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Nominet's .uk domain name fiasco

Nominet's .uk domain name fiasco

Nominet are the organisation in charge of managing all domain registrations in the UK. The UK domain name registry recently announced a consultation process with a view to offering domains directly under .uk for the first time (e.g. example.uk)

To date, there has been a well-established hierarchy of web addresses at the third level, with .co.uk the extension for businesses, .org.uk for non-profits, and .me.uk for personal use. This division has been reinforced over the years by Nominet's policies and marketing strategy, and it continues to advocate it on its AGreatPlaceToBe campaign website.

With .uk, Nominet is gearing up to position it as THE trusted and secure extension for businesses. Each .uk domain would come by default with a package of added services, including DNSSEC, a physically validated Whois, malware scanning etc. all designed to make .uk a safer extension.

While such services may on first view appear to be a "good thing" it's when you dig deeper into the proposal that significant cracks appear. Nominet won't be extending any of these bundled services to existing registrants using .co.uk or other domains, so in doing so it's setting .uk apart on a pedestal and (by implication) reducing consumer trust and confidence in .co.uk and other extensions.

Nominet is also conspiring to increase confusion - until now, .co.uk is such a well-known extension that it's been safe to "take it as read": if you had the .co.uk, you were all set. However, with .uk in the picture all that could change.

Uneven playing field

Imagine you're building a site about "oak furniture" (to pick up a competition thread from a year or so back). If you owned OakFurniture.co.uk you would be starting with the strongest, most credible and relevant foundation on which to build that site, both in the eyes of consumers and in the "eyes" of search engine robots.

But with .uk in the picture, somebody else might launch OakFurniture.uk in direct competition with you. Suddenly, any marketing you're doing that relies in any way on people remembering the web address they saw or heard is going to be radically less effective, because there are two "near identical" extensions competing for attention. Do you win the traffic, or are you sending it straight to the competition?

Nominet is proposing to give trademark holders free rein to register domains under .uk ahead of anyone else. Again, at first glance that may appear "fair". However, the problem is that just about anything can and in practice will have been trademarked, including just about every common English word.

For example, all of the following have one or more trademarks on them: Religion, God, Jesus, Christ, Christian, Dog, Cat, Rabbit, Horse, Fish, Chocolate, Cheese, Pizza, Beer, Sweets, Car, Cars, Vans, Truck, Bike, Water, Oxygen, Air, Gas, Electricity, Piano, Guitar, Drum, Flute and Keyboard.

Clash of trademarks

Any clashes (between multiple competing trademark claims - trademarks can be identical so long as they're filed in different "classes") would be resolved by an auction, with the highest bidder winning the right to register the matching .uk domain name.

What that means is that existing .co.uk registrants will be left out in the cold if they own a domain name which is remotely descriptive, or if they own one that happens to match someone else's trademark. And this has the potential to impact a large number of merchants, as well as some of the largest ecommerce sites on the web.

For example, eBay, Amazon, Barclays, Argos, Santander, Orange, O2, Nationwide, Next, PC World, Expedia, Ancestry, Game, Thomson and many other familiar names all face competing trademark claims, so they would be forced to battle it out for the right to own "their" .uk.

Some companies come off even worse. For instance, Three and Tiscali don't own trademarks, would not even be allowed to participate in the initial round of auctions for .uk but would automatically forfeit any chance to get their matching domains.

Once the trademark holders have gorged themselves on the prime generic domains and subjected large companies to the meaningless expense of auctions, any remaining domains drop through to the "second stage" of launch.

Here again Nominet has established a process aimed at wringing out maximum value for themselves. Perhaps their appetite for auctions was whetted by the 1- and 2-letter auction they ran in late 2011, which netted them an overnight windfall of over £3,000,000?

Because auctions are what we will be getting, and lots of them. Nominet is planning to give matching domain registrants (e.g. the owners of widget.co.uk and widget.org.uk) the "right" to duke it out for .uk in an auction (assuming that widget.uk didn't already get snapped up by a trademark holder that is). This, despite the fact that the .co.uk might have been registered 15 years ago and the .org.uk 3 months ago - in other words, Nominet are deliberately ignoring their own "first come, first served" mantra which has been one of the guiding principles of domain registration since the beginning.

