More than a decade ago, the Internet’s overlords bet that entrepreneurs would jump at the chance to customize their Web addresses. As it turns out, not so much.
That’s largely because search engines like Google are obviating the need for cogent, catchy URLs—once a prerequisite for online success. By the time a proposed initiative allowing for greater URL choice had wound its way through years of approval proceedings, the front lines in a decades-long battle for prime virtual real estate had shifted from domains to search rankings, social media, and mobile technologies.
In 2013, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the global nonprofit governing Web addresses, began to roll out a portfolio of roughly 1,200 new after-the-dot website endings, which are known as top-level domains. Entrepreneurs and others looking to hang out a digital shingle would no longer be limited to registering websites ending in one of 22 familiar strings such as “.com” or “.net”; users could now select from offerings such as “.pizza” or “.furniture,” or even some in non-Latin scripts. Brands like IBM Corp. or Apple Inc., too, could now snap up eponymous extensions.
Although investors scrambled—and shelled out up to $185,000 a pop—for the chance to snatch up the new domains and profit as gatekeepers, uptake among end-users has been underwhelming. More than three years after the program’s launch, roughly 26 million new generic top-level domains have been registered, compared with the 164 million registered “legacy” top-level domains.
Cyrus Namazi, the vice president of domain-name services and industry engagement at ICANN, acknowledged that demand for new top-level domains won’t eclipse that for legacies “any time soon.”
Yet Namazi believes registrations for the new extensions will continue to grow. “We are in the embryonic stages of the expansion,” he said.
Indeed, the fresh prospect of a virtual gold rush has set the niche market for domains abuzz, drawing veteran investors eager to place bets on what they see as a long-overdue expansion of the Internet’s architecture that will gain traction over time. Major players in the domain world include registries, which operate a given top-level domain, and registrars, which dole out individual URLs from registries to users. Their shared mission: identify and control access to desirable domains.
Those who have a stake in the new top-level domains argue that short, clean URLs ensure that brands will be remembered and found online. They predict that firms will continue to compete vigorously for attractive domains to signal trustworthiness to users.
Richard Tindal, the chief operating officer of Donuts Inc., a registry that operates new top-level domains like “.guru” and “.email,” said that while the new extensions have yet to reach a “tipping point of awareness,” he believes they will be “ubiquitous” within a few years as users realize the possibilities for customization and more firms adopt them.
The domain investor Frank Schilling, who has registered tens of thousands of Web addresses within “.xyz” and other new top-level domains, said the extensions are ripe for new brands looking to secure short, memorable custom email addresses. An unwieldy domain that fares well in search rankings might still be burdensome to type out when addressing an email, he said.
Google, too, applied to operate dozens of the new top-level domains, including “.docs” and “.game.” Its parent company Alphabet Inc. made its home at abc.xyz.
Yet the program’s lukewarm reception thus far outside the rarefied world of Web-address enthusiasts suggests the waning relevance of the domain in popular consciousness and business strategy as search engines render virtually obsolete the chore of memorizing and typing out URLs.
In 2005, when ICANN first embarked on the new top-level domains, the stakes for prime Web addresses were make-or-break. In these “early Wild West days of the Internet,” before the widespread adoption of online search and social media, short, natural-language “.com” domains became desirable—and then scarce, said Mike McLaughlin, the executive vice president of domains at mega-registrar GoDaddy. The idea was that these URLs were easy to remember, and served as an obvious starting point for online navigation.
The dearth of such domains pushed some firms to make awkward compromises with respect to naming. For instance, then-startups Flickr, founded in 2004, and Twitter, founded in 2006 as twttr.com, each pared a letter or two from their names to coincide with domain availability. (Twitter eventually bought the vowels.)
In short, the online namespace felt crowded.
But guess-typing Web addresses is “just not how people find things on the Internet anymore,” said Mark Lemley, a professor of law at Stanford Law School and the director of the school’s Program in Law, Science, and Technology. “Our search tools are good enough that people can pretty much find what they’re looking for.”
What’s more, in recent years a cottage industry of search-engine optimization firms and consultants has emerged with the goal of decoding the workings of Google’s closely held algorithm to help clients “win” search rankings for a given keyword or term. Such experts say that while the domain name can be a major factor in search ranking, search-engine optimization techniques like tweaking word count on a page can provide a workaround when a search term doesn’t match a given domain.
As Google has refined its search algorithm over the past decade, search professionals said, domain’s influence has waned relative to dozens of other inputs, including how often users click through and how long they stay on a page. (Google maintains that it treats new and legacy top-level domains alike.)
In other words, coupled with the right search-optimization strategies, a longer, clunkier Web address might do just fine.
“Domain is less important now than it was ten years ago,” said Kevin Rowe, the founder and CEO of Rowe Digital, a New York search-analytics firm.
This follows a familiar pattern. In the 1990s, many businesses clamored for short, generic names, like 1-800-FLOWERS, that could easily be mapped onto toll-free phone numbers when dialed from a touch-tone handset. Similarly, thumb through an old print phone book and you’ll see a smattering of plumbers and auto mechanics beginning their company names with "AAA" to land a spot among the first listings for their trade. Both practices dried up as emerging technologies presented new grounds for competition.
And so it went with domains, until search alleviated the sharp demand for attractive “.com”s well before ICANN could implement its intended antidote.
To be sure, companies and individuals are still fighting, and forking over sizable sums, for what they see as desirable domains, legacy and new alike. GoDaddy brokered the sale of LA.com for $1.2 million this past spring, and HG.com was reportedly sold for roughly $3.8 million in a private sale last month. Donuts brokered the sale of co.ltd for $115,000 in August.
Domains also remain, for the time being, intertwined with notions of identity in popular culture. Trolls routinely seek to rattle political campaigns by hijacking relevant domains, and so-called “cyber squatters” try their hand at parlaying guesswork into cash. In some circles, domain names have become routine baby gifts for newborns who may or may not grow up to be famous adults.
It remains to be seen whether the new top-level domains will ultimately resonate with users in the way that investors hoped.
For its part, ICANN is set to pump out thousands more of the new top-level domains in the coming years. Planning for the next wave, to be released in 2019 or 2020, is currently underway, according to ICANN’s Namazi.
Perhaps by then, they’ll be considered charmingly retro. But it seems more likely that they’ll be met with a collective shrug.