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New gTLDs Race to the Bottom With Domain Giveaways?

David Mitnick

The new .BERLIN domain added 67,000 new registrations early this week and another almost 6,000 yesterday. This occurred after a few registrars ran a promotion offering free .BERLIN domains. As reported at DomainIncite, over a 1/3 of these domains were purchased by one registrant — making them the largest "landowner" in .BERLIN.

Giving away domains may be a good short term business practice. It gets people in the pipeline, gets them to see the value, build sites in the registry and encourages repurchase when it comes to renewal time. But the geographical domains are not supposed to be generic, and given away to anyone for the asking. What is the point of a having a geographic TLD if people or entities owning them have no connection to Berlin? This won't create value, and could actually be harmful if it leads to names and business terms being taken that could have been used (and purchased) by actual citizens of that geographic area.

It also reflects poorly on ICANN. Why ICANN? Because giving away .BERLIN domain names to anyone, anywhere does not jibe with the mission of fostering connections, creating communities and generating better search results for legitimate Berlin related businesses and services. The New gTLD program has often been justified by the link between the term or brand being used as a TLD and how that is going to create immediate and specific connections for internet users. In its application to ICANN, .BERLIN explained that its guiding mission and purpose for the registry was to foster a community, stating:

"[t]he purpose of the .BERLIN top-level domain is to serve the needs and the many and varied interests of the Berliners (the .BERLIN Community) on the Internet. The .BERLIN Community consists of individuals and legal entities that can demonstrate an economic, cultural, social, historic or other relationship to the City of BERLIN that can be verified by (i) a residence within the City of BERLIN ... The purpose reflects and incorporates the relationship towards the local conditions and the local interests of the relevant authorities, citizens and organizations ..." (emphasis added)

A recent article in the Times of India that was recently tweeted by ICANN, led off with a quick explanation of how this should work: "[i]f you want to access your lawyer's website, you may soon be typing your lawyer's name with the suffix '.lawyer'. Searching for the nearest pub? Your web search may take you to a site ending with '.beer'." Associations between these terms and who should be using them is only natural. But this is not a problem for TLDs like .com, .net, .info and .co because these registries don't create a specific expectation or association.

How registries operate, market, and generate users will vary greatly. Some will be successful and many others will fail. For geographic and local registries, however, the stakes are higher because those registries represent actual places that have reputations (and perhaps politicians) that could suffer if things don't work out.

If giving away domain names is good business I would expect to see other registries, particularly ones that have struggled to gain traction, follow suit. This trend however must be rather depressing to watch for registries that have not hit land-rush yet as their job convincing consumers to pay for a domain name just got tougher. It also creates an interesting perception in the marketplace that people should not necessarily pay for New gTLD domains — or at least geographic TLDs. (I personally feel like a bit of a sucker for having paid for a few .BERLIN domains after pre-registration.)

It may be the .BERLIN giveaway creates a business template that works and it meets the goals and ideals in its application — that would be good news for everyone. But the ultimate test won't be how many registrations (paid or unpaid) it manages to get — instead, it will be what it does for the Berlin community and whether it becomes a valuable and reliable source of identification for locals, tourists, and others who seek information about this historic area online.

By David Mitnick, President DomainSkate LLC
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I do not believe that the .BERLIN Thomas Lenz  –  Jun 19, 2014 3:34 AM PDT

I do not believe that the .BERLIN give-away is going to constitute a sustainable business model. It may help to pump up registration volumes for a while, but it does not really support the mission of the TLD, as described in the well-written article. What the new registries will have to do is reach out to the end-customer and create demand for their products. That is what businesses in other industries have been doing for ages. One would think that this is easier for regional registries as they are much closer to their primary traget groups and have a simple message to tell. Another, major task for the complete Domain Name Industry is to generate awareness for domain names as valuable assets and innovative products. Even after so many years after the start of the nTLD program by ICANN and the substantial communication efforts of the industry, domain names have not yet reached the broad masses as attractive products. They are "nice-to-haves" and still perceived rather as add-ons for websites than the beginning of all internet presences. There is still a lot to do in that respect.

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