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Sponsored TLD Unnecessary? Ron Andruff Responds to Forrester Research

A recent report released by Forrester Research last week has put the .travel sponsored top-level domain under the microscope — calling the sTLD "Nice, But Not Necessary". Although this 4-page report (sold for US$49.00) has singled out the .travel domain, its critical arguments might very well apply to the nature of most sponsored top-level domains currently in existence — or under review: '.mobi', '.jobs, '.museum', '.coop', '.xxx' and more. CircleID has invited Ron Andruff, President and CEO of Tralliance, the registry for .travel, to respond to arguments made in this report.

CircleID: Ron, as you know, Forrester's recent report on .travel has been fairly critical of the sTLD and given a number of specific reasons why. So let's begin with the report's argument on the accreditation process:

"The accreditation process is flawed. Tralliance and TTPC will, rightly, only allow companies to register names that they can legally demonstrate are theirs — for example, Expedia. The problem is, if a business whose name includes common words, such as Delta Air Lines, is slow to register, another firm that also legally uses Delta as part of its name could register Delta.travel, thus forcing the airline to use something more cumbersome like deltaairlines.travel — a URL that is dramatically different from its current, shorter delta.com URL."

Would you agree?

Ron Andruff: The flawed process Forrester refers to is the one that has been in place since the dawn of the commercial Internet, i.e., first come, first served. Tralliance has not deviated from this industry standard that ensures an any entity, anywhere in the world, can claim their .travel domain name under the same principles and practices as all other top level domains, whether they be .com, .museum, or .travel.

That point being corrected, Tralliance Corporation has added the important elements of verification of the entity applying for a domain name, as well as verification of the name selected, to the process. These two additional elements, in point of fact, position .travel as the world's first Registry to successfully hold a pristine WHOIS database — something that has confounded the Internet community from the Internet's inception. Rather than "flawed", Tralliance's process should be heralded as the standard of the future Internet. I would venture to guess that "first come, first served" will continue to remain the guiding principle when it comes to names distribution going forward.

I would also point out that Tralliance oversees a very thorough denial and dispute process. If one entity feels that another entity has claimed their name improperly, they have several avenues which they can pursue to attempt to claim that name. In reality, our process is meticulously designed to ensure against exactly the scenario to which Forrester points.

Finally, taking the long view, as time goes on a name such as www.deltaairlines.travel will become more intuitive in a more crowded Internet, and thus more valuable because the name reflects exactly that of the company and declares what it does. The mental construct noted by Forrester that shorter is better is just that, a mental construct, rather than the sociological roadblock suggested.

CircleID: Next is the issue of search engines and how new sTLDs might or might not help in online searching methods. The report has made the following argument:

The .travel directory won't overcome general search engines. Tralliance's decision to create a dedicated .travel directory is, indeed, a nice value-added benefit for .travel registrants. But anyone who thinks that the directory will replace general search engines is mistaken. General search engines offer their users nearly unbeatable utility, which is one reason why 27% of US online leisure travelers use general search engines when researching travel. It's idealistic to think that a consumer will say, "Oh wait, I'm about to do a travel search; I need to use a different search engine."

Your response?

Ron Andruff: Before making judgments, analysts and critics need to fully understand www.directory.travel. The Directory is not and never has been declared a search engine with aspirations to unseat the giants. The Internet community, worldwide, uses utilities every day for all manner of important tasks. The utility (or perhaps better understood: "catalogue") to use to find exact information about the global travel and tourism industry is available to everyone by simply typing: "directory.travel" into any browser.

As it comes at no cost to the registrant, we don't see any reason why a webmaster or SME business owner would not load their profiles into directory.travel — at worst, simply to see if it delivers any results. A sale or two from that channel, particularly when such a sale would cover the cost of annual registration, will rapidly change perceptions. It comes down to people putting a pre-conceived notion aside and acting on an opportunity.

Speaking to the power of the directory, it will revolutionize the way travel and tourism is researched because it can co-relate as many travel terms, or facets, as a user selects. As the facets are selected, the directory narrows down a list of 100% matches to every multifaceted query. 100% matches is a giant leap forward, so we anticipate that directory.travel will organically gain recognition amongst users as it delivers results. I'd say that beats any "nearly unbeatable utility" any day. And didn't Google use a similar marketing strategy in its early days...?

