2014-05-30

A Short History of Domain Names


The second half of the nineties was a very exciting time for me, I had just begone learning the ins and outs of the world wide web. HTML4 was the hottest thing out there and Geocities was the place to have a personal site. It took little time to get the hang of things and my day job quickly became entirely dedicated to building websites.
As is the case nowadays, one of the most exciting moments of building a website is the go-live date. Publishing the site on a production server where the whole WWW would be able to access it and admire the various, soon to be antiquated, techniques that one has put so much effort into implementing.
However, although many sites offer a shared platform for hosting such as the previously mentioned, now-defunct Geocities or today's more trendy less techie Wordpress.com, these sites do not allow you to fully customize your web address or domain name or URL unless you own a domain name.
That bit of text that you enter into the browser to load your site (ex: www.chemali.org or www.sharplemon.com) is key to many hidden gems.
The shorter the domain name, the more easily recognizable and the more memorable it is, the more value it holds. Naturally, as businesses became aware of this value, the gold rush towards domain names (especially the .com ones) quickly eradicated the highly coveted 2-letter domain names (ex: www.hp.com) followed by the 3-letter ones (ex: www.cnn.com) onto the 4-letter domains which were the ones that lasted the most (until December 2013) until all variations were exhausted.

The web was growing exponentially and with it the need and awareness for uniquely identifiable domain names. Branding companies reached out to us for advice on booking their unique brand names and on defending those domain names against squatters.
Squatting became a common practice that consisted of people buying up interesting names, and holding them "for ransom", until the persons who have real interest in them paid often ridiculously high amounts of money.

Copyright laws were amended, and the governing body in charge of domain names, the ICAAN, set up rules for brands to claim their domains, but this offered only minor deterrence, as not everybody had the clout or the desire to litigate. Many often resorted to paying the money in order to speed up the process. I witnessed this first hand, as an ex colleague of mine, received $1000 USD for a domain he bought for a measly $10 USD.

The awesome folks at DomainTools

During the past three years as I ran Sharp Lemon, a great part of our work involved advising and finding suitable domain names for direct clients of ours, or for branding agencies that reached out and required our assistance. The task is a tedious one, as clients are often hooked on the dot com, and refuse to consider other variations.
The Lebanese local registry (managed out of the American University of Beirut.lb requires a complex procedure and a lot of red tape which makes it counter-intuitive to even consider. Furthermore the wow factor is not there when you are using a .com.lb vs a .com and the jury is unanimous on that.

A few practices that I personally dislike that are being used now to comply with client requirements include:

  • Adding a -lb.com: ex: mycooldomain-lb.com (because it's classier than mycooldomain.com.lb)
  • Splitting the name with dashes: my-cool-domain.com (everybody loves shift key combinations when typing)
  • Going all Web 2.0: instead of sharplemon.com why not shrplmn.com (who needs vowels anyway)
  • Going all domain name Godzilla: thisismycooldomainname.com (so much for readability & SEO)
As many have realized that the .info, .biz and the various tiny variations that have been used were not a sustainable replacement, a shift in paradigm took place which led to the introduction of the New gTLDS (Generic Top Level Domains). Now, you can read a lot of the nitty-gritty details on this here on the ICAAN gTLD site but the idea is simple:
  • You are no longer bound by the .com/net/org....or other country TLDs
  • New extensions can be created at will as long as they fulfill some prerequisites
  • The new extensions can be focused on a city (ex: .nyc) on an industry (ex:.autos) and a plethora of other categories
Well-known domain name registrar, Godaddy, lists 965 TLDs in 19 categories at the time this post has been written. Among the listed domains, I predict unprecedented success for one of them especially: The  .guru .
I am even willing to place some bets on some people who might have invested in such a domain.

Gurus of the World, Unite!