Ever thought of the perfect domain name for your business only to find it's already been taken? If so, you'll be happy to know soon there will be a more than 6,000 percent increase in the number of website domains available.
Some will be brand-centric--think .apple for Apple or .citi for Citibank. Others will be generic top-level domains (gTLDs) such as app, .home, .book, .shop, and .design as well as others that will be specific to languages such as Japanese, Arabic and Chinese.
It's a transformation that concerns every company--even start-ups and small businesses--says David Mitnick, founder and president of DomainSkate, an Internet company that focuses on domain name arbitration disputes.
The Back Story
The International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit private organization that took the onerous task of managing the Internet over from the U.S. government back in the late 90s. Mitnick says ICANN began trying to figure out how to turn the Internet into a more international marketplace almost a decade ago.
"It started out with simple draft proposals about how the system could work, how to take applications [and] all of the ins and outs of policing what stakeholders want. This has been a laborious process. It has been critiqued by businesses and governments for years and years," he says.
Finally within the last year ICANN began taking applications from entities that want to control various new domain registries.
Who Wants What and Why
Some companies want their own branded extension to keep for themselves. For example, Mitnick says Citibank has applied for .citi and plans to use it for its own purposes.
Others want these domains so they can sell off bits and pieces of them. Case in point: Donuts is a start-up that has applied for more than 300 new domain extensions and raised more than $100 million in venture and private equity funding from investors who are banking on the chance to own the next .com.
It's a good thing Donuts has so much backing. Every application to ICANN requires $185,000 plus proof of money in the bank as evidence that a company can keep its operations liquid.
"Some of [Donuts'] applications were uncontested so in other words, it's just them. ICANN will make a decision that is based on their funding and the appropriateness of the extension they're looking to register and they'll examine it and most likely, approve it," Mitnick says.
Things get more interesting when there's more than one applicant for a domain, such as .music, which Mitnick says might be the most compelling extension in the entire space.
"Music is a word that sort of transcends language, it's got no plural," he says. "It's really exciting [because] you could sort of think about how artists and companies might want to have domains in there."
An auction and bidding war will decide the fate of such popular gTLDs.
4 Things You Need to Do
Even if it seems like this digital land grab only concerns companies with the resources to apply for and contest gTLDs, Mitnick says there are important things start-ups and small businesses need to do.
1. Pay attention and make sure no one is using your brand name in a nefarious manner.
It stands to reason that along with the increase in the number of domains comes more opportunity for cybercrime.
"If someone's using your mark and doing bad things with it like sending out phishing scams and all sorts of other stuff, it's going to make you look bad," he says.
The good news is that there are rights protection mechanisms built into ICANN's system that allow trademark holders to reserve or purchase their trademarks before the general public.
"They're called sunrise periods and it's going to be very important for every brand owner to make sure that they're aware of [them] and when they're happening and to identify the critical space for them. It doesn't have to be everything under the sun," Mitnick says, referring to what happened in the early 2000s when companies felt like they had to register every permutation of their names.
2. For $150 each you can register your trademarks with ICANN's Trademark Clearinghouse.
If someone tries to register a domain that matches your trademark, you'll get notified in time to do something about it.
"When you find that someone has taken your domain name ICANN has a procedure for dealing with that called a UDRP which allows users to file a streamlined arbitration document to recover the domain without filing a lawsuit," Mitnick says, adding that DomainSkate offers a DIY product to help with such issues.
3. Assign someone the task of keeping current on the issue and watching the domain registries relevant to your business.
Ideally this would be an attorney, but even an intern would be better than nothing, Mitnick says. Good information sources include DomainSkate's blog, World Intellectual Property Organization, DomainIncite.com and TheDomains.com, not to mention ICANN.org itself.
4. Make sure your website content is still maximized for search engine optimization.
"Lets say .hotel does a terrific marketing campaign and really gets the word out and people associate that with a really quality user experience. You are going to want to make sure that if you're in the hotel business your content is showing up there," he says. "People are very used to maximizing their content for Google [but] this might be a little bit different."
A Rough Timeline
Mitnick says ICANN was expected to announce the rollout of the new gTLDs on April 23, but a launch party the organization had planned in New York was cancelled, so it's unclear what, if anything, will happen this week.
Foreign language gTLDs will be the first to go online in the next few months. By August all of the applications should have been reviewed and the process for deciding who gets which domain will start, meaning dueling applicants will start to battle over popular gTLDs such as .music, .app, .inc, .blog, and .book.
Bigger Internet: Opportunity or Horrible Idea?
For companies with a lot of trademarks--say, one like Procter and Gamble that may have thousands of brands--paying to register trademarks with ICANN is a big expense, and one reason why Fortune 500s have been vociferous about disapproving the idea of expanding the Internet. Also, if phishing and cybersquatting were bad before, an exponential increase in the number of domains only gives bad guys more territory on which to operate.
Even so, while there are tangible downsides in terms of having to police a larger Web, Mitnick says for small businesses there are upsides such as the opportunity to be creative as well as "a new way of looking at your digital footprint."