But the critical element here is the Internet itself, and its global user base. There are 192 countries and territories in the world, with the United States (the nation most close to Internet saturation) but one of them. The travel and tourism entities in those other 191 markets welcome a framework that enables them to get online and bring their products/services to a global market in an unbiased manner. Most are not interested in outbidding a competitor for a keyword, nor do they trust that the paid results served are free of click fraud, so a free utility that returns 100% results — at no cost to them — is of great value to hundreds of thousands of travel and tourism entities around the world.

As we go forward, www.directory.travel will evolve and expand as the logic and ever-growing value of this tool becomes more widely understood.

CircleID: The following is a point often raised when it comes to the adoption of new top-level domains by the industry — particularly with companies that have invested significant marketing funds and resources for their existing web addresses. Forrester report says:

There's no benefit to established travel companies in rebranding. The most successful travel firms on the Web have already invested significant sums developing and creating awareness of their current Web site addresses. Tralliance is naive to think that these firms will willingly forfeit these names — or redirect existing URLs to their .travel ones. As one executive commented to Forrester about his firm's .travel registration, "We're not even sure we're going to activate .travel, let alone redirect it to .com." For established firms, at least, there is no benefit to rebranding with .travel. So travel companies may buy their .travel domains, but most won't push them.

What's been your perception so far in the market?

Ron Andruff: The commercial Internet has barely celebrated its 10th birthday. So it is much too early to claim to know how this will play out. Places like Miami, Disney Cruises, and others have already activated their domain names, but .travel has only recently launched so the future will have to answer that question for all of us.

However the aspect of "re-branding" is a non-issue. I challenge the notion of such a thing. A brand is a brand; a domain is an address. Tralliance Corporation.220FifthAvenueNewYork is hardly our company's brand in the physical world, why would Tralliance.travel be a brand in cyberspace.. Moreover, if one's so-called ".com brand" is indeed strong, such an entity could point that URL at any domain and reap the rewards of the brand investment.

From a consumer's point of view, moving with a global industry initiative is logical for both the company and the consumer. Industry (and nations alike, e.g. Canada.travel) are moving their web sites to their .travel domains and starting to use their .travel email accounts everyday. Smart business leaders will hedge their bets and prepare their .travel sites, load their directory profiles, and establish their .travel SEO now before it gets too much later in the game.

To be clear, Tralliance is NOT suggesting anyone discard their current URLs. Like any other method of reaching out to one's consumer market, .travel is yet another valuable communications channel. It is the domain name for both today's industry and the travel industry of tomorrow.

CircleID: Next is the question of consumer adoption that is often raised and indeed also brought up in the report:

"Most consumers won't change long-held behaviors — and those who do won't change quickly. Tralliance maintains that .travel is less about now, and more about the future. But US online travelers already have an average of 6.5 years of online experience, and travel Web sites are starting to celebrate 10th anniversaries. With sponsored top-level domains remaining limited in use, Forrester asserts that .com and its global counterparts will remain the standard for commercial Internet addresses."

Will ".com and its global counterparts" remain the standard address or do you see a different picture?

Ron Andruff: The phenomenon of the Internet is that changes can happen in a flash, and the world around that phenomenon becomes completely captivated by it. Algorithmic search engines are one of the many easily noted examples in our recent past. But how long does the recent past actually mean?

The time frames Mr. Hardevelt cites are irrelevant in terms of the Internet and its inexorable march forward. It expands exponentially, in every direction, every day. The logical expansion of the DNS and names space — seen in that light — suggests something different from the chaos of anonymity that is the ".com" space today. A "declared industry" is one that is proactive in distinguishing itself, so a better branding tool one couldn't wish to have.

As more sponsored top level domains are approved and added to the A root of the Internet (something that is currently under discussion within the Internet community), domain names such as .travel, .mobi, and others will become less foreign, better understood and a normal part of our Internet use. My position is that .com will always be dominant, but that industry/special interest sectors will lift themselves up out of that anonymity.

