suffixes, because they could be assigned to someone else. After all, the logic behind creating the new domains is to allow more Web sites to use the same key words.

Furthermore, users who have finally gotten used to the Internet’s peculiar naming system may find themselves frustrated, as their “intuitive” options increase. And with the predicted boom in wireless Web access, an efficient alternative to spelling out long URLs will be needed; the current naming system may become moot.

ICANN says it is concerned with “maintaining the stability of the Internet,” which seems a worthy goal, but perhaps incorrectly supposes that the medium has achieved stability. In its effort to provide instant gratification for everyone’s naming needs, the organization may be leaping before it has taken a long enough look at the problem.

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