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After dot-IO, Which Country is Next for the Domain Gold Rush?

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With 129.5 million names registered in dot-COM, you can bet all the best names are either already hosting a business or in the hands of somebody who is fully aware of their value. With less interest in the new Generic Top Level Domains (newGTLDs), start-ups are turning to individual Country's Top Level Domains (ccTLD) as their first point of call when trying to launch a new business – often returning, flush with the cash of the second round of finance, to buy the dot-COM should their idea subsequently take off.

Why use a Country Domain not a New-GTLD?

Often their main reason for avoiding the newGLTDs is pricing. Most of the newGTLDs operate a banded pricing policy – meaning the more desirable a name is, the more expensive it is to both buy & renew – often to the point that it can feel like you don't really own the domain name, but are in fact just renting it.

This not only puts the name out of the reach of many start-ups, but would also considerably increase their exposure to risk, as they could have to committed themselves to whopping renewal fees only 12 months down the line, and 12 months again after that.

There has also, historically, been a lack of clarity and stability in the pricing of some of the newGTLDs, with some announcing sudden price increases of up to 300%. Others, like dot-CLUB seem to understand the insecurity this generates, and offer sensible renewal pricing and guarantees on future pricing. However, it can be hard for the consumer to tell the difference between all the vast range, and their various policies, so they end up feeling nervous about them all. Too much choice can be a bad thing – The Paradox of Choice.

Given the wide variety of options out there in Top Level Domains, the obvious question might therefore simply be – why would you bother to risk your business on a newGTLD like that?

However, with countries like dot-WS starting to adopt banded and premium pricing, it may be just a matter of time before other ccTLDs follow suit and the newGTLDs start looking less of an outsider.

With only four ccTLDs holding over 10 million names, and when compared to dot-COM, the other ccTLDs are relatively sparsely populated, allowing for plenty of great names to still be available.

For this reason, in the last few years, we have seen the start-up tech-sector drawn to the ccTLD dot-IO. Dot-IO mostly operates a flat pricing model, so neat and meaningful names are readily available at reasonable prices instead of commanding the kind of outlandish premium prices seen in some of the newGTLDs. Plus the “IO” ending is retro and geeky referring to vintage computer terminology. For example, “I/O Port” meaning an “Input & Output Port”, basically a generic and geeky term for any socket in a computer, like a USB socket.

Dot-TV, dot-ME and dot-CO are all now firmly established as a cc/gTLD – in fact when asked, most consumers probably couldn't tell you they're actually a country's Top Level Domain at all.

Personally, I'd avoid a dot-CO as it seems to me too easy to leak visitors to the corresponding dot-COM – on the other hand, if at some point you want to buy the corresponding dot-COM and re-brand, it may be a much easier job, than rebranding from (say) a dot-LY domain.

Here are some of the other pitfalls.

They may be treated differently in Google Searches

When a UK resident uses GOOLE.CO.UK to search for a product or service, Google will take into account where they live and give them search results that are geographically closer to them – after all, there is little point giving a Londoner a list of the best restaurants in Hong Kong – unless that's what they asked for.

So preference is given to web sites hosted in a dot-UK domain, or ones that have a UK IP Address, or ones that use a Generic Top Level Domain (gTLD), and may have additionally used Google's Search Console to specify that they provide service to the UK market.

Therefore, you need to be careful when buying a ccTLD that does not match your target market, as you may find it more difficult to get better ranking than a country domain that does geographically match.

There are exceptions to this. There are 19 ccTLDs that Google has put in a “magic list” (follow the link and click "More about domain determination" at the bottom), recognising them as widely marketed outside of their geographic territory and therefore are ranked in the same way as a Generic Top Level Domain (gTLD), i.e. the same as a dot-COM.

The full list is … dot-AD, dot-AS, dot-BZ, dot-CC, dot-CD, dot-CO, dot-DJ, dot-FM, dot-IO, dot-LA, dot-ME, dot-MS, dot-NU, dot-SC, dot-SR, dot-SU, dot-TV, dot-TK, dot-WS

Domains in any of these ccTLDs are treated the same as gTLDs – i.e. as non-geographic and therefore will have the same SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) as any other gTLD, like dot-COM.

If you have a gTLD, or a ccTLD that is in this list, you can go into Google's Search Console and specify which geographic territory your site targets. If your domain name is in a ccTLD that is not in the list, then you will not have this option.

So although the country domains of Italy (dot-IT) and India (dot-IN) might make very tempting choices as they are made of English short words, a domain name registered in either of these countries will impact the way your name comes up in search results.

