For years, revamped top-level domains have been promised as the new frontier in branding online, and they’re nearly mature enough that they’re starting to show up in the wild. These domains have huge advantages in some contexts, but those who don’t pay attention could find their brands at risk online.
A wide array of top-level domain names are most likely in the internet’s future—in no small part because there’s only so much room for domains to fit under the .com moniker.
But nobody said it was going to be easy. Debates currently abound over many of these new top-level domains, in part because of trademark battles and also due to confusing rules. A couple of examples that have surfaced in recent days:
Earlier this year, a guy named Chris Schidle paid Automattic, the creators of the popular blogging platform WordPress and the owners of the .blog top-level domain, more than $200 to reserve his first name at chris.blog. He was later informed that the name was rescinded essentially because Automattic wanted to keep it for its own users. His money was refunded, and according to Boing Boing, Schidle wasn’t alone. Automattic has defended its actions but admitted that its messaging was a bit off.
The owners of the .feedback top-level domain are facing strong criticism from major companies that say the owner, Top Level Spectrum, is acting in bad faith by charging brands high fees for their domains, allowing company critics to register the names at low prices, and hiding its domain registration policies from public view. This led to a complaint being filed with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) against Top Level Spectrum, with firms such as Facebook and Adobe arguing that the company isn’t acting in the public interest. The owner claims that the top-level domain is “geared towards free speech and giving reviews.”
And this is to say nothing of the debate that came to light last year over .sucks, a top-level domain that caught ICANN off-guard when it encouraged brands to purchase the obviously derogatory domain names for thousands of dollars to keep them out of critics’ hands. (On the plus side, people who dislike Coldplay are probably not inclined to buy Coldplay.sucks, which costs $2,050, unless they really mean it.)
The problems are not limited to individual domains that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. The .xyz domain, which has become one of the most widely registered domain names, has quickly gained a reputation for being spammy, with two of the most notable targets being emails and referral spam in Google Analytics.
To me, each of these issues points out a serious problem: Anyone with a brand—personal or corporate, for-profit or not—is going to have to keep a close eye on top-level domains. Suddenly, brand management is going to be a lot harder online, and possibly more expensive.
And it’s going to create issues of trust. In recent days, the internet has been dominated by commentary about fake news sites, which some believe played a role in the 2016 presidential election. Major tech companies are already working to respond. One of the best-known fake news sites, abcnews.com.co, isn’t on a newfangled top-level domain, but the tactic is similar to what you might see on such a domain if it falls into the wrong hands.
Now just think of what could happen to a site that doesn’t publish news.
How ICANN Is Helping
This is new territory, and fortunately, ICANN has been both aware of the risk and quick to respond—including pushing for a sunrise period for top-level domains to allow existing trademark owners the opportunity to get in first, if they think they’ll use a particular domain.
Additionally, one of the cornerstones of ICANN’s strategy is the Trademark Clearinghouse, which allows organizations with trademark registrations to protect their brand names at a cost of $150 per trademark record, per year (with discounts for bulk trademark protection). This strategy, while not cheap, is significantly better than registering the same brand on hundreds of different top-level domains.
When the system works, it can prove hugely beneficial. A recent conflict in the domain world underlines this point well. The fitness center chain 24 Hour Fitness went after a bulk-registration firm that registered the domain 24hour.fitness effectively for the purpose of selling it. The company had a trademark filed on the name, went through the arbitration process, and won rights to the domain.
But all that work means nothing if your organization doesn’t protect its brand. Failing to act opens up a whole array of problems, from dissemination of misleading information, to criticism of your organization, to phishing and other cybersecurity threats.
Clearly, the state of affairs isn’t perfect. As highlighted by the situations I mentioned above, these new top-level domains may face some serious governance issues in the years to come. And that may slow uptake.
But the cat’s out of the bag—a new generation of top-level domains is here. You owe it to your organization to understand how to harness them in the best way possible.