Don't become a .com

Glyn Moody muses on the dearth of domain names and takes a look at the expanded services now on offer from the likes of Tesco and...

Glyn Moody muses on the dearth of domain names and takes a look at the expanded services now on offer from the likes of Tesco and Ryman

Given the spectacular crash of the Net market earlier this year, and the continuing doldrums of the e-commerce sector, setting up a new or additional dotcom arm is probably not high on the list of things to do for many companies presently.

In a way, this is just as well, because it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a suitable dotcom name, so great has the recent demand been.

Still, this dearth of names needs to be remedied, not least because the current reluctance to launch new dotcoms represents something of a knee-jerk reaction to recent events, rather than any considered view. Soon, even the most sceptical companies will recognise that online activities have a valid role to play - and not just in terms of parting gullible investors from their money. Unfortunately, this movement back to the Net will only exacerbate the lack of good domains.

The body charged with overseeing this whole area, called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), has been singularly ineffectual in its attempts to sort things out. It is currently trying to create whole new classes of domains to supplement the popular .com one. Among the proposals are .web, .shop, .pro, .kids (designed for material that is suitable for children), .sex and .xxx (both designed for material that is definitely not suitable for children).

However, judging by Icann's past track record, it will be a long time before even some of these are operational, and it is not clear how the public will take to them.

In the meantime, some enterprising individuals have spotted another possible source for new names.

These involve some less well-known country domains that coincidentally happen to have other connotations for Western users. For example, Tuvalu's domain is .tv: although the number of Internet users in Tuvalu is presumably small, there are probably quite a few television companies willing to pay for a domain name ending in the easily-remembered .tv. Similarly, for doctors (in the US, at least), Moldavia's domain .md has obvious attractions.

But there may well be a better solution without resorting to such exotica. Although .com has become the de facto standard for e-commerce companies, there is an alternative that is just as general, and has the advantage that it bears none of the stigma resulting from the dot-com crash: the .net domain. It is probably no coincidence that Microsoft has dubbed its entire future strategy .Net.

Sites

One of the most fascinating aspects of recent e-commerce is how it has been transformed from something of a fringe activity practised only by a few brave pioneers to a completely mainstream activity.

Nothing could symbolise this better than the gradual expansion of retail giant Tesco's latest online operations.

Indeed, it has now reached the point where this high street stalwart declares itself "the world's leading online grocery store and more". The "and more" is interesting because it reflects the ever-widening range of items now on sale at http://www.tesco.com.

For example, in addition to groceries, there are books, videos, domestic and electrical goods. In fact, Tesco is turning into quite an Amazon.com in this respect.

The basic design of the site is bright and breezy, and navigating the main sections is straightforward. Unfortunately, finding particular goods is less easy: it is not at all obvious where to look for an item.

Happily, there is a search engine, which proves invaluable when all else fails.

In most other respects, the site is excellent. There is plenty of information about most of the goods on sale, as well as a shopping basket that is displayed on the main screen. The checkout process is used to select a delivery slot, which might have been more useful earlier, but is otherwise very effective. The e-tail site of another familiar high street name, Ryman, is rather like its shops: no-nonsense and very slightly dull (stationery is not the most exciting thing in the world).

Navigation is easy, thanks on the whole to the small images that are used liberally, though the overall effect of each Web page can be slightly empty at times.

Similarly, there is very little further information about the items, though this probably reflects the nature of the merchandise again.

One nice touch during the checkout process is the strong emphasis that a customer is now operating through a secure connection. One of the most basic mistakes that some otherwise sophisticated e-commerce sites make is to obscure the transition from insecure to secure operation. Although the general rule should be to hide technology in the background, security is such a key concern of online shoppers that it is worth underlining its presence.

Read more on E-commerce technology

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