Get ready for the biggest real estate boom in a decade. Only this time, it's digital real estate in trendy new Internet neighborhoods, with names such as .art, .book and .singles.
The Internet — until now largely confined to just a few domain names, most notably .com — will soon have hundreds of distinct new addresses that will more sharply define the websites in those neighborhoods, making it easier for Internet users to find exactly what they're looking for.
The first of the new domains in the Latin alphabet recently debuted and include .bike, .clothing, .singles and .plumbing.
"It introduces creativity back into the domain space," said James Cole, a spokesman for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.
With nearly every popular and easy-to-remember name taken in existing domains, such as .com and .org., the global organization, which manages Internet addresses, is authorizing so-called "generic top-level domain names," or gTLDs, to allow businesses and individuals to create millions of memorable online addresses, such as thebible.book or picasso.art.
"These names are all very specific, and that was the point," said Mason Cole, a spokeswoman for a Bellevue, Wash., company that has spent nearly $57 million applying for the rights to 307 new domains. "They're far more specific and relevant than the existing namespace."
Many of the new names indicate the kind of content browsers would expect to find there, such as .art or .book.
Some cover diverse interests with a simple name: .club, for example, could be for nightclubs and their night-owl patrons, or for fan clubs.
"It's generic, but it means something," said Colin Campbell, a Florida businessman who is applying for the rights to the .club domain. "It helps with the search itself. If you were actually trying to join a Billy Joel fan club … that might direct you to billyjoel.club."
Campbell hopes to sell .club addresses to social groups around the world for about $20 each.
But some critics warn that in a climate where cybercriminals are stealing the private data of millions of consumers, the proliferation of new domains could introduce a whole new arena for fraud.
More harm than good?
Jon Leibowitz, a former Federal Trade Commission chairman, said online criminals could use the new domains to create countless fake websites designed to simulate the sites of legitimate businesses.
ICANN has set up safeguards to prevent the fraudulent use of trademarks in the new domains, but Leibowitz worried these protections are inadequate.
For instance, a crook could be prevented from setting up a site called bestbuy.mobile, because Best Buy is a trademark of the well-known electronics retailer. But changing the name to, say, bestbuyz.mobile might pass muster with ICANN's trademark monitoring system.
"It could create enormous amounts of consumer confusion and lots of opportunities for fraud," said Leibowitz, now an attorney.
Others, though, said the new domains will make the Internet safer.
For example, many popular brands have applied for domains in their own names, which will assure consumers that they have arrived at the authentic site of those companies. The German carmaker BMW, for example, has applied for .bmw, and Ford Motor Co. for .ford.
Kevin Murphy, publisher of DomainIncite, an online publication that tracks the industry, said the new domains, "in particular dot-brands, have the potential to eventually reduce fraud on the Internet," because an Internet searcher who ends up at, say, mustang.ford can be certain he's at the correct site.
Better than numbers
Domain names were created because people hate to memorize numbers. Every computer on the Internet has an address that's basically a collection of digits. The domain name system is a network of computers that links each numerical address to a memorable name, such as startribune.com.
The existing top-level domain names effectively divide the Internet into very general digital neighborhoods, with .com and .net for businesses and general-purpose users, .org for nonprofits and .gov for government agencies.
About 250 million Internet addresses have been registered, including well more than 100 million that end in .com. As a result, nearly every memorable or meaningful .com name has been taken.
In 2012, ICANN began accepting applications from businesses and other organizations that wanted to create new and specialized domains — .cars for automobile buffs, .save for bargain hunters, .health for fitness fans.
Interested parties had to put up a hefty $185,000 in application fees, and 1,900 organizations have applied so far. ICANN said it expects to approve about 1,400 of the applications.
Among them: the Vatican, which has applied for .catholic domains in the Latin, Chinese, Arabic and Cyrillic alphabets.
Many other applicants are investors simply looking to rent or sell valuable virtual real estate.
"As a domain investor I'm essentially speculating, so I hope to resell them for profit," said Braden Pollock, a lawyer and owner of Legal Brand Marketing LLC in Los Angeles. He has preregistered two Web addresses on domains he expects to be approved soon: dui.lawyer and dui.attorney — addresses that might appeal to someone in need of legal advice.
He said creating Internet domains specifically for lawyers will make it easier for attorneys and clients to find each other. "This will help bring structure back to the Internet."
Elliot Silver, president of Top Notch Domains LLC in Wellesley, a company that buys and sells Internet addresses, argued that the new domains will be slow to catch on with most Internet users, who have become conditioned to searching the .com galaxy. "I prefer to own great assets on .com," he said. "People know .com."
Moreover, in an era when a search engine such as Google can produce a pretty good list for browsers within seconds, does the back end of a Web address matter all that much?
The organization going through all the trouble of introducing hundreds of new domains has no doubt they will not only be more convenient, but popular.
"We want consumers to have a larger bevy of options," said ICANN's Cole. "People are going to adapt to it, and we think they're going to respond to it pretty well."