Today saw the launch of the first .uk web domains, with Stephen Fry leading the charge, marking another milestone in what has been hailed as the biggest change to the internet since the advent of the World Wide Web. But why do we need new domain names, and what will they mean for the future of the internet?
From a practical point of view, new domain names create more space on the web. Before this whole process began, there were only 22 so-called generic top-level domains (gTLDs), including well-known ones such as .com, .net and .org.
There were also around 250 country-code top-level domains, such as .de (Germany), .fr (France) and .jp (Japan). However, most of these could only be used by organisations based in the country they pertained to. The number of web addresses was therefore limited by the number of available top-level domains.
In February 2014, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages the domain name system, began releasing a raft of new web address endings – over 1,000 in total. These included suffixes made up of non-Latin characters, such as Cyrillic, Arabic and Chinese, representing an effort to create a more international, globally-inclusive web.
The result has been a massive increase in the number of possible web addresses available to any one individual or organisation. For example, a company that sells beauty products may forego the .com domain in favour of .boutique, and an online dating site might opt for .singles rather than .net.
In theory, this is an opportunity for brands to tailor their online presence to specific audiences. By registering addresses with suffixes such as .radio, .blog and .hotel, for example, companies will not only make their websites more memorable, but will also be immediately identifiable to both customers and competitors.
The launch of new location-based domains also allows organisations in those regions to establish a sense of local identity. According to research conducted by Nominet, three-quarters of consumers believe that .uk is the most appropriate domain ending for a British business, signalling ‘Britishness’ with a website that is in English and with prices in pounds.
However, launching over a thousand new domain names on the web comes with its own breed of problems – not least the risk of ‘cyber-squatting’, whereby somebody registers the domain name of a well-known brand, and either uses it to tarnish that brand’s image or offers to sell it back to them at an inflated price.
To protect themselves against cyber-squatters, many companies are defensively registering domains that match their company names, brands and trademarks, to stop others using them. This was common practice in the .com era, and it has not been unusual for companies to own thousands of domain names in defensive portfolios.
The new gTLDs include more protections against cyber-squatters for companies than the traditional domains. For example, trademark owners can register their brands with ICANN’s Trademark Clearinghouse, the centralised repository of validated trademarks, to prevent others using them.
However, the question remains whether it is worthwhile for companies to go to all this effort and expense to protect their little piece of the internet. In the age of search engines and social networks, does anyone even notice the address of the website they’re visiting? Some argue that a URL carries about as much weight as a telephone number – it performs an essential function but is ultimately invisible to most people that visit the website.
On the other hand, the use of new web address suffixes could potentially make it harder for internet users to judge whether or not a site is legitimate – particularly when non-Latin characters come into the equation. For example, cyber criminals could take advantage of similarities between characters in different scripts to trick web users into visiting the wrong site.
It is also unclear how the new web addresses will affect web search rankings. The increase in domain extensions available will open search engines like Google up to increased risk of spam. This could prompt Google to demote websites that use these new domain extensions in the short term, meaning they will appear lower down in search results.
Regardless of whether we think they are necessary, the new extensions are here to stay. The number of available gTLDs grows every week, and domain registries are reaping the benefits – Minds + Machines, which operates the .london domain, announced today that it has swung from a £3 million loss for 2012 into a modest profit of £729,000 for 2013.
As web users, it is worth keeping an eye on these domain names, and remaining wary of new ones as they emerge. While the names themselves do not offer any tangible benefits for consumers, they will drastically alter the landscape of the internet, and ultimately force us to rethink how we navigate the web. Source