It's easy to dismiss Google's big play for a slice of the expanding Internet domain universe as just another side project from the Googleplex. Perhaps too easy.
Google, we learned last week, has applied for 101 domains -- or, more precisely, 101 generic top-level domains, or gTLDs -- and the number itself (surely the 101 Dalmatians reference was intentional) doesn't exactly suggest a new strategy on par with, say, Google+ or Android. The $18.7 million in application fees alone would hardly raise a single Larry Page eyebrow.
And yet this is Google, controller of so much of the Web's traffic that it's hard not to speculate -- which, to be fair, is all anyone can do at this point. Though the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has revealed which entities are applying for which new gTLDS, that's just the start. Now come months and months of legal wrangling, negotiations, and ICANN-sponsored auctions for the many contested names, also known as strings.
Google's domains-for-all strategy
Among the big tech companies partaking in this digital landgrab, Google stands out for one key reason: it's applying for a slew of generic strings that, should it win some, it plans to open up so that anyone can register any name, just as one currently can with .com (the shortage of available names notwithstanding).
The other big tech firms aren't doing this. Apple, Yahoo and Microsoft have applied only for names around their trademarks, such as .apple, .flickr, .windows, and .xbox (Microsoft's Craig Mundie, the company's chief research and strategy officer, speaks generally about the company's approach here). And while Amazon, which with 76 applications is the biggest player of the lot behind Google, has applied for gTLDs far beyond its brands -- .you, .free and .play, among them -- it wants total control of any name registered on its strings, as I wrote about here.
Then comes Google. A Google spokeswoman wouldn't say anything about Google's plans. Nor would she say which strings Google wants to run openly, which it wants for Google's internal use only, and which Google would offer with restrictions.
No matter. It's all there on ICANN's Web site, spelled out in separate applications for each string. It just takes digging. And the results are telling. We've broken them out here, excluding the non-Latin strings: red for Google only, green for open to all, and yellow for the restricted bunch. That includes such names as .car, which Google would issue only to sites that "offer content related to cars."
So, back to speculating. To play in this emerging world, Google created a new company, a registry called Charleston Road Registry, that would operate any gTLDs that Google wins. The question is how Google would sell domain names to the public. Google has long been an ICANN accredited registrar, which gives it the license to sell names to the consumers. But it has never done this. Instead, it has always referred customers to partners, such as Go Daddy and eNom, and it could very well continue to use those partners.
Challenging Go Daddy?
But that could also change. Google could start selling domain names directly to its hundreds of millions of users as well, in effect taking on Go Daddy, which did $1.4 billion in sales last year. (Go Daddy's CEO wouldn't comment for this story.) Google could even go further and give names away free. Bruce Tonkin, chief strategy officer for the domain services firm Melbourne IT, says there's nothing in ICANN's guidelines that would prevent Google or gTLD operator from doing this.
And wouldn't that make sense for Google? Sure, .com dominates, but wouldn't plenty of people grab a .home, or .web or .shop name if they could -- especially if it were free? (Sidenote: all those three strings are contested so they might not end up in Google's hands). For Google, the more Web sites out there, the better. Those are sites that Google could potentially serve ads to. They're sites that could run Google apps. And so on.
Google has recently been making changes to help people more easily use Google products with their own domains. Just check out this Google blog post from earlier this month, "Easier domain verification," as an example.
Of course, it's super early to know how all this will play out. And the only on-the-record Google comments have been by Google's chief Internet evangelist, Vint Cerf, who has underscored the pet-project thinking in a blog post called, "Expanding the Internet domain space." He writes about the need for more dot-com alternatives, saying, "We're just beginning to explore this potential source of innovation on the web, and we are curious to see how these proposed new TLDs will fare in the existing TLD environment." Then, in an interview with my colleague, Stephen Shankland, Cerf said, "I think only a few new TLDs will be notably successful, but I could be wrong."
Just in case he is wrong, Google is trying to position itself out in front.