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Goodbye Domain Names, Hello RealNames?

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From The Search Engine Report
May 3, 2000

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While the domain name system continues to devolve into a joke, the RealNames web addressing system is growing stronger. The company recently cemented a tighter relationship with Microsoft, continues to expand its reach and has pulled back on its main issue of controversy, the assignment of "generic" terms. The moves further position RealNames as a viable alternative, if not future successor, to the current domain name system.

Devaluation of top level domains is one of the biggest problems our current system faces. Top level domains, or TLDs, are the "endings" you choose when registering a domain name. For instance, McDonald's has registered a domain name of mcdonalds.com. As you can see, the name ends in .com. McDonald's also owns a domain name with a different ending, mcdonalds.org.

Why have domains with different endings? There was a time when the endings used to mean something. In fact, they could be incredibly helpful to understand the origin and backing of a web site. For instance, the .org TLD used to be reserved for non-profit organizations. Only non-profits could register a name ending in .org, and users going to sites with this ending could be fairly well assured that they were non-commercial in nature.

Today, this is no longer the case. Anyone may register a .org, regardless of their non-profit status. In fact, domain registrars like Network Solutions and others encourage companies to register .org addresses, as well as the .net TLDs, which used to be reserved for companies involved with Internet network operations. The pitch is to "protect" yourself against other companies getting your name with these alternative endings.

Similarly, .com has become the TLD that everyone wants, regardless of whether it is appropriate. That's because with the growth of commercial sites on the web, many surfers assume that all sites must end in .com. Looking for Ford? Just slap a .com on the end of their name, and you'll find them. Looking for the Sierra Club? Even though they are a non-profit organization, you can still reach them at sierraclub.com in addition to sierraclub.org. The environmental group no doubt realized users might look for it by adding a .com to its name, and so registered a domain with that ending to ensure it could be found. Likewise, the US White House surely must regret that it never registered whitehouse.com in addition to the proper whitehouse.gov address that it currently uses. That failure meant a porn site was able to get whitehouse.com, which comes as a surprise to many who arrive there.

Back in 1996, I used to call adding .com to the end of something ".comifying," such as when my wife -- sick of hearing me talk about the Internet -- would say "getalife.com." It was a way to make anything Internet-related. Today, it's commonplace for people to talk about "dotcoms" when they are referring to web sites. It's the same principle -- the .com ending is equated to being in cyberspace.

This brings us to the issue of domain ownership. There can only be one mcdonalds.com, even if there are several companies that hold trademarks that seemingly would entitle them to the address. Who ultimately gets ownership of a .com address has led to plenty of disputes and lawsuits, and there are no signs that these are diminishing. This is especially so because no one tries to resolve problems before domains are registered. Instead, it's a free-for-all. Anyone can register a name, and complaints are dealt with after the fact.

Rather than exert preemptive control, the current thinking is to simply introduce new TLDs, such as .firm for businesses or .rec for recreationally-oriented organizations. It's an absurd solution. We've already seen how existing TLDs are perverted and how companies are encouraged to register every ending available. The introduction of new TLDs will only cause companies to spend more money on names they do not need, while users will be poorly served because the classifications will inevitably be ignored.

In even more craziness, even country-specific TLDs can be twisted away from their original purpose. In early April, the Pacific Island country of Tuvalu has sold the rights to its country-specific domain of .tv to a private company, in a deal worth at least $50 million over the next ten years. Can you imagine if a country was able to sell its seat at the United Nations to a private company? To me, that's the equivalent of what's happened here. Country-specific domain names were supposed to be assigned so that we'd understand what country a domain was based in, not cash cows for sale to the highest bidder.

In short, the domain name system is a mess, and I don't see hope on the horizon -- except in the form of RealNames. In RealNames, we have an alternative system for reaching web sites that can potentially avoid the problems that the domain name system has suffered.

For one, names are subject to review before being approved. That allows potential conflicts with trademarks to be spotted before the fact, not afterwards. Moreover, if several companies seem to have an equal claim to a particular name, then usually no single company can own it. For instance, the RealNames keyword "alpine" will list several sites relevant for that keyword, rather than trying to take you to just one.

