How Tech Giants Like Amazon And Google Are Playing The Icann Domain Game

Icann — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees a host of Internet-related operations, including the assignment of domain names — today revealed a list of nearly 2,000 top-level domain names that businesses and other organizations have applied to own, as part of a new move to vastly expand the range of domains that can be used. And while some of the applications are coming from the usual suspects among those who already figure in the domain name registration business or want to — 70 from Top Level Domain Holdings, from example, and 307 from newly-funded Donuts — it’s interesting to note that leading tech companies like Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft are taking very divergent strategies about how to approach this new chapter in mapping out the web.

Here’s a rundown of how these and some others have approached the business of registrations, what they’ve registered for, and what might be behind it.

It appears that Google has named a separate entity, Charleston Road Registry, to manage its gTLD portfolio, because Google, which is already an ICANN-accredited registrar, wants to keep its registry and registrar activities separate. We have contacted Google to ask why and it would not comment.

But there is some explanation for the breadth of applications in a blog post by Vint Cerf, Google’s “Chief Internet Evangelist” and himself a founding father of Icann (and a former chairman). He notes that Google has applied covering four different areas: its existing trademarks (like .google); domains for its core business (eg .docs); domains for user experience (.youtube); and domains with “creative potential” (eg .lol).

For Amazon, another company that has applied for dozens of TLDs, it looks like it may have followed a similar strategy to cover trademarks, core business, user experience and “creative potential.” We have contacted Amazon with the question and will update when we hear back.

Sticking to brands only is definitely the approach taken so far by Microsoft, Samsung, Sony and Apple — which has been particularly conservative, registering only for “.apple”. Other brands like Facebook and Twitter do not appear to have gotten involved at all in this process.

Some of the registrations, especially those on brand names, may well be made on a defensive basis, to make sure that competitors or others do not park on related TLDs. And — in a process somewhat similar to how some companies buy patents — they may be looking to own certain domains purely as a defensive measure to make sure that others do not get them.

But on the other hand, the possibilities of what some of these domains might point to are interesting to contemplate. Examples: Is Amazon really looking to develop its own mobile phone? Look, it’s registered mobile, calls and talk. Is Google looking to move into more focused content plays around a specific vertical like the family? Look, it’s registered baby, kid, mom, dad and family.

Leaving to one side that there are some here that are overlapping (along with many others in the list of nearly 2,000 name applications), there is also something interesting that both Google and Amazon could be trying to do here in their wide-ranging list of names.

Given that both have already made extensive investments into becoming all-in-one platforms, offering content, cloud services, data management, devices, ecommerce and more, it seems like they are one step away from running their own one-stop shop internet platforms for others that want to go online. They could sell URLs based around those new TDSs and then offer a full suite of services to serve them: hosting, data management, billing, ecommerce, content streaming, voice calls, mobile and more.

Two more things to remember about the TLDs:

The first is that there are already some 22 TLDs in use today, but some of them get very little traffic indeed. As Cerf points out, nearly 50 percent of all traffic goes over .com. And as my colleague Sarah says, “All these new TLDs could still flop, too.”

So some of this may be speculative bubble buying — with bubble prices to match: altogether some $350 million has been sunk into these applications so far, Icann noted in the press conference today.

The nearly $200,000 pricetag for each registration — although Icann says it can justify the cost, and even help those who feel they should own a domain but cannot afford the application fee — has also caused some controversy for furthering the digital divide. Abe Garver, a pricipal at Focus Banking, notes: “That there will be negative long-term implications for those (small to middle-sized) retailers that lacked capital to be in the game, is a foregone conclusion.  I predict the new domains will radically change organic search results and further swing the advantage from the haves, to the have nots..not just in the U.S. but around the world.

“In my opinion this watershed event is akin to our Federal Government selling land in our nation’s park system.  The land has never (in my lifetime) been on the market and its future value may be astronomical.  Sure an Internet retailers could expand into a new market with a prime url, however the asset is fungible, meaning it can be sold at a later time for (hopefully) a gain,” he told me in an email exchange.

The second is that it ain’t over yet. These now need to go through a vetting a decision awarding process that will likely see lots of horse trading and more. And this is just the first round of registrations: there will be more rounds to come.


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