BBC And Guardian’s .Crazy gTLD Gambles

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For two news outlets with plenty of financial troubles, BBC and the Guardian are taking big risks with their gTLD applications, Tom Brewster argues

The BBC and the Guardian are excellent news providers. Millions read their journalists’ fantastic work everyday, but both did baffling things this week – things that could even be of detriment to the people they are serving. Both have bid for gTLDs – those domains ICANN has been flogging for $185,000 for the application alone and then $25,000 a year once applicants have got their desired .whatever name.

BBC has gone for just one: .bbc. The Guardian meanwhile has gone for five: .gdn, .guardian, .guardianmedia, .observer and .theguardian. If both go through with all of these, it will amount to an extraordinary investment from two organisations that are reeling from recent cutbacks. What justification could they possibly have for spending significant sums of money on what is for all intents and purposes nothing more than an aesthetic, commercially-driven improvement of the Internet?

Let’s start with the Beeb. In a blog post, it gave three main reasons for its .bbc application:

  • ‘Investing in the technological future of the BBC – important for us to remain at forefront of internet engineering developments, to better serve our audiences in a changing online landscape.
  • Protecting and maintaining the BBC brand – as online landscape evolves, this is an important extension of the BBC’s brand protection policies.
  • Potentially enhancing our relationship with online audiences – in the future the use of .bbc domains might ensure content is even easier to access and navigate for our audiences, clearly identified as coming from the BBC, or more secure and scalable.’

My problems the BBC’s application? Firstly, the BBC is a public service. We pay for it through licence fees. But where is the public interest is in this? The average BBC viewer doesn’t care less about gTLDs, so why on earth should they be funding it? All they will get in return is another website address. Will that .bbc address offer more? There’s no mention of it, so one can only assume not.

The BBC is also supposed to be saving money, not chucking it at projects with no proven benefit. Its fine news team this year saw 140 jobs cut. Perhaps the Beeb should bring some of those people back with the money it is spending.

The .elite club

But let’s go through the BBC’s bullet points in order. The first point I can almost understand – there are some security benefits of gTLDs and the BBC will want to be part of this elite club that ICANN has fostered. But that’s about it – there is no massive technological breakthrough here. Let’s remember that under the human-readable stuff we all shove into our browsers there will still be strings of numbers that let DNS systems figure out what wants to connect with what. There is nothing cutting edge here.

That leads onto point number two – the UK population is going to partially fund the BBC’s branding push. Really, what the BBC is paying for is $185,000 lipstick to make itself stand out from the crowd of other uglier broadcasters. It’s not worth it – this is a minor tweak that will have little impact.

And then there are the troublingly vague explanations of user benefit in point three. Just look at the nebulous language – “potentially”, “might”. There’s a spot of cognitive dissonance in the blog too: “There are clear potential benefits to a .bbc domain.” Clear and potential? Not sure that quite works.

The BBC seems to have no idea whether .bbc will benefit users. As for how it would make content easier to access is quite beyond me. Either way, this is a massive gamble for the BBC. But hey, it’s only our money they’re using to fund it! No BBC, of course we don’t don’t want you to use our money to fund actual quality drama other than the two decent shows you put on!

Guarding against losses?

It seems the Guardian, meanwhile, is intent on seeing at least one of its applications through. “Applying for the .guardian top level domain falls squarely within Guardian News & Media’s transformation into a digital-first organisation, and is in line with our reputation for innovation, excellence, independence and longevity,” a spokesperson told TechWeekEurope. “We believe that investing in digital is crucial to the future of journalism and publishing, and we are now of-course considering all of our options, including how other TLDs we have applied for may fit into our future strategies.”

The Guardian can, of course, do what it likes. I’m not paying for their services (except on Saturdays when I buy the paper), so who am I to tell them what to do with their money? But given it is the only national paper to apply for a gTLD, and it is not having a great time of it financially, you have to wonder why it wants any of those domain names. Currently, publisher Guardian News & Media (GNM) is planning on cutting losses, which hit £33 million over the 2010/2011 financial year.

Like the BBC, for an organisation which has been cutting journalist and sub-editor jobs, anything over $185,000 is a lot for GDN to spend on anything, let alone something a crazy as gTLDs. If the Guardian decides to go ahead with all five, that will be a straight-up investment of almost $1 million. Then there’s the extra yearly cost of $125,000. Even if it only goes for one, the Guardian will be shelling out the $185,000. That’s four good journalists’ wages for a year, or a job for someone for four. One can only imagine how those who have recently been made redundant feel at this news.

But the main question for both the BBC and the Guardian to ask – and indeed any other organisation that has applied for a gTLD – is this: where is the return on investment? GNM is hoping to achieve digital revenues of close to £100 million by 2016 and save £25 million over the same period, but I fail to see how .guardian or any of the other domains it is bidding for would do anything other than add to losses.

Even Charles Arthur, the Guardian’s technology editor, asked during the launch of the application list on Wednesday whether anyone would use websites with these gTLDs, given ones that already exist, such as .museum, have failed to gain much interest.

If anyone can provide a good business case for this, please do so. But it is hard to see where anyone will make back money on this. Especially amongst news outlets, which arguably do not rely as heavily on branding as other organisations which have applied for gTLDs, such as Boots and Next.

If Rupert Murdoch and his media empire failed to see a way to make money out of this, then it is hard to believe his rivals will. The gTLD gamble is one that looks destined to end in big losses.

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