Situation could detoriate

Could it get worse? Oh, yes. Not only do .co.uk domain owners face a battle with the owners of minor extensions, but Nominet is also proposing an as yet ill-defined "test of use" meaning, as far as can be ascertained, that only domain names that were already "in use" (in a manner defined by Nominet) at the time of the proposal would be eligible for this second stage process. You may have noticed spiders with a Nominet referrer hitting your site in the last few months - that's almost certainly the evidence of preparations for this process.

To sum up: if you own a .co.uk domain name, you face losing the .uk equivalent (which you will need to secure at all costs to stem the traffic leakage that will come with the "confusion" of near-identical extensions if you're doing any kind of advertising) first to trademark holders (regardless of whether it's a common English expression or a made-up brand, a much lower standard than the DRS) and then to registrants in other extensions, even if you "got there first" by a matter of years or decades.

Meanwhile, Nominet stand to make at least £50,000,000/year from the chaotic mess they will be concocting (based on historic 3LD to 2LD transition patterns in other countries that have gone through a similar process in the past). That's over twice their 2011 revenue from domain registrations! I have outlined how other countries went about this process (hint: totally differently from Nominet's approach) in a position paper which you can download from mydomainnames.co.uk.

Their partner registrars will also be rubbing their hands with glee, because .uk represents a new and much more expensive (£20/year wholesale, more to you or I) product that will be a "must have" for their existing clients.

Let's face it, nothing drives customer demand like a good protection racket. The fact is that any business serious about its online presence will NEED to secure the .uk to go with their .co.uk or risk seeing it in the hands of a direct competitor. Nominet themselves acknowledge this tacitly by omission in their consultation FAQ: "Are you just forcing .co.uk registrants to buy another name? Not at all, we expect that there will be some users, such as bloggers, who will not require the additional features we are proposing to include with this new service."

UK is world's second most popular ccTLD

Time for a little perspective: With over 10,000,000 domains registered, the UK has the world's second most popular country code top-level domain (after Germany's .de). The internet economy contributes over £121 billion to UK GDP, or 8.3% (highest of any G20 nation) and this already impressive figure is projected to double in the next five years.

This means that nothing on the scale of what Nominet is proposing has ever been attempted anywhere before. All previous 3LD to 2LD transitions occurred when those countries' domain namespaces were just a fraction of the size of the UK's (and in most cases when the internet itself was much less "advanced", back in the late 1990s and early 2000s). Recently, Australia considered and rejected a rollout of registrations directly under .au. Their 2010 Names Policy Panel noted that "People thought the current 2LD hierarchy is well-known and understood, and introducing direct registrations would cause unnecessary confusion for little public benefit." Wise words to live by, since they apply on steroids in the UK.

Until now, Nominet have done a superb job of "branding" .co.uk, ably assisted by over 3,000,000 businesses that make use of a .co.uk domain as part of their online identity. Every time one of these businesses - that, collectively, spending billions of pounds a year on marketing - publishes their web address anywhere, they're also branding .co.uk right alongside. This is a an automatic and largely invisible process, as .co.uk has become so commonplace you may no longer be consciously aware just how prevalent it has become. An attentive stroll down any street is enough to demonstrate .co.uk's supremacy, as you're likely to be faced with countless instances of the extension on shop fronts, posters, vehicle liveries, signs, etc. Or you could simply turn on the TV, or flick through a newspaper or magazine.

Indeed, Nominet has measured (and proudly trumpeted) the fact that trust in .co.uk has gone up every year, and "4 in 5 people prefer .co.uk websites when searching online". That is an achievement it should rightly be proud of.

Instead, Nominet seems intent on pursuing a course that will erode the value of what may well be the UK's de-facto strongest brand, ".co.uk", damage UK business interests, and ignore the rights of existing .co.uk owners, all in the short-sighted pursuit of a new revenue stream to tap.

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Edwin Hayward

Edwin Hayward

I set up the world's first dedicated domain name news and information website, iGoldrush.com,

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