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Do the New Top-Level Domain Names Live up to the Hype?

Choosing a domain name is one of the most vital aspects to building an online presence. It encapsulates the way in which brands and identities are perceived on the web, and is therefore highly competitive. Now, we are set to see the number of top-level domains (TLDs) soar, potentially indefinitely, since the submission of new TLDs was permitted in January 2012. This article addresses what these new domains are, and the impact they may have.

What is a top-level domain?

A top-level domain (TLD) is the suffix of a website address, or in other words, the final letters of a domain name, such as ‘.com’ or ‘.org’. TLDs are the highest level of domains within the domain name hierarchy of the internet and generally designate the function, owner, or geographical location of a website. Originally, gTLDs (generic top-level domains) were intended to designate the purpose or function of a site – ‘.com’ for commercial, ‘.net’ for network, ‘.org’ for non-profits organizations, and so on – but became available to all by the mid-90s. By now, such gTLDs command high popularity compared to new additions, like ‘.co’ and ‘.biz’, partly because they are perceived to be of higher quality, and arguably therefore enjoy better search engine rankings.

The other most common form is the country code top-level domain (ccTLD), the first examples of which were introduced in 1985 – ‘.us’, ‘.uk’ and ‘.il’. Since then, the list of ccTLDs has expanded to well over two hundred, some of which are experiencing significant uptake due to the benefits of establishing a national identity for their site. One good example of this is the rise of .in domains for Indian brands to use, which is proving particularly prosperous for their burgeoning ecommerce sector.

Custom Top-Level Domains

This established structure altered in January 2012 however, when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) opened registration for customizable new generic top-level domains, which became a reality the following year. Instead of being obligated to existing TLDs, companies and organizations were suddenly able to customize a top-level domain name more fitting to their particular application. This could be a description of the service or content of the site, such as ‘.restaurant’ or ‘.music’, simply the brand name, like ‘.google’, or virtually anything you can think of. In fact, the TLD can be any combination of letters whatsoever, from any alphabet one desires.

After paying the princely sum of $185,000 for the privilege of registering an entirely new TLD, and passing the approval procedure, it will become available for the general public to purchase a domain under that name. There are currently only a few hundred new TLDs available, but with many more applications in the pipeline, those who register them could stand to make a handsome profit if they prove popular.

Do they live up to the hype?

Upon their introduction, these new TLDs were heralded as game changers for the landscape of domain names, and indeed the worldwide web in general. The perception was that the influx of creative new TLDs would ease the shortage of remaining quality domain names, drive competition and provide new scope for SEO-friendly domains, since the TLD can be a keyword in itself. While this may be true to a certain extent, and it’s still a little too early to know for sure, there are reasonable doubts over how effective they will become.

One potential consequence is that ordinary users of the internet, especially non-tech savvy ones, may well be even more confused as to which sites to trust. The advantage of having a very limited number of well-known domains is the positive reputation, or at least familiarity, that comes with that. That’s not to say that suspicious activity on the old TLDs doesn’t exist of course, but the huge surge in new TLDs may provide scammers and spammers with the cover of confusion that’s necessary to take advantage of unsuspecting users. A study by Blue Coat Systems, Inc. has even found that "more than 95 percent of websites in 10 new Top Level Domains (TLDs) are rated as suspicious."

Furthermore, the sheer number of possible domain names that are now available could lead to significant problems with cybersquatting – the use or exchange of a domain name with the intent of benefitting from someone else’s brand. Whereas previously if a competitor, for example, wanted to undermine their rival’s online presence, their options for poaching a domain relevant to them were very limited. However, if the list of TLDs does continue to grow indefinitely, then cybersquatters would have an almost endless number of second-level and top-level domain combinations to play with.
Either everyone will have to keep buying up possible domain names to protect themselves, or a wider solution will have to be reached by ICANN, domain name providers, or even the government. Either way, it demonstrates the significant challenges the new TLD project faces due to its ambition.