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It’s the end of domain search as we know it (and I feel fine)


Fracesco Cetraro of .Cloud provides these reflections for a new user-centric approach to getting people online.

A replica of the Bombe, an electromechanical device used by British cryptologists to help decipher German Enigma-machine-encrypted secret messages during World War II.

A replica of the Bombe, an electromechanical device used by British cryptologists to help decipher German Enigma-machine-encrypted secret messages during World War II.

As a domain geek working in an industry full of people passionate about domains, I often find myself involved in very interesting discussions about the state and challenges of the domain industry and the impact that new TLDs are having on the business and on users.

There seems to be general consensus (and concern) that new TLDs have not made the impact expected and that overall adoption is lagging behind. However opinions are definitely more divided regarding the causes of the problem and the possible solutions.

Some believe it is ICANN’s fault for not doing enough to advertise new extensions to the general public in spite of having significant resources to do so. Others blame Registrars for lack of effort or the Registries for having unrealistic expectations. Some also blame the end users for either not understanding the value of new TLDs, or for simply not caring at all.

The situation is rendered even more paradoxical by the fact that statistics continue to show that a large number of small and medium businesses even in the more advanced economies still do not have an online presence, yet the large majority of companies in the domain and hosting business are growing very slow, if often at all.

Reflecting over these issues, one thing that strikes me as odd is nobody seems to be questioning the mindset with which we approach the task of helping our customers to get online.

I think few will disagree with the observation that over the past 20 years the type of customers we deal with has changed significantly. “Techies” have been increasingly replaced by a much broader and diversified consumer base that does not care much about gigabytes and databases and “just wants to get online” quickly, at the right price and without hassles.

In the same time period, we have added new ”innovative” products to the mix, we started using Social Media for marketing and made our shopping carts responsive. However the approach used to sell our services – a reflection of the underlying assumptions we make almost unconsciously on ”how domain/hosting products should be sold” – has basically never changed. The typical sales flow still starts by picking a domain, then a hosting package, followed by various add-ons and then eventually collecting payment.

The philosophical problem with this approach is that it seems to completely disregard Hick’s Law and instead take for granted that in a world of exponentially growing choices, the average customer will know exactly what he/she wants and is able to make the best decision.

Let me try to illustrate the issue with a “restaurant” example. Imagine you have never had Thai food, but a friend tells you it’s great and you decide to try it. You enter a crowded restaurant and are unceremoniously handed a thick menu with hundreds of possible dishes to choose from. Overwhelmed, you order the one dish you have heard about and hope for the best. Sure, you are most likely going to get full, but are you really getting the best experience and value?

Imagine now the same scene, but in a restaurant where the staff welcomes you and instead of the thick menu gives you some general indication about Thai cuisine, asks you about your preferences and recommends a set of dishes that is most likely to satisfy you and give you an amazing experience. I bet you are going to leave this second restaurant a lot more satisfied. You’ll tell your friends about what a great experience you had and you are most likely going to go back each time you have cravings for Thai food (also, I hope you tipped that waiter generously :)).

Today, the average customer experience when buying domains and hosting is more likely to resemble the first example than the second. I doubt anyone enjoys dealing with a thick, unfamiliar “menu”, regardless of whether it is Thai delicacies or lists of domains, site-builders or email solutions, without any indication of what is ”right for me”. Expecting the average customer to make the best decision in these conditions is ”naive” at best and extremely unlikely to work (so no wonder it’s not working…).

Nothing exemplifies this paradox better than the issue of ”domain search”. Many of the people I talk to seem to believe that if we only manage to ”fix search” then all our problems will be solved and new TLDs’ adoption will finally take off.

But consider for a second the challenge that building an “efficient” domain search function faces. Particularly with the advent of new domain extensions and the exponential increase in possible combinations. The complexity that domain search has to deal with is just too big. No matter how much effort we put into “fixing” it, how can we reasonably expect it to provide relevant results when all we feed into it is a couple of keywords that the user types in the search bar? I am sure that even the smartest Google engineer would be gasping for air if all he/she had to work with was a couple of vague keywords while still being expected to deliver the most relevant ad for that user.

I am strongly convinced that the real issue facing new TLD adoption is not lack of demand, but the fact that we need to re-learn how to sell them in a way that makes sense for the user they are intended for. As long as the customer is presented with a “thick menu” it is very hard to blame him for going with the “safest” choice, instead of considering the possibility that there might be a better option for him.

My strong belief is that the value of new TLD is not in the simple fact that they are new, but rather in the fact that they offer relevance and a better way to add useful context to an online presence. However, how can we really provide the ”right” domain to the ”right” customer when we ourselves have no context to work with?

People don’t buy domains and hosting because it’s cool. They buy them because those are the instruments to build an online presence that can help them pursue their ultimate goals, whether these are promoting a business or sharing their opinions on a blog.

Starting a user interaction with the domain search is the equivalent of asking customers straight away ”what do you want”, which for the large majority is a very difficult question to answer well enough. A better approach would probably be to ask ”who are you and where do you want to go”, and use the information to guide them through the process of picking the right tools to get them there.

A better understanding of their “purpose” is key to evolving what is currently an obsolete, price-obsessed, one-size-fits-all, supermarket style of selling domains and hosting. It would also make it easier for the customers to understand the true value of things like backing up their data to the cloud for increased security, how having a well-performing website affects their ROI, or how a fitting domain can help their business be more visible. Once there is a clear perception of the value, it is also easier to move away from a race to the bottom that is only focused on competing with the lowest price.

The good news is that the data and the tools are there, we just need to learn to use them properly. Many players in this space are in my opinion moving in the right direction but no one has yet fully connected all the dots. To do so, it would require a fresh look at how we do things, for instance by daring to rip apart sales flows that haven’t changed in 20 years and find new ways to serve each specific customer on his own terms, and help choose the right tools to fulfill their goals.

Instead of forcing them to pick a domain first, we could let them build their site first, so that a smarter domain assistant can analyze their content to provide them with relevant domain suggestions and other services.

A happy customer whose business is growing tends not only to stick around longer, but also to spend more and more over time. While domains and hosting are already commodities, knowledge and ability to provide the right piece of advice are not: only those players that will be able to transition from “dumb suppliers” to “trusted advisors” will remain relevant, competitive and thrive.

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