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Inside the New Domain-Suffix Gold Rush

As great available URLs become rare, start-ups in particular are gravitating toward the domain suffix .co, and blazing a new trail in the process.
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Before 2005, who'd ever heard of an "etsy?"

Etsy, Tumblr, and Pinterest are just a few examples of the curious and previously unheard names that have cropped up in recent years. Those names weren't necessarily the entrepreneurs' first choice, but rather, their first choice of an available URL. On the Web, business-branding decisions are driven as much by the absence of available domain names with the suffix ".com" as they are by the need a start-up to stand out--and sound both fresh and reliable.

That's all about to change. New rules from a group that oversees domain-name administration have opened up the domain-name playing field, and countries with appealing suffixes are licensing the rights to use their names in the United States. There are URLs such as Nest.io (an Indian Ocean domain), Letter.ly (a Libyan domain), and Turntable.fm (a Federated States of Micronesia domain). 

Specifically, the .co name, which hails from Colombia, is catching on with start-ups that think it can help them burnish their brands and stand out in Cybespace, where it's often hard to be heard among the crowd of competing names.

"I wanted to keep the MyTab name, and I was not going to change my company name to accommodate [a .com domain]," says Heddi Cundle, founder of MyTab.co, an online travel gift card site based in San Francisco, which changed to .co about two years ago.

Cundle says she spent months tracking down the person who owned the .com with her business' name, and when she did, the owner wanted $100,000 for it.  She told the owner that she was bootstrapping a business and would rather plow the money back into her business and focus on satisfying her customers. That plea fell on deaf ears, and several weeks after .co came out, she says she snatched up her company name with that suffix, for about $30.

Part of what Cundle and other start-ups like about .co is that is generally understood to mean "company," (well, at least this far north of Colombia) and hence is unlikely to create confusion.

This summer, a group called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, known as ICANN, which manages administration of this root part of the Internet, opened up the domain-name registration process, and received about 2,000 applications for new suffixes, which sold for nearly $200,000 a pop.  

The expansion primarily gives larger businesses such as Google, which purchased .google and .goog, more control of its brand since it can just send customers to an easy-to-remember suffix.

Small business owners are likely to benefit more from smaller countries, like Colombia, that also want to cash in. Their domain names are typically sold through registrars like Godaddy.com and Register.com.

There are 256 different country codes, but not all of them are useful for suffixes, or administrators in countries like the U.S., or the U.K.,  are simply not willing to part with them.  While ".Co" has a universal business appeal, others, such as .tv--which hails from the island nation of Tuvalu, are equally useful.

Just ask Lisa Marie Latino, whose video production company, Long Shot Productions, in Fairfield, N.J., recently began using .tv instead of .com and .co. For one thing, Long Shot Productions found that someone had already bought the .com. But .tv was available for a mere $25.

"I would like the  .com, but I thought .tv would stand out more in people's minds," Latino says.

As far as .co is concerned, really popular names like "chocolate" might go for between $80,000 and $100,000, says Lori Anne Wardi, vice president of  .Co Internet SAS, which administers the .co suffix in the U.S., while single letter names with a .co suffix can run as high as $2 million. But the vast majority of names can still be had for very little money.

Still, companies must watch out for potential consumer confusion between .co and .com, experts say.

"Just like anything on the Internet, there is a bit of a learning curve, but the Internet is changing fast, and people learn faster than you would expect," Wardi says.

Among the tortured .com names that recently converted to a silkier sounding .co are SteelVaultData.com, which became Steelvault.co; Projectivenyc.com, which became projective.co; and HowtobeaRetronaut.com, which became simply Retronaut.co.

Dressrush.com changed to the more harmonious Tailored.co this year, as its business model also changed. Dressrush was formerly a site designed to give last-minute discounts on wedding clothes and other items to panicked brides-to-be. Now it focuses more broadly on the wedding market.

"I see start-ups all around me who understand a strong brand is not putting a word on .com that does not make sense," says Sara Morgan, co-founder of Tailored.co in Palo Alto, California. The company currently has six employees.

Morgan says she moved to .co because the former name was hard to pronounce, and the person who owned Tailored.com wouldn't budge on selling it to her.

There are other downsides to .co, which business owners should bear in mind, however. That includes a natural bias by the search engines, namely Google, which is currently more attuned to domain names with .com, .net, and .org extensions. But that is likely to change as traffic to them increases, experts say.

"There is no doubt that as these [suffixes] come online, that search engines will look at them, especially as they become of value" to consumers, says Kieren McCarthy, chief executive of .nxt, an information service covering Internet policy and governance.

 

IMAGE: chrisschoenbohm/snorpey
Last updated: Sep 26, 2012

JEREMY QUITTNER | Staff Writer | Staff Writer, Inc. and Inc.com

Jeremy Quittner is a staff writer for Inc. magazine and Inc.com. He previously covered technology for American Banker and entrepreneurship for BusinessWeek.




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