For years, there have been just a handful of ways to end a website address. There's .com, .org, .edu, and a bunch of country-specific codes, such as .fr for French websites.
But by the end of this year, there will be hundreds of new website suffixes. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the international group that oversees online addresses, has thrown open the doors, allowing businesses and speculators to apply for any name they want. The response caught ICANN off guard.
"When the new program was first rolled out, we were anticipating somewhere between 200 and, at a maximum, 500 applications – we received nearly 2,000 applications," says Christine Willett, general manager of the ICANN program that will hand out these new suffixes, officially called generic top-level domains (gTLDs).
This massive (virtual) land run marks perhaps the largest expansion of online real estate since the inception of .com and, if successful, could dramatically change the look of Web addresses.
Internet prospectors raced to plant a flag in .baby, .mobile, and .soccer. Automakers applied for .honda, .chevy, and .ford. Google applied for 101 gTLDs, including .fun, .diy, and .youtube.
If ICANN approves, for example, the .pizza gTLD, then it will hand the winning applicant exclusive rights to create any number of new Web addresses with that suffix. You might see www.thebest.pizza as a new home for restaurant reviews. The winner could also strike deals with major pizzeria chains to create www.dominos.pizza and www.papajohns.pizza as a replacement or sister site for their current websites.
But creating a new gTLD isn't cheap. Simply applying costs $185,000. Things get even hairier if there are multiple applicants for the same name. (Four different groups applied for .pizza.) ICANN will give them a chance to work things out among themselves – such as one buying out the other three. But if the four can't come to an agreement, then ICANN will auction off .pizza to the highest bidder. The expense doesn't end there. Whichever group wins must agree to pay ICANN $25,000 a year to keep its monopoly on .pizza.
Why shell out so much for a bunch of Web addresses? For businesses, it's about remaining on the cutting edge and locking down .nba, .hyatt, and .loreal before anyone else can register them. But for speculators, it's about buying in early.
Before ICANN initiated this program, some worried that Internet real estate had grown too scarce and too expensive. Registering a brand-new .com address costs just a few dollars, but with more than 100 million .com domain names, most of the good, generic addresses were snatched up long ago. For example, investing.com, first registered in the Internet dark ages of 1995, sold last month for $2.4 million.
Now, scores of domain-name brokers have popped up with hopes of turning a $185,000 investment into a multimillion-dollar payday.
Donuts, a website registry located outside Seattle, spent $55 million applying for more than 300 gTLDs, including .taxi, .camp, and .investment. It wants to rent out these addresses to businesses, allowing a cab company stuck with windycitytaxiinc.com to register a nice and simple address like chicago.taxi.
This land run means even more for people in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. With the new expansion, ICANN has agreed to create the first top-level domains that use non-Latin alphabets, such as Chinese, Arabic, and Cyrillic. In fact, in an effort to make up for lost time, Ms. Willett says that ICANN will review the 108 non-Latin applications first.
ICANN held a lottery in December to determine the order in which it will process the initial applications. The first gTLD up for review will be the Roman Catholic Church's bid for .catholic in Chinese characters. The first Latin-character names will be .play and .dog.
Once the program is running at full speed, Willett expects to approve and release about 20 gTLDs per week. At that pace, it'll take about a year and half to process the initial batch.
ICANN may reject bids for a few different reasons. Applicants must prove that they can handle the technical end of running a top-level domain. ICANN also needs to sort out about 260 objections from various countries. Argentina has opposed the Patagonia clothing company claiming .patagonia (the name of a region in South America). Australia filed numerous concerns over any one group having a monopoly on common terms such as .dental and .music. Australia wants guarantees that applicants will not use gTLDs in an anticompetitive way.
As ICANN works to resolve these snags, Willett expects the first gTLDs to debut in May.