Interacting with the GNSO constituencies and support organizations, i.e., the global members of the Internet community at one of ICANN's tri-annual meetings could well-serve Forrester's analysts.

CircleID: Any additional points you'd like to address?

Ron Andruff: Yes. First, almost everything I have said today can be transferred to other sponsored top level domains. I would welcome their comments to this interview, as there is no doubt that they are significantly investing in their sTLDs, just as Tralliance has in .travel. I don't think that the likes of Microsoft, Nokia, and T-Mobile, are taking a flyer on .mobi. Rather, I believe that they have serious intent. Sponsored top level domains are here and they will remain part of the core of the Internet as long as there is an Internet.

Second, the online world is vastly more than a few major players in the United States. Anyone quoting U.S. statistics in a global marketplace is myopic. India has just begun an unprecedented 19-year boom during which it will lead the global economy in terms of growth, thereby spawning a huge, new middle class of travelers. Its neighbor, China, has an even larger burgeoning class of people who want to see the world. These two markets alone represent hundreds of millions of new travelers coming on stream over the next two decades. They will be looking for travel and tourism offerings from every corner of the earth and across all sectors of the industry. No entity today holds all of that information; because the vast majority that information is still off line. Directories, like directory.travel will deliver those offerings and enable users to do lookups in their mother tongues.

Third, the Internet should not be about protecting a dominant group, but rather it should ensure that an entire industry can be presented in an equal and unbiased manner. .travel brings the whole world of travel to the marketplace because it presents all entities on a level playing field. In doing so, Tralliance Corporation, the .travel Registry, is facilitating the sum total of the travel and tourism matrix in taking a unified step forward, and observing progress everyday.

Any entity that is involved with the Internet (with regard to their place on it) must take a long view. Expanding exponentially 24 x 7x 365, it doesn't take a crystal ball to know that five, and then ten, years from now the Internet will barely resemble how it looks and functions today. sTLDs, like .travel, will become cornerstones in the DNS framework around which the Internet will evolve and expand.

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Re: Sponsored TLD Unnecessary? Ron Andruff Responds to Forrester Research John Levine  –  Feb 23, 2006 12:07 PM PDT

Gee, I guess we should feel encouraged that .TRAVEL has the same problems as other sTLDs.

It seems to me that .MOBI has some chance of success, since they have a somewhat captive audience in all the mobile phone users.  (Imagine what the takeup would be if a few large mobile carriers tried foo.mobi before foo.com when a user just types foo.)

I can also see some value in certification for types of organizations where people care a lot about real vs. fake ones, e.g., .BANK.  I doubt that protecting us from fake travel agencies is enough to make a go of .TRAVEL.

Other than that, what's the point of an sTLD?  I don't know, and in view of the impressive failure of all sTLDs to date, neither does anyone else.

Re: Sponsored TLD Unnecessary? Ron Andruff Responds to Forrester Research Thomas Barrett  –  Feb 23, 2006 1:46 PM PDT

When I hear people opine about "success" or "failure", I remind myself that they are talking solely with respect to their own expectations.

Regarding the new tld's, there are a lot of people with unrealistic expectations.  TLD's not meeting their expectations are deemed "failures".

These declarations are premature at best.

Many factors contribute to this: the internet bubble, the inflated forecasts contained in the ICANN dog-and-pony show, comparisons to the inertia evident in .com, the oldest and dominant TLD.

Seasoned entreprenuers and venture capitalists realize that it can take up to 10 years for a new industry and a new business to gain critical mass.

Course corrections are inevitable, as they are in any industry.  The winners in this space will be those who are patient in building their brand and focus on adding differentiated value to their customers.

Regards,

Tom Barrett
EnCirca, Inc

Re: Sponsored TLD Unnecessary? Ron Andruff Responds to Forrester Research John Levine  –  Feb 23, 2006 2:29 PM PDT

Aha! Failure is not an option because ... we'll define whatever happens to be success! Why didn't I think of that?

