Can you imagine how someone must feel about a brand to go and register a .sucks domain? Of course, we in the SEO world know that this happens because of the value of the domain, but brands deal with angry consumers all the time. The fact is that BankofAmerica.sucks, JustinBieber.sucks and many more may soon be reality.
Today, businesses have to manage PR in addition to marketing efforts. It’s very different from the olden days, where consumer response was gauged largely through product testing and focus groups. Today’s brand of hater can air all their frustrations out on Facebook and vent their fury on blogs or in tweets. That was fairly mundane, and in most cases harmless, but the .sucks domains threaten to change everything about reputation management.
Right now, the most popular sites consumers use to vent are: Yelp, RipoffReport, PissedConsumer, Scam.com, ScamBook, Complaints.com and ComplaintsBoard. Many of these sites are popular because they encourage the posting of content anonymously, essentially opening anyone to slander any brand for personal or financial gain. These sites also rank well in search, which means the problem doesn’t just disappear on its own.
With the .sucks domains, companies will need to figure out whether it’s worth it to own that real estate or take the chance that their brand will outlast any potential controversies. With the sunrise period ending on May 31st, big brands and celebrities have the opportunity to purchase their .sucks domain now. For those that cannot afford to pay so much, they can wait until general availability on June 1st, when the prices will be much lower.
This is very similar to the same kinds of threats that the .porn domain fiasco started. Harvard, Microsoft and other important individuals immediately registered for their .porn domain because of the potential threat that leaving the domain untouched could cause.
The new suffix is not a one-off phenomenon. It’s been happening increasingly since the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) created a procedure for adding new suffixes back in 2011. The organization keeps lists of existing suffixes, with suffixes like .sexy and .cancerresearch, and adds to it from the 2,000+ applications it has received. 500 domain suffixes have been approved thus far.
ICANN spokesman James Cole said that consumers play a role in these decisions: “It’s about enhancing consumer choice, increasing competition and creativity in the marketplace.” For the most part, that’s been the case.
The standard is still .com, and it’s the most popular option to this day. ICANN decided on allowing applications for generic domain suffixes because they wanted to open up the market. The real estate in .com is fairly saturated, and attempts at maintaining the purity of .org type suffixes created a need for new suffixes.
John Berard of Vox Populi, the registrar for .sucks domains points out, “[sucks] is no longer a pejorative, but a point of emphasis.”
Still, the high price tag and delayed entry into the program to purchase these domains means that smaller businesses and organizations are going to be out of luck if they can’t pay the stiff fees to keep a domain operating. That opens the door for a new kind of troll. We have patent trolls, comment trolls and we may soon have “domain trolls.”
Are Companies Paying ICANN for Protection?
It could certainly seem that way. ICANN is charging what the People for Internet Responsibility are calling an exorbitant amount. The new suffixes are designed to make money for ICANN, inflating a problem that is legitimate for profit gain.
Sounds familiar, right? RipOffReport does the same thing and calls it “VIP Arbitration.”
It’s not all doom and gloom for businesses, there is actually a huge opportunity to get valuable feedback on your business. Registering your .sucks domains can help claim that real estate in the search engine. You can host a feedback form there and post you favorite responses, similar to Botto’s approach of posting their favorite terrible Yelp reviews.
You can also leave the site untouched, or put something there to make people think about your business or remember your brand. It’s not just an outlet for anger and frustration, it’s a place for companies to control messaging and encourage criticism and collaboration.
It’s definitely possible that this amounts to little more than a “shakedown scheme,” to quote Senator Jay Rockefeller, but there is a significant opportunity for brands to discover what doesn’t work about their business and make some concrete changes.
Some people might think that owning a trademark would protect them from anyone grabbing their domains. However, owning a trademark offers little, if any, protection to you.
Individuals who register .sucks domain names may use a consumer advocacy forum platform called “Everything.sucks.” This forum will act as a.sucks registry, and assist in subsidizing the purchase of domains for individual consumers that wish to host a forum discussion website. All .sucks domains registered under this subsidy program will be provided a free, hosted, consumer forum courtesy of Everything.sucks. Consumers can use this free service to create a review forum for a product or service they do not like.
According to New York City trademark attorney, Karen Bernstein, “If you are planning to have your .Sucks domain name containing a trademark hosted elsewhere, and you are a US citizen planning to register a .sucks domain name containing a company’s trademark, you probably want to think about how you are going to use the domain name containing the trademark if it hasn’t already been registered by the trademark holder. If you plan to use a trademarked .Sucks domain name for purposes of, for example, criticizing the trademark holder, so long as you are not selling any products or services on the website, then it may be considered fair use and the First Amendment right to free speech may be protected. If you are planning to say untrue things about the trademark holder, however, you may not be protected under the First Amendment and instead it may be a case of defamation.”
In the sunrise period which started on March 30th and lasts 60 days, trademark holders may register their domains for $2499 MSRP. This price will drop to $249 for trademark holders, when the registration opens to the public on June 1st. However, that also means that the general public may register a domain that may belong to your company. The general public however, may register these domains for $9.95.
.sucks registrars say that they would have systems in place not to allow companies registering their own domains for $9.95. However, I would think this would not be an easy task. For example, if a small company was worried about losing their domain and wanted to grab it so no one else could have it, they could ask a friend to register the domain for them.
.Sucks will also be selling some individual non-trademarked domains for premium prices, such as life.sucks and divorce.sucks. Some of these premium domains are available for registration now.
It’s not really clear yet how this will affect SEO and reputation management. Google did some work to cut down on exact match domain spam, so that may hinder some of the immediate legitimacy that these sites could have. Could spammers and competitors have difficulty launching a slander site like this, or will Google searches lead people directly to these anonymous complaint outlets?
My feeling about this is that if you run the type of company that gets a lot of negative reviews online and can afford the sunrise fees, go ahead and grab your domain name now, just to be safe. However, there really is not a 100% protection against online reputational issues, as there are plenty of complaint sites out there and people may register other variations of your domain ending with “sucks.com” or “.suck.” The best protection against these kinds of things is first trying to run a legitimate company that has great customer service and second to try and increase your positive activity online, such as creating more social media sites and sharing interesting content about yourself.
For better or for worse, these .sucks domains are here to stay. What do you think? Are these suffixes legitimate opportunities for a company to improve itself, or is this something businesses are being conned into paying for?