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05 Mar 2015

The DNS still isn't a directory ICANN

Back in the mid 1990s, before ICANN was invented, a lot of people assumed that the way you would find stuff on the Internet would be through the Domain Name System. It wasn't a ridiculous idea at the time. The most popular way to look for stuff was through manually managed directories like Yahoo's, but they couldn't keep up with the rapidly growing World Wide Web. Search engines had been around since 1994, but they were either underpowered and missed a lot of stuff, or else produced a blizzard of marginally relevant results. (Brin and Page wouldn't publish their billion dollar PageRank idea until 1998.) Moreover, web browsers had started to do domain guessing, so if you entered, say, pickles in your browser's address bar, it would take you to

So when ICANN started in 1998, it was somewhat plausible to imagine that new TLDs could be directories for various areas. The majority of the TLDs that ICANN added during the following decade were supposed to be topic-specific, and a few tried to be directories for their topics. The .MUSEUM domain tried very hard with organized names like and the .AERO domain reserved all of the three letter airport codes and two letter airline codes to be claimed by the respective airports and airlines.

What quickly became apparent is that the DNS makes a lousy directory. Since it only does exact name matches, minor variations in spelling make the lookups fail, and in any event, it's hard to encode more than one or two words into a domain name. Also, domain names only point to one place. If you type "pickles" and your browser takes you to, you'll find pickles but if you wanted to find anything other than Kraft's Claussen brand, too bad. By 2000, Google's PageRank was providing very good results for searches, and in a search engine, spelling correction and multiple results are no problem.

These days, web browsers totally blur any distinction between search terms and domain names. Firefox has separate boxes for them, but you can type search terms into the address box and it'll work. Chrome doesn't even bother to have two boxes, just type something and it will guess, usually correctly, what you wanted.

What this means, is that ICANN's mandate to expand the TLD name space is now almost entirely pointless, since regardless of what domain someone's web site uses, most people will find it through a search engine and bookmark it, often not even looking at what the domain was. You can make an argument that TLDs can certify their registrants, e.g., all the registrants in .BANK would be real banks, but the one attempt to do that in the 2000s, .PRO, was a complete failure, and attempts to define high security TLDs for the new TLD program collapsed (I was there.)

Nonetheless, in some parts of the Internet, it'll always be 1998, which brings us to .NYC, which recently published a six month update on how the TLD for New York City is doing. Not so hot, it turns out. Three quarters of the 72,000 registrations are just parked, and of the unparked ones, they found only 458 indexed by Google. Most of the rest just redirect to existing names in .COM or elsewhere.

Many names are reserved for community organizations, by geography or activity. A few are active, like which is indeed the municipal archives, but the vast majority are unclaimed and are likely to stay that way. (This is consistent with .AERO's experience with the reserved airport and airline names, few of which are claimed and fewer of which do anything other than redirect to the airport or airline's real web site.) They're putting a brave face on it and describing the vast empty spaces as opportunities but really, don't hold your breath.

They note that the percentage of parked names in .LONDON, .PARIS, and .TOKYO domains are less, but since they're all considerably smaller than .NYC, the number of active domains in each is quite small. A little spot checking suggests most names that aren't parked redirect to other names.

I don't know why anyone should be surprised at this, but I expect the moaning and groaning about how people aren't using their wonderful community TLDs will continue until they run out of money and go bankrupt. After that, who knows what will happen.

Update: Apropos of Larry Seltzer's note, ICANN directly runs the tiny .INT TLD. It's very exclusive, to get in you have to be an international treaty organization and show them the treaty. Other than a few entries that predate ICANN, I believe that all of the 187 entries meet the treaty criteria. But this is a legacy zone, not subject to any of the gTLD rules.

  posted at: 12:55 :: permanent link to this entry :: 6 comments
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