Neal and Jeff Harmon, brothers and co-founders of VidAngel, decided a while ago that it was time for a rebrand. They had been sued over VidAngel's initial business — a way to automatically skip objectionable content in movies and shows — and were looking both to move on and to focus on the in-house content that was clearly VidAngel's future.
Early in the branding process, they discovered that VidAngel failed a simple test: If you told it to someone, could they remember it well enough to tell someone else or find it on Google? VidAngel passed about 58% of the time, which wasn't enough. "We've seen over time," Neal said, "that about 50% of our traffic comes through word-of-mouth. People hear about it, but then they end up having to type the domain."
One name did much better: Angel. A full 95% of people could remember, share and find that name. It also fit perfectly with the company's crowdfunding ethos, and its focus on uplifting content. So VidAngel decided to become Angel Studios.
Now they needed a new domain name. The Harmons snapped up angelstudios.com, angelstudios.tv, everything they could think of. They decided to use an.gl as their URL shortener, and were excited about it. But none of it felt quite right. It all still felt too long and too hard to remember.
What the Harmon brothers really wanted was angel.com. But angel.com wasn't available. It was owned by Genesys, the call-center tech company, which acquired the domain when it acquired a company called Angel.com in 2013 for $110 million. Genesys had rebranded the company as Genesys Premier Edition, but held on to the domain. For years, angel.com just redirected to the Genesys website.
Last October, when they finished their rebranding process and officially decided to become Angel Studios, the Harmon brothers started vigorously pursuing Genesys to try and convince it to sell. The company eventually said it would think about selling it next spring, and if it decided to do so would list through a company called Sedo. All the Harmons could do was wait.
On March 30, Dave Evanson, a sales and brokerage consultant at Sedo, tweeted music to the Harmon brothers' ears: "Angel .com now under exclusive contract @sedo for sale!" Two weeks later — a flash in the domain-investing world — Angel Studios had reached a deal to acquire the name. The price? $2 million.
For that price, Angel could have registered angel.inc ($2,500), angel.fun ($1,650), angel.buzz ($600), angel.llc ($3,250), angel.fan ($90) or angel.movie ($50), all of which are available right now. It could have acquired angel.live, angel.show or even angel.studio. It could have bought all of them, and still saved itself roughly $1.9 million.
But to hear the Harmons explain it, buying angel.com was the cheaper option by far. "Anything that doesn't pass the stress test ends up being more expensive, not less," Jeff said. "There's a question, every time you share it!" Neal cut in. "'That's a URL?' And as soon as you have a question in your head, there's confusion." They ran the numbers on trying to imprint an.gl or angel.studio in the world's heads, and decided $2 million was a bargain by comparison. It was .com or bust.
Three letters that rule the internet
More than 35 years after the first .com domain was registered by Symbolics Inc., those three letters continue to dominate the internet. "If you don't own the .com, you will forever have to talk about yourself by using the full extension of your domain name," said Paul Nicks, the vice president of aftermarket sales at GoDaddy. "If you were protocol.news, or dot-whatever, your entire branding strategy going forward is you have to include the complete URL. If you call yourself Protocol, people just go to protocol.com."
That wasn't supposed to be the case, though. In the early days of the internet, ICANN — the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees many internet-wide standards — designated .edu, .mil, .org, .gov, .net and .com as its "general purpose domains," along with two-letter country codes. A few more were added in subsequent years. All these top-level domains (TLDs for short) were initially designed to exist on equal planes on the internet.
But as the internet became a business, businesses came to the internet, and they mostly picked .com. Those companies had the marketing budgets to plaster their full domain names – Amazon.com, Pets.com, Broadcast.com — on TV and billboards everywhere. (There's a reason it's called "the dot-com boom," after all.) Before long, .com was baked into the public understanding of the internet. It no longer meant "commercial." It just meant "website." "It became kind of a self-fulfilling thing," Nicks said. "Everybody was using .com, therefore everybody had to use .com."
The situation became untenable pretty quickly. Every memorable .com domain name was snapped up, and an aftermarket industry grew up around the newly scarce resource. Even the two-word .coms quickly became hard to come by. Large companies would buy tens or hundreds of thousands of domains, hoarding them for possible future products or just for future resale value. (Google, Microsoft and Amazon are three of the world's largest domain owners.) There may be unlimited space on the internet, but the good space became hard to find.
