In three months Icann will accept applications for new top-level domains. Are you ready?
At the start of next year, the internet's primary governing body, Icann, will be accepting applications for new top-level domains (TLDs).
From January next year, companies and organisations will be able to apply for their very own .brand name.
The expansion of TLDs will allow almost anything to become a domain - opening the door to .category domain names such as .car or .shop, as well as company-specific TLDs, such as .McDonalds or .NatWest.
Companies wanting to register for their own TLD have between 12 January and 12 April 2012 to apply with Icann.
With just a few months left before the generic TLD (gTLD) bidding process kicks off, what questions should businesses be asking now?
1. Do you really need to get your .brand?
You shelled out to get your .com or .co.uk some time ago and your customers are now familiar with where to find you online. Do you really want to stump up at least $185,000 - the initial application fee for a gTLD - to make your online presence a whole lot more complex?
Large corporates are less likely to have concerns about the fee - it's a drop in the ocean of their marketing budgets - but smaller companies will need to consider the ROI for getting hold of a .brand.
Supporters of the new TLDs argue that the potential SEO benefits of domain names such as laptop.hitachi - or best.laptop - will justify the expense of buying the gTLD.
However, search engines do not publicise their algorithms and like to keep moving the goalposts to avoid businesses manipulating them - so the hope of better SEO is a fickle mistress to bank on.
You should also weigh up the costs, not just in applying for and getting a gTLD - at least $185,000 per application, although rejected applications can expect a partial refund. Icann notes that applicants are also applying to "create and operate a registry business supporting the internet's domain name system", adding that this "involves a number of significant responsibilities".
The costs of maintaining and running that registry - or outsourcing those responsibilities to a suitable third party - also need to be factored into your thinking.
2. Can you get the .brand you want?
Does your brand name include numerals? Is your brand name two letters long? Bad luck HP, bad luck 3 - Icann isn't allowing TLDs shorter than three letters while numerals, hyphens and special characters are also a no-no.
If your brand falls foul of Icann's rules you're going to need to come up with an alternative .brand to bid for and that means factoring in all the considerations that fashioning any new brand entails.
Other issues preventing you from getting your chosen .brand could include other companies that share your brand name or have a very similar brand name also bidding for it.
Ask whether they are in a position to bid for your .brand and, if they do bid, who is likely to win? Icann has a series of rules governing how it will award the new TLDs in so-called 'contention' situations, so it's time to get familiar with the rules to try to work out your chances of winning any bidding wars.
There are other issues too. Country names are off-limits so if your brand name includes a country you're likely to be out of luck. Also, if your brand name is also a generic term - 'apple', say - you need to be aware that Icann's rules make it more likely you would lose out to a bid from an organisation wanting to set up an open community based around that term - apple growers, for example.
A theoretical scenario might run like this: the US Apple Association puts in a bid to set up .apple, hoping to establish a TLD for all US apple growers. There's an obvious conflict with Apple Inc but Icann's application evaluation rules would favour the community site, over the closed corporate site. That's not to say it's game over for Apple's .brand dreams - assuming they have any...