The changing face of the online world

May 4, 2017

The online world has far more fluidity than its geographical equivalent, and country code TLDs can tell an interesting story about the domain name trends that ripple across the globe.

Unlike the sturdy physical world that spends thousands of years making minor shifts, the online world is far more fluid and flexible, with county code top level domain (ccTLD) registrations reflecting the political, economic, commercial and technological changes that constantly sweep our globe when it comes to internet usage.

It’s been a year since we produced our first map of the online world, surprising many with the disparity between the size of a country and the number of ccTLD registrations. A year on, our second map bears testament to the current state of country codes, with the disparate and unexpected figures reflecting the complicated way in which these domains are marketed and the reasons that compel people to buy them.

One of the constants from year to year is China’s dominance – .cn remains the largest ccTLD in the world and recorded a 22.3% increase in domains under management since last year, the equivalent of over 3 million registrations. (Interest is not reserved to ccTLDs – China currently accounts for over 46% of all domains under management of the new gTLDs.)

While China’s large population goes some way to justifying its buoyant ccTLD market, places like Tokelau are intriguing for their disproportionately large size on the map. This remote group of atolls in the South Pacific Ocean was the big story of last year and remains overrepresented in 2017 despite ostensibly recording a drop in the numbers of registered .tk domains.

The reduction is due to a revision in the estimation of .tk domains under management by Zooknic, an independent analytical company, in the third quarter of 2016. The Freenom registry that manages the domain doesn’t provide any official data, so Zooknic’s estimations are all we have – the true story of Tokelau’s .tk remains obscure.

While .tk attracts for its affordability (it’s free to register a domain), other country’s TLDs are revered for the handy selection of letters that lend themselves to branding. For example, little Lichenstein (.li) has 169.1 domain registrations per 100 people, confirming a generous portion of this interest comes from abroad. In Russia ‘li’ is a common word ending, making it attractive for those wishing to register snappy domains, while in China Li is a prevalent surname, making the ccTLD a means of creating personalised domain names. Across the pond, some American companies are using it as reference to their location, with ‘li’ representing Long Island.

This beyond-borders approach to using ccTLDs is only possible when countries allow their domain names to be registered from outside the country. For example, Norway’s .no is only available to residents or companies with a Norwegian footprint, which is a shame as it would likely be very marketable – smoke.no? yesor.no?.

Another factor is SEO, as Google’s search algorithms treats ccTLDs and gTLDs differently, nudging the former towards country-specific searches. There are 20 exceptions – for these, Google will index the country code domains as gTLDs, supporting those using them from outside the country.

These twenty include the likes of .fm, .dj and .me, and the non-patriotic interest in these ccTLDs is easily justified: .in supports catchy domains like check.in and move.in; while .ly has proved attractive to marketing companies (obvious.ly) and link shortening websites who want to follow the trend set by bit.ly. Music streaming and radio services have moved towards .fm, .am and .dj, while .me has appealed to all manner of big brands, including Microsoft, Samsung and Facebook. (When .me was first available, one eager chap registered willshemarry.me to propose to his girl – she said yes.)

The country code TLDs are also being interpreted as abbreviations, such as .co for company, .pw for professional web and .tv for television. This alternative interpretation of domain names is often supported by the country who owns it. Many nations allow independent, international registrars to market and sell their domains and subsequently enjoy the additional revenue stream. This is particularly useful for smaller countries, where ccTLD registration would be limited by population size. For example, Montenegro enjoys a significant influx of cash from the registrations of .me (an estimated revenue of 6.5 million Euros in 2015), which accounts for approximately 2% of the country’s exports) and has over 800,000 cTLDs registered despite the population being just over 600,000.

While surrogate usage of country codes accounts for a portion of their market, ccTLDs remain popular options for national identification, helping businesses attract the right target audience and creating clear association between a website and its home country. There are also commercial advantages to sticking with your own ccTLD – for example, 73% of UK consumers prefer to click first on a website ending in .uk when searching online for a product or service [Insight Engineers, 2016], making it a smart TLD option for local businesses.

There is no doubt that we are moving towards a future when they way people access and use the internet will become more fluid, with less need for typing in a domain name manually. What effect this will have on ccTLDs is unknown, but it is certain that the Online Map will continue to shift as technology evolves and the changing trends for ccTLD adoption and usage continue to ripple across the globe.

View map in full here.

2017 online map