A real benefit is that names can be regionally specific. If I enter "Ford" into AltaVista, then click on the RealNames link that appears, I'll be taken to Ford's US web site. That's because AltaVista uses the US RealNames database. In contrast, if I enter "Ford" into UKMax.com, a UK-specific search engine, the RealNames link takes me to Ford's UK web site. It's the same word, "Ford," but because my location is known, I'm directed to the correct regional location.

Another plus is that unlike the domain name system, RealNames do not have to be in Latin-characters. In fact, RealNames has just expanded into Japan, offering navigational keywords in Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana characters.

Overall, RealNames is a much more intelligent, equitable and better managed system than the current domain name system. I don't see it as an immediate threat to the primacy of .com, but it is well-positioned to take over in the future. That's especially so given RealNames success with Microsoft. The company managed to get Microsoft to provide native support of some types of RealNames keywords within the Internet Explorer browser toward the end of last year, and that support was expanded in March, at the same time Microsoft gained a 20 percent stake in RealNames.

To see this in action, enter "ABC" into IE5's address box, and your browser will split into two windows, if you haven't changed the default settings. On the right, the ABC television network's web site will automatically load. On the left, you'll be shown a list of web sites. The list will be topped by the "MSN Top Pick," which is a RealNames link to the ABC web site, but other sites such as ABCstereo.com are also shown, in case you might have wanted these instead.

Similarly, try entering the names of other companies or web sites that you are trying to reach into IE5's address box. You'll probably be surprised to discover how successfully the RealNames system will get you to the right location. Certainly if you enter "white house," you'll arrive at the US White House site, not a porn site.

RealNames isn't perfect. I feel the company lost goodwill when it allowed some companies to register "generic" terms, as the article listed below explains in more depth. Last week, RealNames decided formally that it would no longer issue generics, or "categorical" keywords, as it is now calling them.

"We have decided to maintain our current policy of not selling categorical terms, terms which are synonymous with an entire category of goods and services," said RealNames CEO Keith Teare. "Right now, it remains the case -- and we think it will remain the case for some time -- that most users do not distinguish between navigation and search."

In other words, sometimes users want to "navigate" to a particular web site, such as MP3.com. Other times, they want to search for several possible web sites, such as places that offer MP3 files. These are completely different goals, yet they may involve the same keyword, "mp3." If RealNames were to allow only a single web site to be found for a generic / categorical term like this, then those with search expectations might be confused.

Existing contracts will still be honored, which is why the RealNames keyword "mp3" currently does resolve to MP3.com. Also, companies with strong brand names that are also categorical may be granted these terms. Amazon and Apple are both examples where their names are generic in nature and which might also be used by other companies. Its hard to argue that most Internet users would not expect to reach Amazon.com or Apple.com.

Oversight of names is another issue. I certainly have no lack of complaints from readers unhappy with some decisions RealNames has made, and I get more every time I write an article about the system. While RealNames does have a policy review board, that board is not an independent body that can force RealNames to change a decision the company has made. Teare agrees this is a weakness.

"I definitely want to change that where someone else can tell us we've made a mistake and force us to change," he said. "I think the question is who wants to do that, adding, "I would absolutely love it if ICANN wanted to," referring to the authority that oversees the domain name system.

At the moment, it seems as if RealNames partners are helping provide a balance. Since most of them are search services, there's pressure that the RealNames system resolves addresses in a way consistent with what their users expect. In fact, the added support Microsoft has given the system was conditional on RealNames adding more review and discretion over how names are assigned.

"They wanted an unequivocal endorsement from us. We wanted to make sure if we were endorsing them that we knew that the user experience was going to be superior," said Bill Bliss, general manager of Microsoft's MSN Search. He and others at Microsoft were involved in a process to help RealNames better define how names would be issued and resolved in the RealNames system.

You'll also hear RealNames make mention of its system being based on "open standards." The reference here is to how the RealNames system and other alternative web addressing systems, or "namespaces," work technically. The goal is to make them compatible with each other. The standards being developed have absolutely nothing to do with how names are assigned.

