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All About Top Level Domains

You see top level domain names (TLDs) every day when you visit a website or send an email. If you glance at your browser’s address bar right now you’ll see one. But you might not realize that’s what they’re called or think about their importance.

A top level domain name is the part of a domain name to the right of the dot. In Namecheap.com, the part with ‘.com’ is called the top level domain, while the part with ‘Namecheap’ to the left of the dot is the second level domain.

Believe it or not, there are over 1,500 TLDs as of the beginning of 2019. Only a subset of these are available for registering second level domains, but these still number in the hundreds.

Types of Top Level Domains

There are two main types of top level domains.

  • Generic top level domains – These are TLDs that are three letters or longer. .Com is the most well-known.
  • Country code top level domains – ccTLDs are two letters and are assigned to countries. For example, .UK is the country code domain name for the United Kingdom.

All of these TLDs operate in a similar way. Individuals and companies can register second level domains for most TLDs and use them for their websites.

TLD History

The very first top level domain created was .arpa, but this name is for technical infrastructure purposes, not websites. The first TLDs most people know of today that are used for websites were created in 1985.

The first TLDs included .com, .net and .org. You can read a history of these names here.

These three names were part of the first batch of generic TLDs, and the ones that were open to the public. The other initial generic top level domains—.mil, .int, .gov and .edu—are restricted domain names that aren’t available for consumers to register.

The first country code domain names were also created in 1985. Each ccTLD was awarded to a country and they were based on the  ISO 3166 list of country codes. The first country code domains generated in 1985 were .us (United States), .uk (United Kingdom) and .il (Israel). More country code domains were added over the years, and there are now more than 200. Some of these have residency requirements in order to register them and others are open to everyone regardless of country of residence. For example, Canada’s .CA domain name requires some sort of Canadian presence in order to register. But anyone can register Colombia’s .co domain name.

Additional domains were introduced in the early 2000s. These included .biz, .info, and .name. Many of these are generic TLDs and some of them fall into a special designation called Sponsored Top Level Domain (sTLD). These domains are technically sponsored by a community that met requirements ICANN (the domain regulator) put in place. For example, .travel is an sTLD that is sponsored by the travel community. It is no longer possible for organizations to apply for an sTLD.

The introduction of top level domains was relatively minor until a big wave of new TLDs hit in 2013.

New Top Level Domains

The launch of hundreds of TLDs starting in late 2013 was part of a program created by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN regulates and coordinates domain name activities.

The program was called the New gTLD program. Domains launched since 2013 are commonly referred to as “new generic top level domains” or just “new TLDs”.

The new TLD program was launched after consultation with the Internet community with a goal of providing more consumer choice. ICANN opened applications enabling anyone that could meet certain financial and legal minimums to apply for and run their own top level domain.

It wasn’t cheap, though. The application fee was $185,000. Legal and technical fees usually accounted for even more.

Nonetheless, companies submitted 1,930 total applications for TLDs covering 1,409 unique TLDs.

Google applied for 101. Amazon applied for 76. A Seattle company founded by domain name industry veterans applied for a whopping 307 TLDs!

Thanks to this program, we now have domains like .guru, .online, .furniture and .wtf.

In addition to regular generic names, many companies applied for TLDs that match their trademarks. These so-called .brand TLDs include .google and .sony. 42 of the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500 applied to operate .brand domain names. They use them for their own websites and the general public cannot register second level domains under them.

When more than one company applied for the same top level domain name then the parties had to work out a deal to decide who would run the TLD. If they couldn’t, ICANN would auction the domain name rights to the highest bidder.

Some of these auctions were quite heated. As you might expect, the TLD .web sold for a whopping $135 million! That TLD has yet to come to the market.

Today’s Landscape… and Tomorrow’s

Now there are over 1,500 top level domain names active on the web. These include generic domains (.com, .xyz), country code domains (.us, .uk), .brand domains (.google, .sony) and topical domains (.money, .dentist).

Having so many domains to choose from means it’s easier than ever to find an available second level domain to register at Namecheap. However, many people still prefer the familiarity of older extensions like .com.

ICANN is currently discussing another round of new top level domain name expansion. Many details still need to be worked out, such as pricing and rule changes. Industry experts expect it will be at least 2021 before applications are accepted. If it’s anything like the last round of new TLDs, delays will push it back even further.

Thankfully, most website owners don’t need to think about top level domains. They just choose their second level domain and top level domain and start building a website. That’s what makes the web magical: there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, but anyone can quickly register a domain and start a website.

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Andrew Allemann avatar

Andrew Allemann

Andrew is the founder and editor of Domain Name Wire, a publication that has been covering domain names since 2005. He has personally written over 10,000 posts covering domain name sales, policy, and strategies for domain name owners. Andrew has been quoted in stories about domain names in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times and Fortune. More articles written by Andrew.

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