The Deck Closes Down

From Jim Coudal of The Deck:

We started The Deck in 2006 and for the first couple years it struggled. By 2008, it was an OK business and by 2009, it was a pretty good business. From then through 2013, The Deck was going along just fine.

Things change. In 2014, display advertisers started concentrating on large, walled, social networks. The indie “blogosphere” was disappearing. Mobile impressions, which produce significantly fewer clicks and engagements, began to really dominate the market. Invasive user tracking (which we refused to do) and all that came with that became pervasive, and once again The Deck was back to being a pretty good business. By 2015, it was an OK business and, by the second half of 2016, the network was beginning to struggle again.

After a long, successful run, The Deck’s time has come and we’re shutting it down.

I don’t have anything specific to say other than, “what a shame.” The Deck, in my opinion, was one of the real heroes of the indie web, and it’s a shame their business crumbled because of walled networks and a demand for invasive tracking. It’s sort of analogous to the state of the world – loud voices saying very little to increasingly siloed audiences seem to be winning the culture war. Hopefully it won’t always be that way.

Working Through My Non-.com Fears

The .com vs. non-.com debate is still raging in my head (it’s very chaotic in here), and my main thought lately is what it would take for me to feel comfortable with a non-.com if I were a brand. I’m talking about a specific use-case here, so let me define.

For this thought exercise, a brand is a company designed to be customer facing (B2B or B2C), have products sold online, and eventually have 5+ employees. So more ambitious than a hobby or solo project, less local than a restaurant or local service shop, and designed with longevity in mind.

Here are my fears, if I were starting such a brand today:

  1. If I don’t have the .com, it means that either someone else does or someone else will. Since .com is currently the most common TLD (by far), my general preference would be to own that coveted real estate for my brand.
  2. If I’m using a newer, more specific TLD (like .beer), will I lose traffic to the .com?
  3. When people see my non-.com, will they take my brand seriously?

Let’s go in order. The first fear is my biggest because I typically wouldn’t want to start my brand in a naming competition on day 1. Just off the top of my head, I’d be worried about things like the classic Apple Records vs. Apple Computer fight and the general confusion I have over whether the song on the radio is by the Verve or the Verve Pipe (ok, so maybe that’s not a relevant example anymore). My simple rule would be that if the owner of the .com was in a completely separate industry, it’s probably fine. But if it’s in a similar space, or worse, the domain has nothing on it yet, I’d be wary. As a brand, it’s your job to mitigate risk, and if your non-.com domain is competing with the .com in a similar industry, I just don’t think that’s smart.

Assuming you are in a different industry and choose to go with a non-.com, issue #2 is something to think about (“If I’m using a newer, more specific TLD (like .beer), will I lose traffic to the .com?”). The short answer is yes, you’ll lose some traffic, but not as much as you’d think. Just in my personal use, I’m rarely dissuaded by not being able to guess a TLD because I rarely type entire domains into my browser. My guess is that 95% of my web traffic comes from social links, content aggregators, search, or autocomplete from domains I’ve already been to. I’m a tech-savvy millennial though, and stories like this need to be considered. From Hacker News:

As an anecdotal counterpoint, at our family Christmas, I mentioned a few different urls, spelling out “www” each time; one of my nieces said “why do you keep saying ‘www’”, and one of the other kids said “that’s how old people find websites.” After some discussion, it turned out that nearly everyone over 30 habitually wrote urls with “www” at the front, and everyone under 18 always omitted it.

The “www” thing isn’t specifically an issue, but the traditional use of the internet is a concern. Especially for older/less tech-savvy Americans who don’t use a ccTLD (like .UK or .NZ), .com is simply how domains end. With more exposure to alternative TLDs (and the internet in general), this should be less and less of a problem, but if my brand was targeting a less savvy audience than, say, a new dev tool, it’s something to think about.

That leaves us with the last issue, “When people see my non-.com, will they take my brand seriously?”. There’s no way to be sure, but my answer is always that if your product is good, you’ll be taken seriously. There are plenty of good brands out there using all sorts of non-.coms, and they likely aren’t worried at all about their decision. At the end of the day, your brand is as good as you make it, and in the scheme of things, your domain is a small portion of your longterm success.

Questioning a Medium Internet

As a resident of the internet, I spend a lot of time thinking about Medium. Is it good? Is it bad? As a writer, should I be hoping for its success or failure?

From the start, the spirit of the internet was to have decentralized voices talking about every topic. It was freedom of speech on a global scale, where everyone was invited to participate. But inevitably, people turned that freedom into a profession, and the only three methods we’ve come up with as a society to pay for content are pay-to-play, voluntary subscriptions (like Patreon), and advertising. As you well know, advertising mostly won out.

