By now, you’ve read that there are big changes coming to the Internet. 

ICANN, the governing body for Internet domain names, has decided to liberalize the current system of top-level domains. That means, beginning in January 2012, organizations and brands can apply for a range of new domain name suffixes, such as their brand name.

The time for debating the nuances of a .brand is over. Like it or not, they are coming and require brand owners to rethink how they manage and protect their digital assets. The application submission period is only open for 90 days, and there may not be an opportunity to apply again for at least two years, so the clock is ticking to determine the best long-term digital strategy.

Change Happens

There are 22 generic top-level domains (gTLDs) today, such as .com and .org, plus about 290 country-level domains. Most big brands have gone to great lengths to ensure they have registered their company brand name, major product names, keywords, variations and misspellings in the majority of these suffixes. Traditionally, brands have continued this policy of blanket registrations in a new domain each time a new one is introduced. The liberalization of .co as a global domain last year, for example, sparked a scramble among brand owners to register their names and keywords in the newly expanded space.

Until now, ICANN has approved only a few domain spaces each year, so this registration approach—while costly—has remained the default option for organizations to keep cybersquatters at bay. However, with anywhere between 300 and 1,000 new gTLDs set to be approved during the next few years, this tried- and-trusted tactic will become prohibitively expensive, and ultimately unsustainable.

A new model for brand protection will be needed, and perversely, the answer lies in the huge shift that will have created the dilemma in the first place.

Building Trust

Amid a sea of new domains, a “.brand” will emerge as a trusted site. Large organizations should register their own .brand gTLD as a first step and make it the centrepiece of their long-term brand protection strategy. By creating and owning a unique piece of online real estate, brand owners can exert complete control over who can and cannot reside in that space, making cybersquatting impossible.

In the long-term, educating and encouraging customers and other stakeholders that the .brand site is the one to trust will ensure Internet users learn to disregard other sites that do not have the .brand suffix.

Of course, this education process won’t happen overnight. As users grasp the new domain structure, cybersquatters may look to exploit possible confusion during this transition period by registering key names in the new gTLDs. Blanket registrations are a prohibitively expensive option, so brand owners should have a policy in place to help prioritize what domains are absolutely vital to register and which ones they can simply monitor and respond to if a brand infringement occurs.

Visualize three circles of a dart board and imagine that the inner circle contains the domains your audiences are most familiar with and therefore trust the most. This might include .com, .net and any key international territories. These are the domains where your company absolutely must have a presence, and where it should register all brands, keywords, variations and misspellings.

The middle circle includes the domains where you only need to register key brands. These domains are determined primarily by the industry sector and the geographic regions in which your business operates. For example, a major U.S. retailer with a presence in Europe might register its core brand name and keywords in relevant geographic domains like .uk, .fr, or .it, plus new gTLDs like .shop or .retail.

The outer circle is for domains that have no immediate connection with the brand or industry. So, for the above retailer here, it’s not necessarily worth registering in .br (Brazil) or .jp (Japan). It’s also unlikely the company would need to register its name in focused new generic domains like .property. In this outer circle, you’d simply monitor the domains for possible brand infringements and take action if needed.

Is Any Investment Secure?

It’s unlikely that Internet users will completely abandon familiar domain names like .com, but as brand owners continue to educate customers and stakeholders to make the trustworthy .brand domain as their first choice, domains in the middle circle will gradually move to the outer circle. As this happens, .brand owners will be able to gradually reduce the amount they spend on defensive registrations. Ultimately, with so many different variants of domains available, the .brand may become the only one users trust,and it’s the domain over which the brand owner has total control.

Registering for a .brand may not seem cheap at first, but when you consider that large companies spend millions on protecting and promoting their brands, a .brand is not an expensive proposition. With the long-term future of the Internet likely based on authentication and trust, .brands have the power to cut through confusion and offer consumers and others simple reassurance that the site they are dealing with is genuine.

I’m not a gambling man, but my bet here is that savvy brand owners will seize this first .brand application window and leverage the changes for long-term online brand security despite the well-publicized opposition from some industry groups. Waiting two or more years for the next opportunity to participate is the real gamble.