Who really uses IDNs? [Guest Post]

Stéphane Van Gelder, November 19, 2012, 18:25:25 (UTC), Domain Tech

Are Internationalised Domain Names really useful, or just a way for an ASCII-focused internet governance community to feel better about itself?

Beyond all the hoopla about ICANN’s 2009 program to enable countries to operate their own non-Latin script internet suffixes (aka the “IDN ccTLD Fast Track”), what should really matter is the Internet user.

Yes, those sitting in ICANN meeting rooms at the time, listening to the hyperbole about how the internet was now going truly global probably felt like they were feeding the hungry and bringing peace to the world. But do people actually use IDNs?

I will admit that at the time, I was dubious. Of course, saying so in ICANN circles would have been akin to wearing a “Camembert is bad” t-shirt in the streets of Paris: poor form! But still, I couldn’t help ask myself if having a single one-language system unite the world was actually such a bad thing?

“How would you like it if the Internet had been invented in China and you had to use their alphabet,” was the usual rebuke I got if I ever dared to doubt out loud. And there really is no arguing with that. If the internet was Chinese, I’d want the Mandarin version of ICANN to roll out IDNs pretty sharpish.

Nonetheless, can the usefulness of IDNs still be questioned?

Facebook in Latin

Talking to a local internet expert whilst attending last week’s excellent Domain Forum in Sofia, Bulgaria, the answer would seem to be a surprising yes.

“Why would kids in this country use IDNs,” I was told when I suggested that, surely, Bulgaria must be excited about the prospect of natural language web addresses. “What worries the authorities here is the fact that kids are using Latin scripts so much on social media sites that they don’t even know how to write in Cyrillic anymore! So even if they could use IDN web and email addresses, why would they? They want to communicate like everyone else does on Facebook.”

In truth, Bulgaria’s view may be skewed by the horrible experience it’s had with ICANN’s IDN Fast Track. The country was refused its own IDN country code due to a perceived similarity with another TLD that no-one in Bulgaria really feels is warranted. But not all potential IDN users feel they are useless. Neighbors in Russia tell of a different IDN experience.

The Russian registry saw stunning initial take-up when it opened the IDN .РФ (.RF for Russian Federation) to general consumption on November 11, 2010. Registration volumes were explosive, with almost 600,000 names registered in the first month. Strong growth continued for a year, hitting a peak of 937,913 registered names in December 2011.

No profit

But the following month, that number fell off a cliff. Total registrations dropped to 844,153 in January 2012. “Initial registrations were driven in part by speculators,” explains ccTLD .RU’s Leonid Todorov. “But when people saw they couldn’t make huge profits on the domains, they started letting them go.”

Even so, .РФ remains a real success. Although November 2012 figures show a year on year decline of 8.63%, the TLD still sports a whopping 845,037 names.

At 66%, .РФ has a slightly lower renewal rate than ASCII Russian equivalent .ru (73%), probably because of those day-one speculators, but it remains widely used. Current delegation figures (i.e. the number of domain names that are actually used for email or websites) stand at a commendable 70% and have not stopped rising since .РФ opened in 2010 with a 45% delegation rate.

The Cyrillic Russian domain sees a vast predominance of personal use, with 77% percent of domains being registered by individuals. “Russians care deeply about their national identity,” says my Bulgarian friend when I suggest that IDNs do seem to matter in some Cyrillic-using countries. “To them, Dot RF is a matter of national pride.”

National pride

So IDNs may not really be all that different from ASCII domain names, with take-up depending on perceived use or value. Europe’s IDN experience seems to confirm this, as European registry EURid’s Giovanni Seppia explained in Sofia.

He revealed that since EURid introduced IDNs on December 11, 2009, registrations reached a peak of around 70,000 (a mere fraction of the 3.7 million names currently registered in the .eu space) before dropping off quite sharply.

Why? Well .eu IDNs may not hold much potential for real use or investment value for Europeans. Although web use is possible with IDNs, software primarily designed for an ASCII-only world does not always make it easy.

Email capability would be a real boost, but so far only the Chinese seem to have enabled it for their local script domains. The Chinese registry recently announced this, without giving details on how the use of all-Chinese character email addresses has been implemented or which email clients support IDNs.

Whatever the technology, countries which combine national pride and a character set far removed from our own probably see more desire for IDNs. With two years of hindsight, Russia obviously loves its IDN. And as other countries like China bring more elaborate IDN capabilities online, demand should grow and force even this IDN skeptic to recognize the new character(s) of the internet.

This is a guest post written by Stéphane Van Gelder, strategy director for NetNames. He has served as chair of the GNSO Council and is currently a member of ICANN’s Nominating Committee.

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Comments (13)

  1. RaTHeaD says:

    i am upvoting your post because i love the word hoopla.

  2. Gary says:

    With respect, asking “Are Internationalised Domain Names really useful” is a somewhat dumb question. It’s like asking “are domain blogs interesting to read?” The answer, is: yes, no and maybe; and it depends which ones you are talking about. You cannot generalize.

