An Internet domain name is a string of typographic characters used to describe the location of a specific individual, business, computer, or piece of information online. Formally known as the Uniform Resource Locator or URL, it is often considered to be the address of a certain World Wide Web site. Obtaining an Internet domain name is a vital step for small businesses hoping to establish a presence on the Internet. "To be a major league team in the Internet game, your business will want a domain name of its own, " Vince Emery wrote in How to Grow Your Business on the Internet. "These valuable intellectual assets … make the difference in your image between Internet pro and fumbling amateur. Your domain name is more than your address. It tells the world who you are and what you are.
A typical domain name consists of several parts. As an example, consider an auto parts business with the domain www.spareparts.com. The letters www. before the domain name mean that what follows describes the location of a site on the World Wide Web. The last two or three letters of a URL are known as its top-level domain. About 250 top-level domains existed on the Internet as of the year 2000. Some of the most common top-level domains include .com, which usually indicates a business or commercial site; .org, which generally describes a nonprofit, charity, or cultural organization site; .gov, which indicates a governmental site; and .net, which is most often used by network-related businesses. Other common top-level domains are country codes, like .us for United States and .au for Australia. Small businesses can put as many subdomains as needed in front of their domain names. For example, the customer service department of the aforementioned auto parts business might be designated as www.service.spareparts.com.
Internet domain names are fairly easy and inexpensive to obtain. The process of registering a domain name involves searching to see if the desired name is already taken, filling out a form online, and paying a fee of $100 or so. But small businesses may find it exceedingly difficult to secure the exact domain name they want. As Jacqueline Emigh noted in Computer-world, the supply of available domain names is dwindling rapidly, particularly in the popular .com toplevel domain. In some cases, the best domain names are simply already being used by other individuals or firms. Some larger businesses will register several different domain names in case they might be needed in the future, or in order to protect themselves against competing sites. But in other cases, the best domain names are held by cybersquatters or cyberpirates. These individuals register a number of domain names that are likely to be coveted by businesses in hopes of selling them in the future for a significant profit. The U.S. government and several international authorities are beginning to crack down on the activities of cybersquatters.
CHOOSING AND REGISTERING A DOMAIN NAME
For small businesses hoping to establish a presence on the World Wide Web, choosing an Internet domain name is nearly as important as choosing a company name. The name must fit the firm's overall marketing strategy and convey a positive message to potential customers. In addition to registering a domain name for the company's Web site, small business owners might also consider registering the names of major products, important markets, or well-known slogans. As Bill Roberts explained in Electronic Business, small business owners must make sure that the domain names they choose are not overly long and avoid unconventional spellings that may be difficult for people to remember. Since doing business on the Internet immediately exposes companies to international markets, it is also important to be careful of trademark infringement issues and cultural problems in other languages.
There are a number of ways to handle the registration of an Internet domain name. In most cases, an Internet Service Provider (ISP) can register a small business's domain name and maintain the company's Web site on its server. The ISP can conduct an online search to make sure that the domain name does not duplicate any existing name or infringe on the trademark of any other business. Although registering through an ISP can simplify the process for small businesses, it is important for the business to secure ownership of the domain name. Otherwise, it may be difficult to keep the domain name if the company decides to change ISPs.
Small business owners can also register a domain name through Network Solutions Inc. (NSI), a private company which began registering names in 1993 through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. government. The process involves conducting a free online search, filling out a form on the NSI Web site (networksolutions.com), and paying a fee of approximately $70 for two years of ownership. Finally, small businesses can register domain names through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organization that has been taking over increased responsibility for the registration process (details are available online at www.icann.org).
With authority from the U.S. government, ICANN has begun addressing the problems of Internet site registration, including the diminishing supply of domain names and the resolution of disputes over names. As Walter Eidson outlined in the Washington Business Journal, ICANN implemented a new dispute resolution policy on January 1, 2000, to settle questions over ownership and use of popular domain names. In order to dispute another party's use of a domain name, a small business must prove that the name is identical or confusingly similar to a previously registered trademark and that the other party has no legitimate business interest in it. Businesses are unlikely to prevail in such disputes if the other party had registered the name in good faith and was using it for legitimate purposes. But businesses do have recourse in cases where the other party is using the name in bad faith—for example, holding it for the purpose of selling it, blocking the legitimate owner from using it, or attracting customers through deception.