Words for Sale: The Most Bizarre Auction I’ve Ever Attended

Photo: Erica Bray I attended an unusual auction in Las Vegas. The items for sale weren’t priceless jewels, famous paintings or ancient artifacts.

What was for sale: words.

Yes, words.

A few hundred Internet industry insiders -- mainly testosterone-charged investors and entrepreneurs -- packed a Tropicana hotel ballroom, yellow auction paddles at the ready, to bid on domain names. There was also whisky drinking, a lot of handshakes and friendly slaps on the back. If the hotel allowed cigar smoking, I'm sure I would have witnessed that, too.

For this industry outsider, it was a silly scene: tech speculators chomping at the bit to purchase www-dot-somethings, most with the intention to eventually resell at a profit, all the while listening to a fast-talking auctioneer whose jokes routinely fell flat.

I could appreciate excitement over Van Gogh paintings and rock-and-roll memorabilia signed by Mick Jagger.  But domain names? Seriously? This was the nerdiest auction ever.

Oh, the anticipation.

Turns out, buying and selling these names is big business and one that usually happens behind the scenes -- not in a live auction. So there was an odd privilege in what I was witnessing.

Why it matters: A name to remember

Most people know domain names better as the string of words that come after the “www” in a website address. Whether you’re a multimillion-dollar corporation, a small-business owner or a mommy blogger, a memorable and easily searchable online name is critical to success in the digital age.

Meaningful words strung into succinct, easy-to-remember domain names fetch top dollar because they’re likely to attract consistent website traffic. This website traffic, in turn, attracts advertisers. Advertisers, in turn, will pay top dollar for space on that website. Money begets more money.

Although anyone can buy a domain name for a nominal fee through a website registrar such as GoDaddy, big-ticket transactions make the headlines. For instance, CarInsurance.com, VacationRentals.com and Hotels.com, sold for $49.7 million, $35 million and $11 million, respectively. That's a crazy amount of money.

High-profile transactions such as these reinforce the value of strong online identities. People are willing to pay a lot for domains that are memorable. Some of these people were at the Tropicana auction.

New words to the right of the dot

How much do you think this domain name is worth?

What made the live auction especially intriguing was the collection of domain names for sale. Alongside names such as SexEducation.com, Homecare.com and BikeRentals.com were “new” domains such as Weed.club, Miami.ink and WallStreet.press.

Pay close attention to what is to the right of the dot with these last three examples: ".club," ".ink" and ".press." Ever seen those words in a website address before? Most have not -- not yet, anyway. For the past few decades, we’ve been conditioned to see ".com" or ".org" or ".net."

However, during the past year, more than 400 new domain suffixes have been made available to the public. For instance, if you’re a photographer, your website name could now end in ".photography." If you own a pizza joint, you could opt for ".pizza." If you’re an attorney, you might consider ".lawyer."

Even though this new online naming convention hasn't received much mainstream press, nearly 4 million domains registered in 2014 didn't end with the usual suspects -- namely, ".com" and ".net." This shows that people have begun jumping on the opportunity, despite any huge educational hoopla.

With this in mind, I was curious to see how these new domain names would resonate with people who have their finger on the pulse of the Internet heartbeat. Of the 135 names for sale, more than 80 featured new strings such as ".vegas," ".global" and ".club." How would investors and Internet tycoons from around the globe respond? More specifically, how would their wallets respond? With confidence? Or skepticism?

Auction results

In the end, a dot-com had the highest sale price: Homecare.com sold for $350,000.  The No. 2 highest sale price, however, went to a “new” domain: Wine.club. It fetched $140,000. Click here for the complete list of winning bids.

Although the dot-com domains seized the highest sales overall, suggesting that the status quo still prevails, it was interesting to see an avalanche of new domain options included in the mix. The words inspired buzz, interest, curiosity and optimism among this Internet industry set.

How it’ll resonate with the general public has yet to be seen. As with any shift in the status quo, there will be an inevitable adjustment period and reconditioning away from the exclusivity of ".com," and ".org" and ".net." I look forward to it.

Just don’t expect to find me at another live domain auction anytime soon. Not unless Mick Jagger is there as the auctioneer.