Brand identification is key in today’s fiercely competitive marketing environment, and brands are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to get their name and message out to potential customers. The dawn of digital has made it easier than ever for brands to achieve this through savvy search engine optimisation, engaging social media campaigns and cutting edge design and web development. But things could be about to change. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) is planning a fundamental shift in how the internet is structured. New plans drawn up by the organisation and set for implementation next year have outlined a way to dramatically increase the number of gTLDs (generic Top-Level Domains) from the 22 that are currently available.
Icann’s plan is to open the naming process out to an almost endless supply of words. This means that domain names will no longer be restricted to the ‘.com’s’, ‘.co.uk’s’, ‘.net’s’ and ‘.org’s’ that brands currently have to use to register their site. Instead, brand names and campaign keywords could be included to increase user association. For example, Coca-Cola’s latest campaign site could become www.openhappiness.coke, or Nike could become www.justdoit.nike. The process will be costly for Icann, and businesses who wish to apply for a new suffix will have to pay $185,000 (£114,000) to help them cover the costs. As Rod Beckstrom, president and CEO for Icann, tells the BBC though, the plans make the internet more customisable than ever: “Icann has opened the internet’s addressing system to the limitless possibilities of the human imagination. No one can predict where this historic decision will take us.”
Indeed, the effects of such a dramatic shift in the way the internet is organised are difficult to anticipate. On the one hand, the plans could have a huge effect on how users search for and find a brand. Equally, they could have no effect whatsoever. Search engines never reveal the ranking factors in their algorithm, so any predictions are pure speculation. However, one thing that is for certain is that the new gTLDs will have a detrimental effect in the short-term. The authority, credibility and backlinks that have been painstakingly built up on old domains will be lost in the swap to the new one. Just like with any domain relocation, search authority will have to be built from scratch.
A branded gTLD is not a ‘magic pass’ to search engine authority. It’s simply not that easy. You only have to look back to 2006 and the introduction of the ‘.travel’ gTLD for proof. Takeup of this new gTLD was moderate at best and even now, five years on, it’s still rarely seen. If you search in Google for ‘travel’, for example, a ‘.travel’ domain doesn’t appear until page 13. Why? Google’s ambition is to maintain a level playing field and ensure that sites with the best, most relevant content, not necessarily those with the most money, are the ones who appear highest in the rankings. It would be detrimental to their rankings to change this way of thinking.
So a new gTLD will not automatically put you in position one and it’ll take some time to even get close, but it will help out. Search engines will always rank relevant websites higher than others, so spiders are constantly looking for signifiers of their relevance. The sheer volume of new gTLDs that will be available once Icann’s plans are put into place means that suffixes will be exclusive. A knock-on effect of this will be that anyone applying for a branded gTLD will have to prove that they are legitimately a part of that brand. In turn this will mean that search engines could have an extra factor by which to differentiate a site rich in relevance from one lacking in relevance and prioritise accordingly. An official site may be viewed as relevant and rise, an unofficial site, lacking in relevance, may not.
Things get a little murkier when we move onto categories. Icann‘s plans don’t just cover brand names, so there could be ‘.beer’, ‘.football’, ‘.news’ and all other kinds of ‘.somethings’ out there once this initiative is implemented. Who will own those? And who will own names shared by multiple organisations and institutions? Some gTLDs will be easy to win, but others will be subject to intense bidding wars. Icann will mediate to ensure things remain fair, but anyone looking for sought-after domain names such as ‘.united’ or ‘.city’ should be ready to dig deep financially and prepare for a fight. It could get ugly.
One thing that’s certain in this most unpredictable issue is that the world’s biggest brands are keeping a close eye on developments and already making plans and drawing up budgets to cover the cost of what could be some very expensive bidding wars. If successful, the mid-level brands will follow where the bigger brands have led and eventually ‘.com’ is likely to become the catch-all domain for small firms and those few remaining enterprises that don’t rely on the Internet to conduct business. Careful consideration must be taken and brands should carefully weigh up the benefits of branded gTLDs and the credibility they will bring against the possible loss of authority a new gTLD would suffer. Ultimately, a course of no action will be a limiting move for brands. Doing nothing is simply not an option.