The internet may be big these days, and it might be respectable. It might once again be the darling of the stock markets and the ambition of the graduate, but there are still areas where spurs and a Stetson wouldn’t be out of place.
But unlike your run of the mill cowboy, the people that roam these spaces make millions of dollars. They’re highly organised, professional and skilled, and they’re probably costing you money.
Domain names are the street addresses of the internet. Amazon.com, google.com, and Yahoo.com were brand names that didn’t exist before they launched onto the web, but McDonalds, Harrods and the BBC were all brand names that weren’t swift enough to register their .com domains before cybersquatters secured them.
The McDonalds.com domain was temporarily lost to a journalist back in 1994. After repeatedly contacting them to encourage them to register, Joshua Quittner finally registered it himself, later being stripped of it by NSI, who looked after registrations then. MTV.com was registered by one of their own VJs, Adam Curry, after the channel showed no interest in setting up a website – he set up his own unofficial site and then left, to the later consternation of the broadcaster.
Although legislation has now largely caught up with this practice, and arbitration procedures exist to resolve the problems it causes, it’s nevertheless inconvenient and costly to resolve.
So how important are domains, and how threatened are they?
For many companies, the domain name is an integral part of their brand architecture – often the primary point of contact for customers. And a company that’s not sufficiently organised to retain control of its domains can lose them easily to domainers, who circle constantly in the waters beneath.
Domainers often register names on a speculative basis, often taking misspellings – one of the most-typed web addresses is www.goggle.com, occupied by a site claiming to give away laptops. Other tricks include watching the ‘drop list’ – the registrar publishes a daily file of all the addresses registered, and Domainers use software to compare the lists day to day, picking out those that have expired – ‘dropped’.
Unwary companies who let their domains lapse – “what are the chances it’ll be noticed?” find themselves having to buy back, sue or go to arbitration. Most buy back, as the alternatives can be too time consuming when business is being lost minute by minute.
Whilst you can’t simply set up a domain in the name of a well known brand and get away with it, there are all sorts of greyer areas where companies can come unstuck. A multinational company trading with the same name as a local company can find it’s simply beaten to the name, whilst generic terms can be registered by anyone, as B&Q have with diy.com, and British Gas with gas.co.uk.
It’s not just external forces that battle for control of the website. Internal conflicts between divisions of companies often cause confusion too. The web address ‘Britishgas.co.uk’ was until recently controlled by BG Group plc, the overall holding company, which placed a company organigram there, although the overwhelming bulk of traffic there was of domestic consumers. And until its acquisition by P&G, Gillette.com housed an investor relations website with little consumer information.
But a new trick has arisen that’s getting around the trademark lawyers. The African state of Cameroon, (whose country domain is .cm) is benefiting from the millions of internet users who daily mis-type .com. In a deal with a major domainer, they divert all traffic to unregistered addresses (in a county with 18m population and fewer than 200,000 online that’s most of them) to a site called agoga.com – agoga then run ads relevant to your search, potentially presenting competitors to the user.
Domain names are valuable brand commodities – to be guarded and seized when the opportunity strikes. If Kevin Ham, the man behind agoga, is now worth $300m as a recent magazine article claimed, he’s mostly made it from those who let their guard down, or simply weren’t alert enough to the true worth of these assets – and that includes some big names.