What the history of domain names can teach us about marketing

Guest comment by Kimberly Michener

For the past 30 years, domain names have been far more than just a technical shortcut getting users from point A to point B in cyberspace.

With over 360 million registered domain names in existence today, the humble address bar at the top of a web browser holds a vast history of its own. Understanding that history and what makes domain names click is the difference between just having a name for a website and having a digital identity.

Domain names as we know them were established in 1985, when symbolics.com became the first one ever registered. The early internet had already moved on from numerical addresses that linked computers to the hierarchy of top-level domains that are recognisable today. Back then, domain names were fairly restricted, with users able to choose from .com, .edu, .gov, .mil, .org, .net, and .int.

Initially, these were designed for clarity and brevity, rather than marketing or commercial appeal. While the list of available TLDs has grown exponentially by 2023, these seven extensions laid the groundwork for the domain name system we use now.

That year also marked a great transition away from networks used largely by academic institutions to the modern internet. This fundamentally transformed the way people and businesses access information, communicate, and ultimately, do business. As public domain name registrations grew in popularity and accessibility, domains became an industry in their own right. They could be bought and sold, like any other commodity.

In particular, it was .com that stood out from the pack, eventually lending its name to the famous dot-com boom of internet-based startups in the late 1990s. This period saw individuals and investors alike race to buy .com domains to capitalise on the prestige they represented, and the opportunity they promised.

As we all know, it was not to last. While the bubble burst, .com was resilient and has retained its popularity. Today, it is still the most used top-level domain name. But in the subsequent decades, businesses have become far more attuned to how domain names are more than just an address, and far more integral to their overall digital presence.

The next big step in the history of domain names, and how they became a true force in marketing, arrived in 2011. In opening up the domain name market, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) — the organisation responsible for coordinating and managing DNS technical elements — allowed organisations to apply to be operators of their own top-level domains (TLDs) – essentially, what comes after the dot.

The expansion of TLDs has allowed the proliferation and development of domain names to increase exponentially

This move from ICANN meant that hundreds of new TLDs (nTLDs) were created. This provides businesses and organisations with even greater choice when it comes to how they can name themselves via a web address. Prior to the change, only 22 TLDs were available — now there are countless combinations to pick from.

A major benefit of these new domains is the greater degree of flexibility. They can be location-specific, using domains such as .paris or .london; or highlight their primary line of business through TLDs such as .technology, .finance, or .style. Companies can even brand themselves with nTLDs — following in the footsteps of .google, .netflix or .apple.

The expansion of TLDs has allowed the proliferation and development of domain names to increase exponentially. They now provide far more opportunities for businesses to be more creative and bold in their choices. It also means they have a greater chance of securing their desired web address.

When it comes to brand identity, businesses can go further than the dot of a domain name. In fact, the other side of the dot is an equally important blank canvas for businesses to fill when building their brand. This is especially true as brands increasingly look to align themselves closer with their industry, experience and target audience.

For example, a tech company’s digital fingerprint can send stronger message, and a more compelling sense of expertise, when it’s ‘techcompany.software’ or ‘startup.digital’, than it otherwise might using a more generic legacy TLD. The same applies across a range of industries, be it professional services, education, sport, entertainment or real estate.

With our digital spaces growing ever more crowded and increasingly competitive and the rate of digitalisation racing ahead, every advantage counts for businesses looking to grow. In fact, for many, smart branding will be a crucial means of differentiation in today’s challenging climate.

Evolution of domain names has led not just to additional opportunities for businesses and individuals. Cybercriminals, too, have adapted with the times.

If there’s anything to be learned, it’s that domain names should not be an underestimated afterthought of a business building its brand

A recent industry Anti-Abuse Report found that 94% of the abuse cases identified in Q1 2023 involved phishing attacks. One particularly insidious type of phishing attack is the homograph attack, where malicious actors register domain names that use visually similar characters to legitimate websites for nefarious purposes such as fraud or theft.

These attacks can be difficult to detect, and they can cause significant harm to victims by tricking them into divulging sensitive information, such as passwords or credit card numbers, to the attackers.

However, leading domain name registries are increasingly providing the means to stay ahead of phishing attacks without compromising on branding. Some domains even include built-in technology that blocks any attempt of spoofing, phishing and other abusive activities.

Looking at domain names of years gone by tells us a lot about what got businesses and investors the most excited. However, the pitfalls are clear to see, too. If there’s anything to be learned, it’s that domain names should not be an underestimated afterthought of a business building its brand. They are an investment, a calling card, a statement.

Representing your stake in the ground of the vast realm of cyberspace, a domain name should speak to customers and the industry alike – especially when today, we have more means of expressing this than ever before.

Kimberly Michener is senior. Director, Brand and Integrated Marketing at Identity Digital