Promoting an independent voice is hard work though. In print, writers tend to find their way to newspapers and magazines, where the whole can be taken care of at scale. In TV, content creators group into TV networks (or online networks like Netflix) for the same reason. Based on this, the mission statement for Medium is pretty easy to grasp – if enough writers choose to write here, access to all that content has to be worth something.

What they’ve come up with so far is a  new subscription service, and it just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Here’s the overview:

For $5 per month (introductory price), you’ll get two upgraded aspects: A better reading experience… based on the premise that, instead of yet another never-ending feed, people would be much happier with a limited set of carefully curated stories, chosen by experts among topics we care about. (And) even better content.

First, If Medium wanted good, cultivated content from independent writers and publishers, why not create a newspaper of sorts of Medium All-Stars and pay them a consistent monthly salary? Is a distributed $5/mo (or even $10/mo) really going to get a number of people to quit their day job to exhaustively cover a topic? Seems like a stretch to me. Instead, it just seems like a value-add to publishers like The Ringer who use Medium, but are mostly funded through advertising and traditional media. That’s still laudable I guess, but it’s hardly fixing a broken media system.

Second, if Medium was truly interested in getting individual voices paid, why not just build a Patreon-type system that lets people pay for specific content they want? At the end of the day, I’d much rather give money direct to creators than fund the “experts” choosing content “among topics (Medium) cares about.” (To be fair, I think a subscription model is in the works for publishers, but why not make it available for every account?)

Third (pardon if this makes no sense… I’ve been running a fever for a week), if Medium’s new business model is to make money cultivating content, why bother locking people into Medium as a platform? I personally like Medium from a writing perspective, but they do a lot of things I don’t particularly care for. It’s hard to customize the look of pages, I don’t like their comment system at all (especially on mobile), and getting custom domains set up is kind of crazy. Instead, if Medium is just a network of content creators, couldn’t they just have any blog from anywhere join the “Medium Network” (without re-publishing the content… I don’t see how republished content is helping the internet)? Is the only reason so that they can more easily apply their subscription paywall? The whole thing just seems flimsy to me.

For New gTLDs, Trust Is a Real Obstacle

I say it often, and I generally mean it – I love all the TLDs the same (especially .pizza). But when it comes to branding my own projects, I can’t just go with love. You have to be smart. For short-term projects, landing pages, and personal blogs, the new TLDs are great. They’re available, memorable, and way more fun than your stodgy old .coms. When it comes to naming a business meant to stand the test of time though, .com is the internet (especially in the US, where the country specific TLD, .US, is rarely used). And really, your brand name in its truest form with a .com at the end is the closest thing we have to branding permanence in the 21st century (there’s a reason Facebook moved from thefacebook.com).

If you want a more nuanced reasoning, Christopher Gimmer of Snappa recently wrote a post about why they spent $40,000 to move from snappa.io to snappa.com. Definitely read the article, but this chart sums up the impetus for their move:

the .com bump

The final takeaway is what’s sticking with me though:

Don’t let a domain name stop you from starting your business. If I had to rank the importance of a domain name when starting up, I’d give it a 3/10. Your preferred domain name will always be there waiting for you when the time is right.”

Getting your domain right is so important for long-term success, but the most important thing is having a good product. Let me repeat that. Step 1 is to have a good product. So don’t let the lack of the perfect .com get you down.

If I could offer one piece of advice – when you’re first working on your branding, anticipate that you’ll eventually want that simple .com. First, try to find names that have open .com’s (they do exist). Then, if you’re going with a non-.com, try to make it something that’s not going to cost you a million dollars in the .com aftermarket. Simple, memorable names are good, but if your name is going to be Zoo or House, you’re looking at a potentially expensive future.

Catch Some of That Lost Traffic With Misspellings

It’s hard to remember when my first domain purchase was, but I do remember the uncertainty baked into the process. Do I need my domain in every TLD to protect my “brand?” Do I need any additional domains to protect my brand? (Do I even have a brand to protect? … for different blog post.)

The grand answer, as with most of life, is a big “it depends.” With 500+ new TLDs out now, protecting your brand by registering every variation of your domain (.com, .net, .pizza, etc.) is nearly impossible (unless you’re “very rich” and slightly-to-very paranoid). But there is one opportunity to catch traffic you may otherwise be missing – misspellings.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, from Matthew Prince, co-founder of Cloudflare, on Twitter:

@eastdakota: We’d also considered: CumulusFire, DFire, CoverCloud, Cloudrix & QuakeCloud. It was @shakespeareprof who suggested “CloudFlare” initially.