In 2011, ICANN tried to fix the problem by reinventing the way domain names work altogether. Its 16-member board of directors voted to increase the internet's TLDs from 22 to thousands. Websites could suddenly be dot-almost anything. "Today's decision will usher in a new internet age," ICANN Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush said at the time. "We have provided a platform for the next generation of creativity and inspiration."
A photo from ICANN 41, where the board voted to expand the number of available TLDs.Photo: ICANN
The timing was right, too, because companies and users alike were learning how important a good name really was. Generations of social platforms had already come and gone, taking with them any company foolish enough to build their internet home on MySpace's unsteady foundation. And finicky sorting and search algorithms made everyone's future uncertain. But a good, memorable domain name lasts as long as you pay the renewal fee.
ICANN solicited ideas about what should come after the dot. Anybody with an idea and $185,000 to pay the registration fee was welcome to apply, and roughly 1,930 groups and people did so. Ultimately, ICANN made plans to bring more than 1,300 new TLDs into the internet.
It seemed possible that this could help end the dominance of the .com. Bike shops could flock to .bike, restaurants to .restaurant, churches to .church and hospitals to .hospital. Google search could move to search.google. And for everything else, a new set of generic TLDs like .cool, .link, .xyz, and .online could make it easier for anyone to find a domain name that works.
Some people in the domain world set out to make sure that happened. One of them was Frank Schilling, a 51-year-old investor who is enough of a legend in domain investing that he doesn't even sound arrogant when he calls himself "the Tom Brady of the domain world." (He swears he didn't come up with that, by the way.) After years spending millions — and making many millions more — mostly on .com domains, Schilling and his company Uni Naming & Registry went all-in on the new TLDs. He took over more than 20, including .link, .click, .flowers, .lol and .sexy.
Each TLD is its own unique thing, Schilling said. "Like, .game, we own that one," he said. "We call it 'The Little Engine That Could,' because it keeps growing naturally." He calls that one a "span-the-dot" domain, and those are pretty easy. If you're Anna's Furniture Store, buying annas.furniture is an obvious enough proposition. Most domain experts seem to agree that the span-the-dot TLDs like .restaurant and .church will catch on over time. (Recently, .club spiked when Clubhouse was growing quickly.) None of these will be huge, but they don't have to be. The splintering of internet naming that ICANN predicted is happening, albeit slowly.
The general domains are harder. "It takes a lot of resources to market them," Schilling said. "And there isn't a uniform playbook; it depends on the string."
Most people agree that .xyz is one of the most successful examples so far: It's not nearly at .com levels of fame, but it has attained a certain kind of mainstream understanding. Shayan Rostam, a longtime domain exec who helped launch .xyz, said he spent months making the case for the domain. "If .com were to be launched today, when all these other options are out there, do you think anybody's going to pick a .com in 2021?" he'd say. "I think any pragmatic person is going to say, no, .com doesn't make sense as a domain ending. But .xyz, it's the ending of the alphabet, it's the ending of the domain name."
To make .xyz work, the team went out and looked for young, savvy internet users, the next generation of domain buyers. They also went outside the U.S., where users have long been more accustomed to a variety of domain endings because country codes like .co.uk and .cn are more popular. They partnered on hackathons with middle school students, worked with General Assembly to give away domains to contest winners and just tried to seed the domain with as many people as possible, trying to normalize the name.
When Google became Alphabet, and landed at abc.xyz, it was a big win for the not-coms.Image: Alphabet
A couple of companies picked .xyz as their domains, too, giving the TLD a big boost. But the biggest win came in 2015, when Google renamed itself Alphabet and landed at the domain abc.xyz. Rostam declined to talk much about how that happened, except to say that "it's not like we went out and offered them the domain name or anything like that." Alphabet wanting .xyz helped validate the space in a big way. There are now about 3.6 million .xyz domains currently registered, making it the most popular of the new TLDs.
