New generic top level domains: Search marketing impacts explained

Generic top level domains search marketing impacts infograph


After years of planning ICANN (Internet Center for Assigned Names and Numbers) announced on June 19, 2011 that it would be opening up the web to hundreds, and possibly thousands, of new gTLDs (generic Top Level Domains) with uniquely identifying suffixes.

Before the announcement there were 22 gTLD suffixes in use on the web; by the end of 2012 that number could grow into the hundreds, with thousands of new specialized gTLDs cropping up before the end of the decade.

This is a significant change to the Internet landscape, but what does it mean for SEO and search marketing strategy in general? There are a variety of opinions as to what the new gTLDs will mean for online presence and branding, but in the short-term the SEO implications are few to none and the long-term SEO impacts are speculative at best.

ICANN has published a YouTube video called Get Ready for the Next Big .Thing outlining the new gTLDs and what they mean for the landscape of the Internet.

Outline of ICANN’S GTLD changes

Prior to the changes there were 22 gTLD suffixes in use on the web with varying degrees of adoption. Those gTLDs range from the heavily used .COM, .ORG, .GOV and .EDU, and the less frequently used .MIL, .NET, and .BIZ, to the near obscure .TEL, .INT, .INFO, .ARPA, .AERO, .COOP, .NAME, .PRO, .ASIA, .CAT, .JOBS, .MOBI, .POST, .TRAVEL and .MUSEUM.
In addition to these existing gTLDs there are approximately 248 two-letter ccTLDs (Country-coded Top Level Domains) associated with specific countries. In July 2010 ICANN changed .CO from a ccTLD representing Colombia to a gTLD intended to be used like .COM. Since that change ICANN has registered 1-million .CO domain names, a strong signal that the marketplace is ready for more domain name options.

The changes announced by ICANN will see the number of gTLDs increase dramatically in the coming years and will allow brands, organizations, niche areas and even cities to apply for and run their own gTLD. These changes mean that we may soon see .FACEBOOK, .WALMART and .NEWYORK popping up on the web.

Important gTLD program resources

gTLD Applicant Guidebook
ICANN’s gTLD Application Evaluation Criteria
New gTLD Application Documents

New GTLD process & launch dates

It will not be easy or feasible for most companies to own a specialized gTLD. The cost of registering and running one of the new gTLDs includes a non-refundable application fee of $185,000US and a current annual maintenance fee of $25,000US. The $185,000 application fee is payable whether a claim is successful or not, and during the course of the application process additional fees may pop up. The annual cost may also increase year over year.

If two or more applicants are deemed fit to own a specific gTLD ICANN will then auction off the rights to run it to the highest bidder, something that can significantly increase both start up and maintenance costs. Once legal advice and unknown additional fees are factored into the equation it could cost upwards of a quarter of a million dollars to own a descriptive or branded gTLD, pricing this option out of most organizational budgets.

The first round of applications is limited to 1,000 and not all of these will be approved. ICANN expects that the first round will see 300-400 new gTLDs go live on the web sometime at the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013. After the initial round ICANN will consider no more than 500 applications per year in a defined application period. The first application period spans January 12, 2012 to April 12, 2012 with future application dates and deadlines to be announced.

The approval process is expected to take between 8-18 months depending on the complexity of the claim and the competition for the gTLD. In order to apply a company or organization must be able to justify the reasonableness or validity of their claim, prove their ability to run and maintain the gTLD for the long term, and must adhere to all ICANN policies and procedures.

SEO  implications of the new GTLDS

As it stands today the SEO implications of the new gTLDs are theoretical. Nobody can say for sure what the long-term SEO implications will be and the short-term impacts won’t matter for at least another year. The most educated guess that can be made is that the new gTLDs will impact SEO the same way that the current gTLDs do, which is not much at all.

It is known that ccTLDs have minor impacts for geo-specific SEO but to date whether you operate as a .COM, a .NET or a .TRAVEL is irrelevant to search placement. In theory the presence of keywords in the gTLD might offer some SEO advantage but that is only if and when algorithms change to consider the text in the suffix.

At present there is no reason to assume that owning a specialized gTLD will offer any clear SEO advantage. However, well established and globally present brands may see search engines adjust to give preferential treatment to their branded gTLD using a similar mechanism to the domain age criteria already factored into algorithms. Also, shorter URLs could boost SEO by being more social media friendly and by supporting better site architectural planning.