@WilliamDenniss: occasionally I type CloudFlair by accident, channeling Office Space no doubt.

@eastdakota: had foresight to buy that one. Didn’t have the foresight to get Cloudfare, which is most common mistake.

Before I go too far, first, squatting on misspellings for profit is technically illegal, so your concern here shouldn’t be to prevent that sort of thing through registering all the domains. Second, simple typos don’t generate nearly as many hits as you’d think. Here’s a conclusion I found on Osmosio, comparing the traffic going to venturebear.com, as opposed to the correct, venturebeat.com (“bear” got between 0-4 offers per day).

Misspelled domains are kind of worthless. I know some people like to buy misspelled versions of their main domain, but I don’t think it’s worth it.

The first comment on the same post makes a good point though:

Your example domain is something that’s mis-typed, not mis-spelled. You know how to spell “beat,” but typed in “bear” instead. A domain that is mis-spelled may get landed on more often, like Joystick.com instead of joystiq.com or netflicks.com instead of Netflix.

I don’t have any direct stats on hand to show how often misspellings happen (although I imagine they happen less and less every day as more people browse the internet primarily through search and social), but I would be mindful if:

  • there’s a simple phonetic alternative to the name you’re using (Cloudfare vs. Cloudflare).
  • you’re using a trendy naming technique (Flicker vs. Flickr).

Basically, it comes down to the strength of your brand. If your brand is established enough, you can probably disregard alternative spellings (as Timo argues about Xero not necessarily needing zero.com). But if you’re still in the startup phase and the domain alternative is available to register (and it’s in-budget), I’d recommend grabbing it. At worst, it’s a nice convenience for customers who are searching for your brand but have the name slightly wrong.

New Generic Top-Level Domains: Three Years Later

It’s now been three years since the introduction of the first new generic top-level domains (gTLDs). The new gTLD program was met with a mixed response around the internet, being called a nightmare for brand owners and confusing to end users, among other things. But despite all the naysayers, new domain extensions are slowly but surely starting to be adopted by people and put to good use, which is what matters most in my opinion.

So let’s forget about individual TLD registration numbers for a moment and take a look at some great sites. These are just a few I’ve come across recently:

  • trappist.one: Scientists are using the .ONE domain to document their findings on the newly discovered solar system with Earth-like planets.
  • tim.blog: Life-hack guru Tim Ferris recently switched his personal site to the new .BLOG TLD. Such a short and memorable domain!
  • joinhouse.party: A currently popular app for group live chats cleverly markets their app on the .PARTY domain extension.
  • chime.aws: Internet giant Amazon launched a new product for online communication with their own .AWS brand top-level domain.
  • abc.xyz: Google’s parent company Alphabet makes use of the .XYZ suffix for their corporate website.
  • slack.engineering: The engineering team of communication platform Slack writes about their work on this .ENGINEERING website.
  • data.world: this “social network for data people” came to my attention after receiving $19 million in funding. A short and catchy .WORLD domain indeed.
  • opensource.guide: Brought to you by GitHub is this guide on Open Source software and how to start and contribute to projects. I couldn’t imagine a better TLD than .GUIDE for this!
  • npr.design: The National Public Radio’s design team makes good use of sharing their stories on this .DESIGN site.
  • runner3.game: Seen during a presentation of Nintendo’s new Switch console. Publishers are embracing .GAME as a new domain alternative for video games.
  • mindovermoney.kiwi: Local New Zealand bank Kiwibank started this campaign on .KIWI recently which I saw on an ATM where I live (see photo above). I also heard about it on the radio.
  • powerrangers.movie: A trailer for the upcoming Power Rangers movie ended with advertising its .MOVIE-based marketing site. Not that I am particularly interested in this one, but it was shown before Logan which can be found on — you guessed it — Logan.MOVIE!
  • terminal.training: “A video training course to cure you of any fear of the terminal. For designers, new developers, UX, UI, product owners, and anyone who’s been asked to “just open the terminal”.” — just perfect on a .TRAINING domain.

One could argue that three years is a very long time in the technology world. But keep in mind that the new extensions were released gradually (some like .app, .music, or .web are still to come), and it takes time to build a website or plan the switch from an existing domain to a new one, so adoption hasn’t been too bad. Again, that’s ignoring hard registration numbers and is my personal feeling based on domains I’ve seen in use recently.

Domain names are an important part of internet infrastructure, and more importantly, online communication. Just like the rise of emojis, we will see new generic TLDs become part of everyday life. Wait another 5-10 years and an internet without them will be unthinkable!