Of course, RealNames isn't the only player in the namespace competition, but it is the strongest. AOL runs a long-standing keyword navigation system, but that operates only within AOL's proprietary online service. AOL-owned Netscape also has an Internet Keyword system, but it isn't supported yet beyond within the Netscape browser. Netword is another namespace company, but it has nothing like the reach that RealNames has established through search engines and other partnerships.

In conclusion, the domain name system isn't going away immediately, but like the dinosaurs, I think it will slowly become extinct. In its place will be namespaces, which we'll use to navigate the web. Indeed, as what I call "GenNet" comes online -- youths who have never known a world without Internet access -- they'll probably view "old-timers" trying to reach web sites using .com and other DNS addresses in the same way we might laugh to hear someone trying to dial a phone number using old style telephone exchange prefixes, such as the one from the Glenn Miller song, PEnnsylvania 6-5000.

Sound unbelievable? Before there were domain names, we used IP addresses to reach information on the Internet. In fact, IP addresses still underlie everything on the web. The ABC television web site is really at http://204.202.136.32. The domain name system evolved to save us from having to remember these numbers. We simply enter ABC.com into our browsers, then they communicate with a DNS server that routes us to the right IP address. In the same way, the namespace systems are evolving to save us from the confusing DNS system. Going forward, we'll enter "ABC" into our browser, then the namespace system will resolve it behind the scenes to a domain name, delivering us to our destination.

RealNames
http://www.realnames.com/

Using RealNames Links
http://searchenginewatch.com/facts/realnames.html

More about how the system works.

RealNames Temporarily Suspends Registration Of Generics
The Search Engine Report, Jan. 4, 2000
http://searchenginewatch.com/sereport/00/01-realnames.html

More information on how RealNames was assigning generic or categorical terms and why the practice was halted.

ICANN
http://www.icann.org/

The organization in charge of the domain naming system. Find information here about new TLD proposals and more.

Netword
http://www.netword.com/

A rival to RealNames in the namespace field.

Domain Notes
http://domainnotes.com/

The FAQ page has more information about the new TLDs, plus there's a wealth or other information about domain name registration and issues.

Webopedia: DNS
http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/D/DNS.html

Brief definition of the domain name system, with many great links that provide more information about how the system works.

Dot-coms: Masters Of New Domains
Forbes, April 26, 2000
http://www.forbes.com/tool/html/00/apr/0426/feat.htm

How country-specific domain names are being used for new purposes. But despite these moves, .com remains king.

AOL, Microsoft going to war over browsers
Washington Post, April 21, 2000
http://dallasnews.com/technology/67573_aol21.html

Another look at the coming of namespaces.

ICANN Moves Closer To Adding Web Domains
Newsbytes, April 20, 2000
http://www.ecommercetimes.com/news/articles2000/000420-nb1.shtml

New top level domains come closer to reality due to a recent action by one of ICANN's supporting organizations.

Island nation cashes in on ".tv" country code
News.com, April 8, 2000
http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-200-1665681.html

Why Dot Com is King
Domain Notes, April 2000
http://domainnotes.com/articles/dotcomisking.html

Argues that despite the possible introduction of new TLDs, .com will remain the top choice for businesses.

The ICAAN Dispute Resolution Policy
Domain Notes, April 2000
http://domainnotes.com/articles/icanndecisions.html

A look at how the new domain name dispute system seems to be working to against cybersquatters.

Microsoft to Back a Browser Keyword System
New York Times, March 14, 2000
http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/00/03/biztech/articles/14real.html

Details on RealNames charges to corporate clients, plus a comment from Esther Dyson, who heads ICANN but who wasn't speaking for the group as a whole.

Internet Board Agrees to Overhaul Election Plan
New York Times, March 10, 2000
http://www.nytimes.com/library/tech/00/03/cyber/articles/11domain.html

Very nice summary of recent decisions made by ICANN.

Telephone Exchange Name Project
http://ourwebhome.com/TENP/TENproject.html

Everything you wanted to know about the old-style telephone exchange name system.

A longer and more detailed version of this article is available to Search Engine Watch "site subscribers." This is just one of the many benefits that site subscribers receive. Click here to learn more about becoming a site subscriber.


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