Companies with an international presence have always needed increased linguistic and cultural knowledge to target foreign markets, but a recent decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will alter how companies approach their web presence by making domain name extensions available in non-Latin characters.
Previously, the only possible characters for the ending of a website were the letters "A" through "Z" and the numbers zero through nine. Now 100,000 additional characters from a slew of languages will be available. ICANN is expecting 50 countries that speak 15 different languages to get involved within the first year, and countries and registrars can start selling domain names by the middle of 2010. Initially the endings will be restricted to the name of the given country in the official language, such as .japan in Japanese.
"The coming introduction of non-Latin characters represents the biggest technical change to the internet since it was created four decades ago," said ICANN's chairman, Peter Dengate Thrush, in a statement.
Jeff Lapatine, the group director of naming at the branding company Siegel+Gale, says, "The obvious issue is you've got to buy so many more variations [of your company name] than you do today, and today you've got to buy a lot of variations."
Unoccupied domain names cost a pittance, but if you include legal fees and local business residency requirements, which country like France require in order to grant a domain name, Lapatine estimates the cost of what he calls "complete global URL registration" could reach $100,000. However, he concedes that many companies settle for a less than complete registration.
Despite the added cost and hassle, Lapatine says it's hard to delineate whether there's such a thing as being too defensive of your brand. "It depends on how much patience you have," he says, "It's sound policy to register as many reasonable variations as you can think of."
Tina Dam, ICANN's senior director of internationalized domain names, also thinks the price is worth the potential payoff. "Making a domain name registration in local characters is in my mind a cheap investment versus the potential you get out of it," she says. If your target market is not familiar with the Latin script, "it would be a much better branding and a much better advertising opportunity to be able to use a web address with the local characters."
ICANN's representatives are not the only ones who think the change could present an opportunity for small businesses. There is an increasing number of "small-business owners that have multilingual skills or have a consumer base that's" abroad or not native English speakers, and this "would allow them to expand," says Cheryl Johns, the assistant chief counsel for telecommunications at the Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy.
The potential for expansion is tremendous; more than half of the world's 1.6 billion Internet users don't use English for input. But along with the potential for profit, the non-Latin characters bring increased opportunities for phishing and other online scams.
For example, some characters from different alphabets, while technically different to a computer, might confuse the casual observer, so a scammer could construct a site that looks like paypal.com but is composed of slightly different characters. ICANN is trying to take precautions against this by making rules about how you can mix different scripts, but the changeover could also create software problems.
Johannes Ullrich, the chief research officer for the SANS Institute, which provides computer security training, says the best way for companies to be prepared is to debug early and often. "It's really a matter of testing it, the earlier the better," he says.