Branding issues of the new GTLDS

While it is safe to say there is no immediate SEO advantage to owning and operating a specialized gTLD, the implications for branding are very different. For some companies the branding value alone may push them to register and run their own gTLD. Canon and Hitachi have already announced plans to seek control over their trademark names and there is speculation that other global corporate giants will follow suit in the first round of applications.

Today many brands worry about trademark hijacking and branded domain parking within the existing gTLDs and ccTLDs; the ICANN changes will only increase the risk that a brand’s online presence might be manipulated by outside forces. While it is unlikely that a competitor will incur the cost or go through the trouble of trying to gain control of another brand’s associated gTLD, the descriptive-niche specific gTLDs may be cause for genuine concern.

Several groups have announced plans to apply to run descriptive-niche gTLDs like .JEWELERS .BANK, .INSURE and .INVEST. These gTLDs will be the hardest to secure but they represent the greatest risk to brand integrity. Critics of the new system fear that trademark infringement could become a nightmare and that brand hijacking will become an even bigger issue than it is today within these niche defined gTLDs. These concerns have real validity.

The application process to run a gTLD is rigorous and the evaluation criteria are strict, it is unlikely that a direct competitor could own another’s branded gTLD. For example, in the vetting process ICANN would probably stop Pepsi Co. from gaining the rights to own and operate .COKE, however where trademark infringement is less obvious a problem may arise. Once a gTLD is approved a branded domain can be sold to any entity willing to pay a registration fee, just as is possible with the existing TLDs. So if one group owned and operated .DRINK, Pepsi could register and own COKE.DRINK with ease.

Where companies currently only have to worry about whether or not to register their brands among 22 gTLDs and the various ccTLDs they will now have to analyze and assess risk for hundreds, possibly thousands of gTLDs. They will also have to be aware of any new gTLDs that get approved each year that may have some relation to their business. For example banks will not only have to look out for .BANK but should also be aware of new gTLDs operating as .FINANCE, .MONEY .LOANS and .INVEST. Insurers will have to watch out for gTLDs like; .INSURE, .INSURANCE, .AGENTS, .CARS, .DRIVING, .HEALTH, and .HOME.

While substantially similar gTLDs will not be approved – you will not see .BANK and .BANKS – synonymous or related gTLDs may surface over the years. Also, ICANN will be approving gTLDs with different linguistic characters, meaning international and multi-lingual branding issues will grow as quickly as these types gTLDs are approved.

Protecting your brand

What can you do to protect your brand? It is not necessary to run out and register ownership of a branded gTLD, nor is it necessary to register your brand across any and all new or existing TLDs. The best thing you can do to maintain your brand integrity online is to invest in good SEO for your existing websites while watching the ICANN application registry for any potential branding risks or trademark infringements.

For most companies, investing in raising and maintaining the online presence of any existing websites is the most important thing they can do to protect their online branding. Domain age is a known ranking factor so focusing on current websites makes more SEO sense than buying a branded gTLD. Very few companies will see greater value in operating under a branded gTLD than in developing effective and creative search marketing strategies for their existing websites.

However, it is worthwhile to keep an eye on ICANN gTLD applications with an action plan set out in advance should something happen to put your brand at risk. There is an appeal process as part of the gTLD application procedure where organizations that feel their trademark is at risk can file formal objections to approval. All new gTLD applications will be published on the ICANN website and there will be a waiting period to see if any formal objections are filed. ICANN will not hear the objections; a third party of independent Dispute Resolution Service Providers will be in charge of handling disputes.

To learn about the dispute process see Module 3 of the ICANN gTLD Application Handbook.

Stay informed about pending applications and ongoing changes to ICANN’s new gTLD Program.

Follow ICANN on Twitter for real-time news and updates on all programs.

Recommended reading: SEO & branding issues

The following articles from industry experts on the web are excellent resources about the general impacts of the new gTLDs:

New Net Addresses Mean New Trademark Issues
History Says Most New ICANN Domain Names Fail
How ICANN’s Approval of New Domains Will Change the Web
9 Things You Need to Know About ICANN’s New Top Level Domains
What The New ICANN Domain Names Mean For Google Rankings & SEO: Nothing