By Patrick Sisson
It seems like ancient history, but just decades ago, our television entertainment options were limited to just three national networks -- a pittance compared to the stream of shows, movies and documentaries currently available on-demand.
Right now, another medium, the Internet, is on the cusp of a similar shift, expanding from a handful of recognizable domain options (.com, .gov, .edu and .org)to a panoply of "not-com" extensions that broaden communications and e-commerce options. New options range from industry-specific (.photography) to professional (.agency) to stylish (.style) to fun (.guru).
Jennifer Wolfe finds herself on the front lines advocating for a shift toward a more democratic, decentralized and dynamic digital future. The Cincinnati-based lawyer and technology consultant is the CEO and co-founder of Dot Brand 360, which counsels companies and C-level executives interested in evolving their websites and online identities to a not-com brand.
“These extensions allow us, as business owners, to define who we are,” says Wolfe, whose own company URL, dotbrand360.agency, takes advantage of one of the newer domains. “Of course, a company in the past would choose .com, because that was the only option. Now, a grab-bag of suffixes can help companies explain who they are to consumers.”
The benefits don’t end with a clearer message to consumers. According to Wolfe, the search and SEO advantages of industry-specific and branded domain names will become increasingly valuable, especially as voice search technology, bolstered by digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri as well as smart home technology such as Amazon’s Echo, will make these newer, more "natural” online addresses more representative of the way consumers are looking for and connecting with companies.
While they may be digital neighborhoods still under-development, these new domain names will soon be high-demand zip codes in the world of Internet real estate, according to Wolfe.
“Both Google and Amazon, two of the biggest technology companies in the world, have dozens of these top-level domains,” Wolfe adds, as both companies are heavy investors in the new not-com domain space. “I increasingly think that other companies will see and start realizing the same benefits. They know there are many benefits beyond just a name.”
Building a business
Wolfe founded Dot Brand 360 in 2012, based on a hunch that a new generation of top-level domain names, a.k.a. "not-coms," would change the online branding landscape. She has a unique set of skills and experiences that allowed her to both anticipate the shift and become an advocate for corporate change.
After years of working as a marketer in the advertising and publishing industry, she pivoted and pursued a law degree, co-founding a firm after graduation, Wolfe, Sadler, Breen, Morasch & Colby, LLC, which remains one of the largest female-led intellectual property practices in the world. Along with experience leading a venture capital fund, Wolfe’s background gave her the technical and marketing lexicon, as well as the communication skills, to sell executives and companies on a strategic shift.
“We’re here to help them understand that this is the future of the Internet, and why starting now is so important,” she says. “How can they use the space different than typical 'dot-coms'?”
The multifaceted company helps companies and brands figure out the best ways to take advantage of changes in the Internet landscape and the introduction of new not-com domains, including relaunching sites, updating marketing strategy, and creating new strategic communications plans. Clients include Food Network, HGTV, SAS, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel, Livestrong, Richemont, Procter & Gamble and Microsoft.
One of the biggest barriers Wolfe runs into is a persistent, status-quo mentality resistant to change and a wariness of the expense that comes along with shifting domain names, re-launching websites and updating collateral. While she counsels companies in the benefits that come with a shift, such as more robust customer data collection (URLs such as chicago.cars, for instance, can help divine location and intent), there’s high-level concern about changes in communications strategy.
“It’s a lot of work, and I know, because we did it at my firm,” she says. “But, those resisting the switch are the same ones who said Facebook and mobile would be fads. Then they had to catch up. If you work with companies long enough, you keep seeing this cycle; those who miss the shift then have to race to catch up.”
While the pressure to change may not be there yet, the groundwork has been laid for a massive shift. Along with widely available extensions such as 'dot-solutions' (.solutions) and 'dot-works' (.works), major brands have seized the opportunity to get their own domain extension. Since the 2012 auction of new domain options by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Wolfe estimates nearly half of the country’s biggest brands invested in their own branded domain name, a process that cost roughly $185,000 per extension. For instance, Google, Marriott and Barclay's invested in securing a domain for their respective uses -- .google, .bmw and .barclays. (Wolfe speculates that other companies will eventually be able to buy their own branded domains, but the next auction probably won’t occur for a few years, at the earliest).
In addition to these brand-specific domain extensions, most of which are not available for public use, are hundreds of not-com domain extensions -- and those are available for anyone to use.
Wolfe points to examples such as Lady Gaga’s charitable youth foundation (bornthisway.foundation) and Samsung (play.samsung) as examples of forward-thinking non-profit and corporate branding via URLs. (The Born This Way Foundation uses the publicly available 'dot-foundation' (.foundation) suffix; while Samsung uses its proprietary 'dot-samsung' (.samsung) extension.) The sites, which are already live, communicate an immediate message about the organization and mirror natural language.
“Right now, these new domain names aren’t showing up in what I call cross-media, such as on television ads,” says Wolfe. “But that’s coming, along with voice-based search. When you look for a plumber, what’s more natural: .com or .plumber? These new extensions are more intuitive and authoritative, and when you present them to younger children, who grew up on voice-activated search, it seems completely natural.”
These domains lead to more natural search strings, which “future-proof” online rankings for coming shifts in SEO. Wolfe has written blog posts with researchers showing that the shift from .com to industry-specific domain names doesn’t damage organic search rankings, a big worry for corporations considering a change. The same rules of search will always apply, so more natural naming conventions help create more desired, and highly trafficked, sites.
There’s still hesitation, according to Wolfe, as public perception and awareness still haven’t reached critical mass. But with big companies such as Amazon potentially poised to make a move, a follow-the-leader situation should soon energize the industry.
“It’s slow-moving,” she says. “A lot of people in the industry are frustrated with that. But if you look at the way these types of shifts have occurred in the past, the early movers and adopters have already made moves. I think as you see more and more companies invest in new domain names, you’ll begin to see the fast followers of the world come along.”
Learn more about Jennifer Wolfe and her agency at www.dotbrand360.agency.