I spend a lot of time thinking about the internet. As a writer and digital associate at Bullhorn, I work with clients to develop their brand and bring it to life online. It can be a long process with a lot of important decisions, from development framework and CMS to positioning, content, and design. And when faced with a lot of choices, it’s natural to default to comfortable answers. For a lot of brands, this means their domain name is an afterthought.
A domain, like bullhorncreative.com, serves a couple of important purposes in branding. It’s often the first representation of your brand someone sees online, usually in the form of a link from another site (more on this later). It’s also a wayfinding sign, reminding users where they are and how they got there. In either case, a good domain should be like a good brand name itself, or a tagline or a campaign — memorable.
Most of us have been online for a while now, probably starting sometime around AskJeeves and AOL mailers. This was the dot com era, when companies like Pets.com staked fortunes on a memorable domain name. A lot has changed since then, both in the internet itself and how we use it. Google dominates traffic, browsers are a lot smarter, and huge numbers of dot coms are in use or parked. Finding one that is available, memorable, and relatively short can be an expensive exercise in creativity. But I think that’s okay. It’s time to think beyond dot com and embrace the modern internet.
Despite its popularity, dot com was never the only option — .org and .net preceded the modern internet. These are known as gTLDs, or general purpose top-level domains.
As the consumer internet grew more popular, responsibility for delegating gTLDs fell to the whimsically-named Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. In the early 2000s, ICANN released seven new gTLDs, including .biz and .info, in an attempt to open up the already-bloated dot com space.
The vast majority of new TLDs, though, were ccTLDs — country-specific top-level domains typically based on the International Organization for Standardization’s two-letter country codes.
While .biz and .info never quite caught on, ccTLDs did. Sites like Twitch.tv and fb.me popularized so-called domain hacking: using a ccTLD for its letters rather than geographic association. .tv belongs to the island nation of Tuvalu, .me to Montenegro. These sites and others like them introduced ccTLDs to a wide audience.
Tech companies like GitHub and CodePen have gravitated towards .io, which represents the British Indian Ocean Territory. But while Tuvalu and Montenegro’s economies benefit from domain sales, revenue from sales of .io flow directly to the British government — the government that, along with the United States, expelled the territory’s native population a generation ago.
By 2013, there were around 22 gTLDs, hundreds of ccTLDs, and 256 million registered domain names. Dot com still reigned supreme, with more than 100 million registrations. For comparison, the Oxford English Dictionary contains about 273,000 words.
At the end of that year, ICANN made a big change. They began to release a steady stream of new gTLDs, taking the total number from fewer than two dozen to more than a thousand. The process is ongoing: .gay was released this fall, and .cpa will be available next month.
While registration prices for most new TLDs are equivalent to the price of a meal, they offer brands something much more valuable: an ownable, memorable domain name. Now, there are options for geography (bike.nyc), industry (kain.auto), function (document.new), and even brand (home.barclays). Google’s parent company Alphabet staked a claim to abc.xyz, and smaller sites like scratchtownbrewingcompany.com and internationalpreschoolcurriculum.com found new homes at scratchtown.beer and ipc.education. (Acronyms are confusing. Remember, TLD stands for top-level domain — the .auto in kain.auto.)
With so many options, it’s still easy to see dot com as the familiar, comfortable choice — even if you need to add some modifiers to your domain name. After all, aren’t users more familiar with dot com and dot org? Will they remember exactly how to spell a domain with a newer TLD? But good branding is confident, not comfortable.
Browsers are a lot smarter than they used to be. The omnibox, the combined address and search bar, will recommend sites and search terms as you type. It learns from your browsing history, which means it’s hard to forget a site you’ve already visited.
For new visitors, though, this is beside the point. Direct traffic is marginal on today’s internet. According to Moz, what analytics tools call direct traffic is more often traffic from bookmarks, redirects, social media, and offline documents — not a user typing a url directly in their address bar. Realistically, that person will click a link from another website, an email campaign, or a search engine results page.
This isn’t to say that a domain name should be forgettable, only that you shouldn’t sacrifice memorability for familiarity. If you run a hypothetical florist called Bullhorn Flower Shop, bullhorn.flowers is much less forgettable than bullhornflowershop.com — even if visitors aren’t familiar with the TLD.
Run a design agency? Try .design. Sell things? Set up .shop. Embracing new gTLDs allows you to connect your domain with your industry or personality while showing users that you aren’t afraid to be a first mover.
For a company that reaches people online — and that is pretty much all of us — a good domain is invaluable. It’s been more than 20 years since Pets.com launched (and failed), Jeeves took his first question, and the AOL logo adorned more than half of all new CDs. But from a certain angle, it feels like we’re back. The internet, in a small but significant way, has again been democratized. Domain names can be short, memorable, fun, surprising, branded. And for the time being, they’re plentiful.