Jacob Schindler

Today marked the final day of DOMAINfest Asia, a first-of-its-kind international conference aimed at balancing Eastern and Western perspectives on issues including gTLDs, IDNs and the regulatory challenges unique to the Chinese Internet. World Trademark Review ferried across the Pearl River Estuary for a look at day two of the event in Macau, where it was clear that this region is a driving force in the world of domain names – a trend that brand owners need to be aware of if their strategies rely on reaching Asian consumers online.

On the gTLD front, Asian registries and registrars are making headway. 303 applications to administer new gTLDs came from would-be registries based in Asia, which is less than half the number of applications originating from Europe and a third of those from North America. Asian registrars, however, are keeping pace with their peers in terms of selling the new domains on to the public: five of the top 10 registrars for new gTLDs come from the region. “I think this is an important sign of what is to come,” remarked Edmon Chung, CEO of the DotAsia Organisation.

First among these registrars is GMO Internet Inc, from Japan, which has sold nearly half of the domains in the new ‘.xyz’ string; the other four are all based in China. Moreover, added Chung, the new gTLD with the highest traffic – as measured by Alexa – is a Korean language site, ‘namu.wiki’. This suggests that Asian netizens may well be ahead of the curve in terms of being accustomed to the new varieties of web address, a consideration that may be important to determining what your brand’s URL identity should be.

Internationalised domain names (IDNs) are an important development here due to the preponderance of languages that do not use Latin script. Han Chinese is leading the way in new IDN strings, accounting for 57 applications out of 116 total. Tellingly, Chung dismissed the notion that non-Latin addresses are being under-utilised, pointing out that users in many Asian countries strongly prefer to type in their native scripts. “Although users in China, Japan and Korea may type domains in English, nobody searches that way. That’s one way in which IDNs have made a difference – we are seeing a very good trend in Japan of people registering IDNs in Japanese specifically for SEO [search engine optimisation] purposes.” This has obvious import from a marketing perspective.

If IDNs generate significantly more exposure in organic search engine results, you can bet that more companies will look to take advantage. Trademark watching activities similarly should cover non-Latin search.

One pressing concern among attendees was on the regulatory question in China. As WTR reported back in May, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced that all registries and registrars would have to meet a set of requirements and obtain approval from the government before operating in China. The upshot is that new gTLD owners who do not successfully win approval risk being left out of the China market. A number of speakers offered advice on how registries can navigate the bureaucracy to ensure compliance. But as Chung pointed out, it may actually be a positive sign that Chinese authorities have taken an interest in this particular sector: “In the West you have an interpretation that this is a more problematic or challenging situation. The reality is, if you look at the development of industry in China, the release of new regulations often signals the growth or emergence of a certain industry.”

Simon Cousins, CEO of Allegravita and one of the event’s organisers, said he hopes the conference will lead to more East-West dialogue on important domain name issues that affect the entire Internet. “It occurred to us that there is a great unbalance in terms of Chinese participation at ICANN. Usually if you look around at one of ICANN’s three annual meetings, there might be 20-30 Chinese participants.” However, the trend goes both ways, noted Cousins: “When I attend domain events in Mainland China, I’m usually the only white face”.

It is no time for brand owners to sit on the sidelines on domain name issues, especially given that the migration of people and businesses online has only just begun in this region. In the fast-growing ASEAN bloc for example, Chung pointed out: “96% of this marketplace is about SMEs, and that means a ton of domain names.” And, perhaps, a ton of disputes. 

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