Pando

What's In A Name? The fading tyranny of dot com

By James Robinson , written on October 9, 2014

From The News Desk

We’ve all been there. We click on a link, but then pause a second. There’s a “.net” or a “.org” at the end of the address. We think against our better nature, “What is this, amateur hour?” Doesn’t this company understand how the Internet works?

We subconsciously judge anything but the dot-com domain extension.

Getting the right dot-com domain name for a business can be a deal breaker in trying to pursue a name. “The internet has been a part of our culture for a very long time now and dot-com is what people are accustomed to,” John Boitnott wrote in an aptly named Inc. piece, “4 Ways Your Domain Name Can Make or Break Your Business.” The perfect web address, according to Forbes, is the “key to your email identity, and fundamental to your marketing and even capital-raising.”

The dot-com web address is the snobby, old moneyed blue blood of the world wide web. But as apps and social media make a businesses landing page less and less essential, is its tyranny over company names waning?

Definitely. (In certain circles.)

For someone like Michael Heyward, who co-founded anonymous social networking app Whisper in 2012, as a mobile first company, he says, there was not an ounce of trepidation at not having the Whisper.com domain name. (Whisper.com itself is a junk address, filled with spam links.)

Heyward says that 99 percent of Whisper’s exposure comes from its app. The company has a Whisper.sh landing page, to showcase popular posts from the app and publish legal and company information.

“A great name describes the core aspect of your business, it’s no different when naming an app,” Heyward says. His thoughts are just like anybody elses about naming a company, but he doesn’t have to worry about getting the right web address to match.

In 2014, Americans spend more time in apps than they do using the Internet on desktop. With social media sites becoming a greater engine for content discovery, new sites such as Quartz are popping up that don’t really even have an official homepage.

The Internet is spinning on a different axis now. Eric Case has almost been in the perfect position to view this change. He built Domainr with two friends, Randy Reddig and Cameron Walters, in 2008 when they’d had a bunch of projects hit the naming wall when they couldn’t get the right web addresses. Finding a domain name is crucial to naming a company, he was finding out, but the process of getting a good domain name was excruciating. “The experience is not very user friendly, historically. Particularly in the area of searching, with each registrar’s domains siloed from the other,” Case says.

Domainr was conceived as a single search box that could work across the entire domain space to let you know what was available. You type a company name in to a search box and it tells you all of the suitable domain names that are available.

Crucially though, Domainr went a step further. It covers second level, international domain names too, Case explains. The tool was created when the iPhone was a year old, well before apps had taken off to this level. But it was helping to open the door for more novelty web addresses and make the dot com extension less essential.

For example: for a hypothetical company I thought up of on the spot right now called Scooter, Domainr suggests to me the address scoot.er, taking advantage of the web extension for Eritrean web addresses. Whisper.sh, as mentioned above, makes advantage of the extension for the small island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The advent of Twitter in 2006 put an emphasis on not wasting characters when sharing socially, giving birth to early space savers like bit.ly (itself using the Libyan web extension). Case says that Twitter, and later the advent of apps, meant that traffic to Domainr has stayed high throughout the last six years.

“Before Twitter, short links were something only sophisticated techies noticed,” Case says. “If you were in a loud bar trying to tell someone a web address, if you were having to explain it past dot com, you were struggling.”

Those days, however, are over. Or at least ending.

“People wedded to the idea of a dot com address need to think of something like an Instagram, who started off as Instagr.am (.am is the web extension for Armenia). We know Kevin (Systrrom, Instagram founder). He actually used domainr to get that domain name. They eventually bought the dot com, but not having it did not hold them back from becoming a wildly popular product.”

It’s not so much about “disrupting” the dot com, as it is that the dot com web address is a market leader that is getting less relevant and with no good way to catch up. Progress is the disruptor.

“I think that in the tech vertical, developer related tools and early, early stage projects that people are tinkering with, the dot io domain has become very popular,” Case says. “The folks who run the dot co do a lot of marketing work to popularize it as a domain for companies and have done a fantastic job, positioning it.”

For every Instagram and Whisper, every novelty domain that blows up large, there’s going to be someone looking on and thinking about their company name that will turn away from a dot com web address.

The dot com was the King of Web 1.0 and 2.0, but it’s hard to see it’s influence spreading too far beyond that.

[Editor’s note: This article is part of Pando’s “What’s In A Name?” series in which we look at the stories behind how some of tech’s biggest companies got their names. The series is sponsored by Braintree, so you’ll only see their ads around “What’s In A Name?” pieces. But the series was conceived, commissioned and edited entirely by Pando. Braintree had no input whatsoever in the editorial. For more on our policy towards single sponsor series like this one, see here.]

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]

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