.NGOs – The Next Web Frontier?

July 19, 2013       Zach Halper      

When you want to go to a specific nonprofit’s website, more often than not you will enter the organization’s name followed by .COM or .ORG. But what if instead of that, organizations could choose a different nonprofit-related extension? That is a question that the Public Interest Registry (PIR) aims to answer.

PIR was originally launched in 2002 by the Internet Society (ISOC) to manage the .ORG extension after ISOC won the bid to run the domain after it was put up for bid by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in May 2002.

According to PIR chief operating officer Nancy Gofus, the organization began having interest in a new top-level domain – defined as the highest level in the Domain Name System of the Internet – for nonprofits when ICANN announced in 2011 that it was expanding the internet’s naming system to allow applications for new domains. They soon applied for the .NGO and .ONG domains and are the only applicants for them.

One of the reasons PIR decided to apply for these extensions is the global nature of nonprofits. While .ORG extensions are very well-known within the United States, Gofus said that she found this is not the case with organizations outside the U.S.

“Those types of organizations find that something like .NGO makes them legit and this domain name proves they are legit,” explained Gofus.

How would a .NGO extension differ from .ORG? For one thing, it is a “restricted domain” meaning that it requires validation that the applicant is a registered nonprofit. This is much different than .ORGs, which can be acquired even if the applicant is not a nonprofit. While PIR has no way of knowing how many websites with a .ORG address are actually nonprofits, they did confirm there are 10.2 million websites with the extension.

“Having the extension actually match the organization could help differentiate itself from .ORGs,” said Ward.

Once the applicant is confirmed as a legitimate nonprofit, Gofus said the organization will get a profile page on the .NGO community portal describing their mission. “If you are a small organization that is just starting up, you can already have exposure in advance of building your website,” she explained.

Amy Sample Ward, CEO at Portland, Ore.-based Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) worked with PIR to make sure the two potential domains would have their desired effect overseas. “Part of their [PIR’s] outreach is to understand the challenges of the nonprofit community and finding ways to bring help to a global community,” said Ward.  “In essence, they’re approaching the development of .NGO/.ONG domain space as a co-creation development, where groups of people from a host of different backgrounds come together to solve problems.”

PIR’s application to ICANN is currently under review, though Gofus said she feels “confident” that it will be accepted. Should that happen, the organization would begin letting nonprofits purchase the domains directly from registrars. According to Gofus, the launch process would go something like this:

  • “Sunrise Phase:” Lasts 30-60 days. During that time applicants with trademarks will be able to buy their name during that period.
  • “Landrush Phase:” Lasts 30 days. Applicants can come buy names, though these will typically sell for a more premium price.
  • “General Availability Phase:” All interested applicants can buy their .NGO/ONG domains. “It’s really first come first serve in that environment,” said Gofus.

Final pricing has not yet been determined for .NGO/ONG domains, though Gofus mentioned that it would probably be a little more expensive than purchasing a .ORG extension (which are between $10 and $25).

The .NGO/ONG domains are just two of the thousands of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) being considered by ICANN. The organization released a list of 1,930 applications for gTLDs which include businesses and nonprofits. Michele Jordan, manager of new gTLD communications at ICANN said that the decision to open up applications for new gTLDs came down to fulfilling the organization’s mission: Promoting choice and competition throughout the Internet.

“That has always been our goal from day one,” she said.

On March 22nd, ICANN began releasing the initial evaluation results of the new gTLDs. Those results came from a rigorous process that involved six different panels — Financial, Technical, Operational, DNS Stability, Registry Services, Background Screening, String Similarity — looking at the applications to determine whether they were acceptable.

As of this writing, 1,930 initial evaluations have been completed, with 300 passing. The organization plans to start releasing 100 results per week starting in June.

If an application passes initial evaluation, they can move to contracting and delegation testing to ensure the domain works properly. If they have objections or are in string contention, meaning the name of their extension is the same as another applicant’s, it can take a little more time to complete the process. Jordan said they encourage those applicants that are in string contention to work it out amongst themselves.

The application fee for requesting a new gTLD is steep enough ($185,000) that it could give smaller organizations second thoughts, but it hasn’t stopped some of the bigger nonprofits from being interested. For example, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) applied for the .AARP extension. According to ICANN’s application status page, their submission is still in the initial evaluation phase.