Eventually, Rostam left to help launch another TLD, .inc, with a very different strategy. Where .xyz wanted to be mainstream, and cost $10 to register, .inc domains cost $2,000 a year. So Rostam and the private equity firm that owned .inc decided to set it up like an exclusive club: anyone who bought a .inc name would get free access to QuickBooks, discounts at WeWork, free services from LegalZoom and other services geared toward small businesses. Now a few thousand people are signed up. They didn't want or need a million people using the domains, just the right few.
More recently, Rostam has been working with Schilling at UNR, trying to grow some of the company's TLDs. "I really helped grow .link," he said, going from about 40,000 new users in 2019 to well over 120,000 in 2020. President Joe Biden used joe.link during his campaign, and NBCUniversal uses .link to promote its shows. ".link is a good TLD, and I know I could grow .link like I did .xyz," Rostam said.
Still, nobody's touching .com. Verisign, which runs the TLD, reported that there are 151.8 million .com domains, more than the rest of the top 10 TLDs combined. In the most recent quarter, it processed 11.6 million new domain name registrations for .com and .net. (And that's about a decade and a half after all the good names have been gone.) Nicks said that GoDaddy's data shows about 70% of people in the U.S. buy .com domains, with everything else combining for 30% of the market. (It's inching toward 50/50 internationally, though.) The secondary market is even more lopsided: It's about 90% .com domains, 10% everything else. "You're not going to see a one-word dot-anything else sell for a million dollars," Nicks said. "But I see a one-word dot-com sell for a million dollars all the time."
New internet, new names?
More new startups than ever are embracing the not-com lifestyle, but mostly out of necessity. And those who can afford the dot-com nearly always get it. "The dot-com is great," the investor Jason Calacanis said, "and having inside.com, thesyndicate.com and having invested in Calm.com, I can tell you folks love a great one-word domain!" His advice to startups is simple: "If you can get the dot-com for your company for $10K to $100K, it's generally worth it." This is fairly common advice in the tech industry. "If you have a U.S. startup called X and you don't have x.com, you should probably change your name," Y Combinator's Paul Graham wrote in 2015. "Unless you're so big that your reputation precedes you, a marginal domain suggests you're a marginal company."
Almost everyone I spoke to said the only way to change this will be time. The .com TLD has been around for 35 years, and has been the go-to choice for more than two decades. It might take just as long for .xyz, .link, .web (which appears to be Verisign's next big bet) and others to become just as engrained in public consciousness. And the road to get there is long, expensive and windy. Schilling and UNR decided to get off it: They recently auctioned more than 20 TLDs, selling them to "between 10 and 20 bidders, including six first-time operators" for between $40 million and $50 million. UNR provides technology for operators to manage and run their TLDs, and has decided to focus on that business instead.
There is one potential game-changer coming soon, though, and that's the blockchain. The naming strategy and infrastructure for the decentralized web hasn't been firmly decided. The Ethereum Naming Standard (ENS for short) has become the de facto standard in the space, and .eth is the TLD most often used, but that could change fast. A few enterprising domainers, like .xyz and .club, are partnering with the ENS to allow users to use those names for their decentralized website, even their crypto wallet. (A few people are also eagerly awaiting a .crypto TLD, which could be the most expensive one ever.)
"I've always felt that there's been this untapped potential in domain names," Rostam said. "With domain names, for the last 30 years they've kind of been used in the same way: for websites, email addresses, that's it." Now that's starting to change. Google bought .new and has turned it into something like an app launcher for the internet: doc.new creates a new Google Doc, pdf.new a new PDF and so on. URLs can open files, run actions, accomplish almost anything, and in a world increasingly run online that gives domain names more power than ever.
Domain names have become a practically unkillable thing on the internet. For a time, it felt like search and social platforms would make them irrelevant. Instead, they only became more important. A glut of TLDs made the most memorable ones all the more desirable. And while there's a new generation of companies following the dot-com boom strategy of naming themselves after their domains — x.ai is a much-cited example — more often companies will be companyhq.com or companyapp.com, because the .com is everything.
And then, when they get big and successful enough, like the team at Angel Studios, they'll take some of their spoils and make a giant offer on the perfect domain. Because you still haven't made it until you have the .com.