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Posted at 05:20 PM ET, 08/05/2011

Q&A: Domain name changes and the Internet landscape

In June, the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) approved a program that has the potential to send shockwaves throughout the entire Internet.

Starting in January, ICANN is set to accept applications for the new domains, meaning that brand-centric domain names (think “.apple”) or industry-centric domains (“.pharm”) could spring up online very soon.

This week, the Association of National Advertisers sent a letter to ICANN raising concerns about the program.

Before the ANA sent their letter, Peter Dengate Thrush, former chairman of ICANN and executive chair of Top Level Domains Holdings, and company CEO Antony Van Couvering took some time to speak with me about domain names and the effect the the program could have on the Web as a whole.

Dengate Thrush was the chairman of ICANN when the program was approved. Top Level Domains Holdings is a company that helps clients register domain names and will assist them in navigating through the 200-250 page application ICANN has created for its new program.

Below is an edited version of our conversation:

So how will this program change the landscape of the Internet?

Thrush: Well, it will change the look of things. It won’t use these TLDs [such as .com and .org] that don’t mean anything, that don’t distinguish or discriminate. The market meaning is going to come across very clearly.

Van Couvering: Another way to think of that is that a domain name is a short, idiomatic phrase to signal the content. When you have three letters that don’t mean anything, you lose a lot. The new way gives you a clue of what’s behind the name.

Thrush: So, for example, I’m a lawyer. If I buy dengatethrush.law, you instantly get the visible meaning of what I do. That one thing that will be very powerful for brand owners for strengthening their brands.

What about assertions that having so many top-level domains will dilute brands? So, for example, if I’m Microsoft, won’t I also have to buy sites for microsoft.computers and microsoft.tech?

Thrush: Well, I think Microsoft would buy .microsoft. But to get at your point, I think there’s a lot of misinformation and scare tactics around that. Microsoft doesn’t do that at the moment — they don’t register in every country around the world.

There are some defensive brand practices, almost entirely in .com and .org. But you don’t get pirates where you get domains, you get pirates where you get traffic.

When you see ibmcomputers.com, right now you have no idea if it’s really connected to the company. But if you go to .ibm, everything will be organized and sanctioned by that top-level domains. All the pirates hiding in .com and .org won’t get the traffic, because instead of going to those, traffic will go to genuine goods and genuine services. In that way it could be a strengthening of brand.

Van Couvering: It could also be a mark of authorization. Someone like BMW will only give .bmw to those that are authorized, so people will know that they are correct dealers.

The registration price is pretty steep ($185,000 to apply and $25,000 per year for administration), do you think that companies — particularly smaller companies — will apply for domain space or that it will mostly be industry groups that pool their resources?

Thrush: That depends on your budget, but there are always some marketing techniques that are beyond the budget of every company. On the other hand, someone who takes a risk and develops it can see a great return. Fortune favors the prepared mind and people who take the opportunity. And even if you’re a florist who can’t buy .flowers, you still will have the opportunity to buy a site with that address. You have the access.

Van Couvering: That’s especially true in small businesses. If you’re a florist, your might register flowers.nyc, for example. It’s good for local businesses who are frankly only operating in one area.

What about authorization? How can I be sure that I can trust every lawyer with a .lawyer site?

Van Couvering: Authorization would be up to local rules. If you look at .us, they haven’t said we’re going to check everything first. What they say is that you have to have a sub connection to the U.S., but if somebody complains, then they can have that domain name taken away.

Won’t this change be confusing for consumers?

Thrush: I don’t think so. Consumers get educated very quickly. The notion that we have to protect consumers from choice has to be rejected.

Van Couvering: Just look at the way people consume music. It used to be vinyl, then it moved to eight-tracks, CDs, MP3s. Each of those requires new ways of filing, and those shifts happened extremely quickly. A domain name is simply a recognition of the economy. In Germany, you see ads with sites that end in .de for Germany, .at for Austria. You’ll see .eu for Europe and you’ll see .com. The Germans aren’t smarter than the rest of us, but they’ve adjusted and don’t get confused.

One thing we commonly hear, too, is: “Who cares about these things? No one types in addresses anymore, it’s all through search now.” But the new TLDs are going to make a big change in search. It’s true that Google’s algorithm doesn’t account for TLDs, but mostly for content. But we know that something that ends in .edu is ranked higher because it’s produced by academics. To the extent that there’s a name at the top level, search engines are going to pay attention to that, and they’ll know that, say, something ends in .law and that’s restricted to real lawyers.

Thrush: This is going to make communication better and more efficient. People will look back at the days of the legacy TLDs as the dark ages.

By  |  05:20 PM ET, 08/05/2011

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