The sTLDs from the previous round are all failures not just because they all missed their most pessimistic size targets by 95% but because they have no mindshare and are not getting any.  If you look at .EDU, which is in effect an sTLD, it's not huge but it's successful because people know about it and, generally speaking, anyone who's eligible for .EDU uses it.  Do co-ops use .COOP?  Museums use .MUSEUM? Airlines and airports use .AERO?  Nope. Even outfits who do have an sTLD registration rarely use it, e.g., I asked my wife what her credit union's URL was, alternatives.org or alternatives.coop, and she said .org because that's what's all over their web site, even though both domains work.

It's true that .TRAVEL has a less bad marketing plan than prior sTLDs, and Tralliance and registrars, particularly Encirca, have apparently signed up over 10K registrants already.  (I can't verify that, since .TRAVEL has so far ignored my applications for the zone file access that their ICANN contract requires.) But spot checks show a whole lot of parked pages, so I see no reason to think that .TRAVEL will get any more mindshare than .AERO, no matter how far back you move the goalposts.

Re: Sponsored TLD Unnecessary? Ron Andruff Responds to Forrester Research Thomas Barrett  –  Feb 23, 2006 3:21 PM PDT

John,

I think you just proved my point. 

.edu and .org domains were first registered in 1985.  They are twenty-one years old.

.coop and .museum are just infants in comparison.

Calling them failures by comparing them to 21-year olds is way too easy and premature.

regards,

Tom Barrett
EnCirca, Inc

Re: Sponsored TLD Unnecessary? Ron Andruff Responds to Forrester Research John Levine  –  Feb 23, 2006 5:06 PM PDT

I have nothing against sTLDs, being one of the tiny band of suckers who actually uses a .AERO domain, but I can't see arguments that domains will become successful merely by becoming older as anything other than wishful thinking on the part of people who hope to make money from them.

It didn't take 20 years for .EDU to get mindshare, it tool about 20 minutes.  If the trajectory of, say, .COOP were anything like that of .EDU, every co-op on the net would be using .COOP now, and I wouldn't be seeing .COOP domains being abandoned by my DNS customers.

In my previous comment I noted that my wife thought of her credit union as a .org rather than .coop, but what's really more important is what she said before that, which that she didn't really remember, because she always finds it by typing its name into a search engine. Domains don't matter unless they provide something more than just a name.  Maybe people will flock to .TRAVEL so they can be sure they're buying tickets from a real airline rather than one that only has cardboard airplanes, but I'm not holding my breath.

Re: Sponsored TLD Unnecessary? Ron Andruff Responds to Forrester Research Daniel R. Tobias  –  Feb 24, 2006 9:32 AM PDT

What sort of suckers does that guy expect to pay $49 for a four-page text file, when you can read a lot more, and more varied, commentary on new TLDs online for free?

Re: Sponsored TLD Unnecessary? Ron Andruff Responds to Forrester Research Neil Homer  –  Mar 01, 2006 5:08 AM PDT

The recent report and this discussion raise many valid points about sTLD's in general and .COOP specifically.

My retail coop in the UK bought the main .COOP registrar in late 2004 in order to make a better go of it than the previous owner. It's true to say that .COOP is nowhere close to achieving the founders' original targets but the vision remains sound, if perhaps a little before its time as far as the international coop community is concerned.

We believe the key to the success of .COOP is a Registry and a Registrar(s) that are part of that community and have a clear insight into the customer value proposition. Our acquisition of the business from a private UK company has already made a big difference to the first point.

John's wifes's comment on using .COOP for her Credit Union shows how much work needs to be done on the second point. But for others of us - what you could describe as the more innovative coop businesses - it's a real no-brainer and we switched to .COOP straight away. We were already promoting our coop identity to customers, members, staff and suppliers as part of our commercial strategies offline so this was a natural extension. The key for us now is to find the thousands of coops around the world that we're sure think the same way that we do!

One of the great things about this sTLD is that using it for web and email addresses always gives us the opportunity when giving it out to people to answer the question ".COOP? What's that then?" with a message that reinforces our difference.

Looking at my bottom line, I only hope we don't have to wait 21 years for our vision to come true though!

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