Mastering Your Web Domains

Del Ross has an Internet-related problem that he knows is going to get worse before it gets better.

It's due to the growth of his employer, Six Continents Hotels Inc., the London-based parent of Holiday Inn and other hotel chains. As the company grows, Ross, the Atlanta-based director of Internet business, must expand the firm's list of domain name registrations beyond its present 2,000.

His list of domains has to include both the names of hotels and possible variations that someone else might try to use. The management task, already time-consuming, is growing larger every month.

"We'd like to get rid of some domain names if we could, because we own an awful lot, but I'm afraid the number will grow before it shrinks," Ross says. "We have hotels in 170 countries around the world, we operate six major brands, and we have a number of trademarks under each brand. So we end up with a lot of Internet domain names just for offensive purposes. We also have names for defensive purposes, to keep other people from taking advantages of misspellings, because somebody who is using your name is potentially harmful to your image."

For example, Six Continents registered the name CrownePlaza.com for a hotel it owns in the United Kingdom, but it discovered that another company had registered the site CrownPlaza.com -- a misspelling -- and was operating it as a pornographic Web site. His firm is negotiating to get the rights to the misspelled domain name.

The Name Game

But some companies are drawing the line on registering various domain names in an effort to reduce the hassles of domain management.

At Fairmont Hotels and Resorts Inc. in Toronto, parent of the Plaza Hotel in New York, the burden of managing domain names promises to become a bit easier as the company abandons the notion of trying to own every possible variation of its hotel brand names.

David Doucette, manager of online marketing, and Jens Thraenhart, director of Internet strategy, are about to cull Fairmont's 400 domain names to reduce their management workload and refocus their efforts on monitoring the names they believe they need to own.

Thraenhart says Fairmont Hotels and Resorts has already reduced its domain name management work to some extent by deciding not to register www .***sucks.com domain names. "You can never really protect yourself, because if you buy that name, someone could buy .***sucksevenmore.com." For the same reason, taking time-consuming legal action against such Web sites may not be good domain name management, either, he says. "People who create those sites sometimes just want to annoy people like us who own brand names, so if you sue them, it actually draws more attention to those annoying domain names than if you just let it go."

Brand Awareness

Meanwhile, Frank Brunacci, director of e-commerce at Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor, Mich., is sharply reducing his firm's registration of domain names and letting some existing ones expire. After looking at consumer click-through data, Whirlpool became concerned that consumers seeking out its main Web site were getting sidetracked at subsidiary sites -- domain names the company had acquired to promote specific products or marketing initiatives -- and never arriving at the main one, says Brunacci. As a result, the firm decided to narrow the number of domain names.

"It really wasn't a financial decision, and it was not driven by the economy. It was more about the branding experience for the consumer," Brunacci says. "We probably have over 100 domain names registered right now, and we want to whittle that down by not renewing them. Our goal is to pare that number down to about half of what we have now."

The domain name problem is directly related to the Internet's rapid growth. Consulting firm Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., says the problem started because companies registered domain names critical to their brands, some nice-to-have names such as dietcola.com and secondary names, such as misspellings or names that cast their brand in a bad light -- best personified by the www.***sucks.com names. In addition, international companies frequently registered their domain names in other nations, which have country-specific registration processes.

Thraenhart says the international registration can be more complicated than it sounds because it's important to register your domain names in more places than just the countries where you do business. For example, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts registers important domain names in countries where it has hotels, such as Dubai, Barbados and Mexico. But it must also register those domains in nations where international travelers live, which means those same hotel domain names (and some variations of them) also need to be registered in countries such as Germany, the U.K. and Japan.

Gartner says those companies that don't carefully manage their domain names face threats such as cybersquatters, who try to occupy an attractive domain name in hopes a big company will be willing to buy it; typosquatters, who register logical misspellings of corporate domain names; and Web snipers, who snap up corporate domain names if companies forget to renew them. All three can redirect traffic intended for a company's Web site to other sites the company might find unsavory.

Corporations seem to be concerned about the potentially substantial costs of managing domain names and recovering names that have been put to unsavory purposes, but they aren't terribly concerned about the relatively minor cost of domain name registration fees. Thraenhart says Fairmont Hotels and Resorts pays only about $40,000 to register 400 domain names for three years each.

Buying Binge

Gartner analyst Ted Chamberlin says the heyday of domain registrations corresponded to the days of the booming economy. "Companies were launching so many more new initiatives then," he says. "They were doing product literature on the Web, and for every product and every campaign they'd get an event-specific domain name. People also registered names because they were scared someone would try to deface their brand name. But when the economy began to soften, companies cut back on domain name registrations." That first became evident last year, when companies didn't duplicate their .com names in the new .biz and .info domains, he says.

Despite the declining interest in registering new domain names, the average company with more than 2,500 employees still has 100 to 1,200 domain names to maintain, Chamberlin says. "Managing all these names is a hassle."

Ross agrees. "With as many domain names as we have, we have 15 to 20 expiring every day of the year. So administering the names can become complicated." He recommends centralized administration within a corporation to make sure that important domain name registrations aren't allowed to lapse.

Ross also recommends centralizing domain name registrations with a single registrar for ease of name management, and hiring a service provider to scan the Internet for companies using domain names related to the firm's brand names -- a way for Six Continents to find out whom it should worry about.

Others agree. "In the old days, everybody inside a corporation was registering names, making it an unenviable job to try to organize them," says Maigread Eichten, vice president of digital brand management services at VeriSign Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., which both registers domain names and acts as an outsourcer for domain management. Now, domain name registration is often centralized, with responsibility shared by the IT, marketing and legal departments.

Millions of new domain names are still registered every quarter, but companies have learned to manage the hassles and avoid going overboard on registering name variants. As E. Leonard Rubin, head of the intellectual property section at Chicago law firm Gordon & Glickson LLC, says, "The domain name management problem, while not eliminated, has been reduced a lot."

Alexander is a freelance writer in Edina, Minn.

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