For Rahul Malik, founder and CEO of DKRS Group, a registered Public Charitable Trust & NGO in India that undertakes activities for maligned segments of society, part of the appeal of a custom web extension (.NGO in this case) was preventing against “squatters” attempting to impersonate them. The organization only launched their website in February and Malik said they had already built up a substantial amount of traffic. “We have already received more volunteering applications, proposals and project support applications since February than we received in the whole of last year,” Malik said.

DKRS first heard about the .NGO domain in December 2012 at the Manthan Awards Function at the Indian Habitat Center in Delhi, India. After being explained the pros and cons of using the custom extension, Malik and his partners were convinced it would be the right move for their organization.

“We understand it will be misleading and will give a bad name to our organization if the name of our organization is being held by somebody else,” he explained.

Malik said DKRS will consider converting their entire website to the .NGO domain, but would redirect it to their existing website initially. “Over past few months we have built up decent traffic to our website and we do not want lose the traffic until it is clear how Google will rate [.NGO] among other domains,” he explained.

Rare, an environmental conservation nonprofit based in Arlington, Va., is also considering the .NGO domain for their website. The organization has been online since 1998 but is currently looking to redesign their website.

“We just underwent a brand positioning which we will go public with in September, and we want the new website to reflect our new mission statement,” said Jason Anderson, Rare’s vice president of marketing. Anderson, along with Dinah Berch, the organization’s web content manager, see the new website as an opportunity to try a new URL.

Berch explained that because their website is RareConservation.org, the organization’s name is often listed as that instead of just Rare at trade shows and conferences. “Part of our challenge is finding the right name for us,” said Birch, who explained they cannot use just “Rare” in their URL because of a conflict with a video game company with the same name.

Berch and Anderson both agreed that .NGO is a good option for them because, like Malik suggested, it would give them legitimacy as a nonprofit. “I like that it comes with a set of criteria to be selected for it,” explained Anderson. “I find that really appealing, because there is nothing stopping a for-profit company for grabbing .ORG.”

Rare is also considering another nonprofit extension called .ECO, which is being managed by a small group of environmental supporters. Anderson said the domain is meant to be used for environmental nonprofits. While anybody can apply for the .ECO domain, anyone who uses it must create a .ECO-Profile, according to the domain’s website, which would showcase a “commitment to the environment through actions, memberships and reporting.”

“There will be a certain amount of community policing,” Anderson said he was told. “For example, if an organization starts to promote something that isn’t credible, there will be discussion about whether it is allowed to keep the domain.”

Organizations can operate a .ECO page (or a .NGO page, for that matter) even while still using their existing website. The .ECO community page suggested using the domain as a way for a nonprofit to show off their environmental credentials.

Anderson and Berch say that their organization is still at least four months away from choosing a new URL name. They were hoping that ICANN would have made a decision about .NGO and .ECO by now and they might not be able to use .NGO if it’s not ready when they have to make a decision.

For her part, ICANN’s Jordan said that, with so many steps to complete in the application process, she estimates that the earliest people would start seeing the new gTLDs live is in August.

Jordan said that it’s too early to say what the impact of the new gTLDs will be but one thing is for certain: “The Internet is about get a whole lot bigger.” She further theorized that the new extensions will be a big boost for organizations’ marketing campaigns.

“I see it as creating little neighborhoods on the web,” she said. “You’re able to connect online in a more personal way, or offer different services depending on the extension.”

Ward agreed with this theory, suggesting that nonprofits that already have the .ORG extension could use that site for communications purposes, while using a .NGO domain for fundraising. “The most basic advantage is just the instant association,” she continued. “Having the extension actually match the organization could help differentiate itself from .ORGs.”

Malik said that the success of .NGO and other custom extensions will depend entirely on how Google treats them in search results. “Until Google starts giving as much, if not more, weightage to newer domains, I do not see people replacing their website with these domains.”

Berch has mixed feeling about the ultimate success of the new gTLDs, pointing out that a lot of people today still assume .COM rather than .ORG when they are told an organization has a website. Still, she sees the potential for doing some “very neat things” by opening up the playing field. For example, being part of the .NGO database that Gofus said all registrants would get is “very appealing,” especially if it’s open to search results.

“I think there will only be a few that will succeed fundamentally,” said Anderson, when asked whether the new extensions would be a success. “The way people use search now, they just type in their search bar the website name. I don’t know if people will really think about what the extension is.”

He did, however, hold out hope that domains like .NGO will be as prevalent for nonprofits as .ORG is in the next 5-10 years. “If nonprofits can rally around one web extension, they will be able to gleam some security of it.”