It was after dot-IO was added to this list, in May-2013, that growth in the zone really stated to accelerate. Particular as the Google Engineer, while posting the announcement, said dot-IO was his personal favourite. Google's actions definitely accelerated additional growth, but Google was also reacting to what was already happening on the ground.

Legal Jurisdiction and Registry Ts & Cs

Another factor to be considered is Legal Jurisdiction and Registry Terms & Conditions. What you don't want it do is spend a lot of time and money building a brand based on a domain name, only to find that the rights you thought you had to the domain name aren't quite what you had in mind.

All gTLDs are governed by ICANN and have to conform to their rules, but this is not true for the ccTLDs. ICANN has very little jurisdiction over them. About 50 ccTLDs have signed up to an ICANN code of conduct, but the reality of this agreement is that it is voluntary and mostly related to technical standards and a commitment to ensure the security, stability and operability of the Internet. When it comes to domain ownership and rights, these will almost certainly be covered by local rules and the legal infrastructure of the country in question.

This is another reason it is thought that dot-IO became popular. Dot-IO represents a British Overseas Territory – meaning that it is governed by UK law, which historically has had strong protections for private property and ownership.

Dot-LY might seem like a cool and sexy ccTLD, but do you really want to bet the future of your investment on the stability and legal framework (or lack or it) in a country like Libya?

Dot-IO has been the buzz of the domain world for a while now, and they keep their exact numbers quite close to their chests, but its thought the current zone size is around 300,000 names, and still growing. But this relatively low number means there is still plenty of room for further growth and plenty of great names still available.

Avoid Cross Contamination

Where any top level domain has dropped its prices to ridiculously low levels, with the idea of attracting customers hoping they will pay full price to renew their domains, there is a risk that you will buy a domain that had previously expired and had been used for spamming (or worse) in its previous life.

This risk is also present with all top level domains, including dot-COM, but the risk is especially high with any TLD that has gone for excessively low pricing promotions.

What are the HOT Countries Now?

Try to predict the future, and you will only end up with egg on your face, but lets looks at a few that have recently caught my eye.

dot-WS

Branded as “dot-WebSite”, dot-WS is the ccTLD of Samoa, which until 1997 was known as Western Samoa. A group of two large and four smaller islands totalling 2,842km², east of Australia.

It has two great things going for it

  • Firstly, it is in Google magic list of ccTLDs that will be treated the same as a gTLD. This means you're not going to take a hit in your search rankings compared to dot-COM names.
  • Secondly, they are also one of the few domain registries that will allow you to register Emoji domain names like http://☺.ws/

    This is one of the advantages of not being controlled by ICANN. ICANN rules state that all gTLD domain registries must conform to the International Domain Name Standard called “IDNA2008” (RFC5895), which specifically bans all symbol characters, including Emojis. The older standard “IDNA2003” didn't impose this ban, and so a few symbol and Emoji domain names managed to creep into dot-COM – 69 single-character symbols, of which 33 are classified as Emojis.

    However, like the newGTLDs, dot-WS does runs a banded pricing policy. Two and Three character domains are priced higher than others and there is a list of about 4,000 “Premium” domains that represent the more desirable names, mostly one-word and single-character domain names.

    But apart from that, the domains are reasonably priced and renewal rates have flat pricing, except for the “Premium” domains.

    Its hard to get a gauge of the zone size, but a few quick searches suggests there are plenty of good names still to be had.

    dot-TO

    Dot-TO represents Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian sovereign state and archipelago comprising 169 islands, totalling about 750km², of which 36 are inhabited giving a total population of about 103,000. Improvements in the political situation and a much great emphasis on democracy makes this look a more stable investment prospect than it might have done ten years ago.

    dot-TO makes a cute ending by the fact it is a short English word. They will also allow you to register Emoji domain names and appear to have a flat pricing policy on all domain names – starting at $50 per year for two years and offering discounts for multiple years of registration – going up to a heft discount of 50% for those who are brave enough to register a full 100 years in advance!

    However, its is not in Google's magic list of generic ccTLDs, so you'd need to be aware, it could harm your search rankings if you go with a dot-TO domain.

    dot-AC

    dot-AC represents Ascension Island – basically a tiny rock of 88km² in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, half way between Africa and South America with a population of around 800. Its another British Overseas Territory, a legacy of The British Empire, and governed under the banner of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. Like dot-IO, being a British Overseas Territory, it also benefits from the jurisdiction of British Law.

    With the rise and rise of on-line training and on-line degrees dot-AC seems like a possible home for operators in these sectors. With many of them already calling themselves “Academies” or “Online Academies”, dot-AC might seem the obvious choice.

    Once again, getting site of zone sizes is hard to gauge as the registry keeps this a closely guarded secret, but using a representative sample of desirable single-word names, our brief check on their DNS indicates a really small zone of probably well under 10,000 names. This indicates there is plenty of scope for buying some really desirable names.

    They also have a flat pricing policy for almost all names, although a few of the most desirable names – largely single word or very short names – have been factored out to a third party for auction.

    It is not in Google's magic list of generic ccTLDs, so can take a hit in the search rankings, but should it ever become popular internationally, its likely it could make the list for two reasons. Firstly, the very low local population suggests very little use of the TLD would be local to the island and secondly, the standard second level domains of GOV, EDU, MIL, NET, ORG & COM exist and appear to be the ones preferred for local use.

    dot-SH

    Dot-SH represents Saint Helena – probably most famous for being the last resting place of Napoleon after being imprisoned there by the British, to try and stop him making any more trouble in Europe. St Helena is slightly less tiny rock of 121km² also in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean somewhere between Africa and South America.

    Being part of the same administrative group as Ascension Island and being a British Overseas Territory, dot-SH also benefits from the protection of British Law.

    Like “IO”, “SH” has mild amusement value for the geeky community as it refers to the command line interface of all Unix / Linux based computer systems. This interface is called a “Shell” and the default universal command line shell is “sh”. The term was originally coined in 1964 by Louis Pouzin, a Multics software engineer – the term was used to describe the ability to take a list of interactive command and run them together as a batch-job. Multics was the predecessor of Unix.

    However, dot-SH also lends itself to what is commonly only as “domain hacks”, where single longer words can be made by ignoring the dot separator – for example, CA.SH, DA.SH, PUBLI.SH and so on.

    Once again, our single-word research into their DNS suggests that the zone size is likely to be less than 10,000 names – so plenty of space for development.

    Like dot-AC, dot-SH is not in Google's magic list, so can suffer search ranking, but again like Ascension Island, St Helena has a relatively small population (about 4,500) and local domains also tend to be registered at the second level. Suggesting that adoption of dot-SH as a generic ccTLD could be a realistic possibility.

    Dot-AI

    Dot-AI represents the island of Anguilla. Another British Overseas Territory, of 90km². The most northerly of the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, lying east of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and directly north of Saint Martin – with a population of about 15,000. Being a British Overseas Territory, like “AC” & “SH”, it also has benefits from being covered by UK law.

    As might be expected, the ccTLD dot-AI is currently the subject of much chatter in the domain industry – as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning have become such a hot topic recently - with the connection to the ccTLD, dot-AI, being obvious.

    However, there are some issues that could mean it will be popular, but never mass market.

  • It is not in Google's “magic list”, and therefore would cause issues for search rankings. However, like AC & SH, its relatively small population means it may have the potential to make the list at a later date.
  • The registry itself is currently run on-island as a one man operation – from a Gmail account! Even the standard WWW.NIC.AI doesn't work. At the time of writing, the registry has no EPP interface, meaning that it has limited ability to to business through registrars, so trading in names may be problematic. Support for EPP is expected some time mid-2017. The registry itself can provide escrow services, but in Bitcoin only.
  • Although the domain has flat pricing, there is a US$100 fee to open an account, and domains are US$100 for 2 years, with no discounting or refunds for longer registrations.
  • its has a very unsophisticated DNS infrastructure. This, combined with hosting the registry on-island, leaves it very vulnerable to D/DoS attack.
  • The zone is not DNSSEC signed, leaving it open to fraud and spoofing
  • Although it is very suitable for AI based businesses and generic terms, the fact it is so specific may be its downfall. That is, after one or two thousand generic terms and the same number of trademark terms have been registered, there may simply be little room for growth beyond that.
  • AI is a very hot topic right now, but it is likely that AI will become so ubiquitous in the near future that it will simple cease to be interesting in its own right. Like the term “micro” has been dropped from computers, and “smart” from phones simply because they are all like that now.

    So although AI is a hop topic, it may be that dot-AI represents a high risk investment.

    A Map Showing the Location of British Overseas Territory

    Conclusion

    Clearly, when investing in a ccTLD many factors need to be taken into account – but where there is good name availability clear legal support and a reasonable pricing model, there may be opportunity.

    Note: Our single-word research on their published DNS does not take into account names registered that have no DNS, e.g. names yet to be developed or names reserved by the registry.  

     


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