    You’re right in your assessment though, the further away from ASCII you go, the greater the need, and the greater the benefit, therefore the greater the usefulness. Character sets that look nothing like Latin, i.e. Chinese, Korean are good examples, and where the direction of the language differs i.e. Hebrew, Arabic, you would imagine the need to be even greater.

    At face value using the above logic, you’d be surprised there is any interest in IDN for any of the European languages, after all they just largely aren’t really needed, but you can’t underestimate national pride. Germany is a great example, ASCII and IDN domain sales in .DE have always been on a par, indicating an acceptance of their usefulness.

  3. Gary, thanks for your comment. I would suggest that your German example may be true, but needs hard data to really serve as proof that IDNs do generate interest there.

    As you’ve seen, what my analysis above is trying to get at is not whether IDNs generate registrations, because I don’t think that’s a real measure of widespread take-up, but whether they generate use.

    What I mean is, are .DE IDNs really widely used (apart from serving to protect trademarks that may, for example, have umlauts in them, but still redirecting towards an ASCII equivalent site) or just a domain geek’s fad?

    Honest answer, I just don’t know. But if this article can generate some feedback from people that actually use IDNs, I think that would be positive.

    Thanks,

  4. Several global brands began recognizing and benefiting from the existing IDN domains even that they are only going to really be beneficial now with the New gTLD process when IDN.gTLD will be IDN.IDN (100% native language).

    Many small businesses adapt IDN’s in Russia, several .рф examples from a city called Krasnoyarsk: http://goo.gl/vr4PV

  5. Gary says:

    @Stéphane

    >>>But if this article can generate some feedback from people that actually use IDNs..<<<

    That's somewhat of a paradox. If your English language skills are strong enough that you'll be reading this article in English and capable of replying in English, then you are unlikely to be an end user of an IDN in a language that needs IDN (because their language is so far away from ASCII and therefore there is a natural language barrier…) and can therefore comment accordingly. You might get some commentary from bi-lingual domainers, but that's not the feedback you are looking for.

  6. I don’t think that’s true Gary. I read foreign language articles all the time nowadays thanks to the high performance levels reached by fully-integrated instant translation services as offered by the Googles or Facebooks of this world.

    It’s how I was able to find, read and understand this article on last week’s Domain Forum that has a caption of a pic with my name in Cyrillic ;) : http://www.technews.bg/article-28146.html

  7. Jose Augusto says:

    Original article: “Why would kids in this country use IDNs,” I was told when I suggested that, surely, Bulgaria must be excited about the prospect of natural language web addresses. “What worries the authorities here is the fact that kids are using Latin scripts so much on social media sites that they don’t even know how to write in Cyrillic anymore! So even if they could use IDN web and email addresses, why would they? They want to communicate like everyone else does on Facebook.”

    My version, with some slight changes: “Why would kids in this country use domain names,” I was told when I suggested that, surely, Bulgaria must be excited about the prospect of web addresses. “What worries the authorities here is the fact that kids are using Latin scripts so much on social media sites that they don’t even know how to write in Cyrillic anymore! So even if they could use web and email addresses, why would they? They want to communicate like everyone else does, on Facebook.”

  8. Vicenzo Socata says:

    I don’t know how you get this result. According to the 30th China Internet Report published by CNNIC. “.中国” have round 300,000 registration numbers, rand 4th in China domain name market, higher than “.org”.

    Maybe you also think “.org” is totally useless and only make public interest organization feel confortable.

  9. Steve says:

    Using idn.com’s to enter a foreign market to promote your product/service is a very affordable test to see if there is interest for your products/services, etc.
    With more than 50% of internet users speaking another language than English idn’s seem like a logical solution for those that don’t speak English. Buying idn.cctlds’ is a bit risky as local governments can be corrupt and/or restrictive of their use.
    I do have many .cn names that I have never had a problem renewing and I’m Canadian, eh.
    I always try and get the idn.com to cover my bet if I have the idn.cctld.
    I have also noticed more and more traffic and offers on my idn.com names. When idn.com’s go pure idn.idn next year many are betting they will get even more traction.
    Forcing people that don’t speak English to surf in English is ridiculous. While I agree many young surfers are using fb, etc. Those platforms own your information. If you are a business trying to reach international markets buying an inexpensive idn.com to promote your wares seems like a no-brainer. Once fb gets replaced by the next “big thing” where does all of your “effort” go? Out the window with that company.
    One of our companies is in the stone business and I have purchased variations of that industries keywords in Chinese, Russian, Hebrew, Korean, etc. I receive real inquiries and orders from those names, even if they just forward to our main site. There is no debate as to the value of a good keyword idn.com for out company.

  10. Steve says:

    “out” = our

  11. lee hodgson says:

    Its unfortunate the guest poster has extrapolated European usage to world usage. Most of the world’s population lives in Asia, and surfs the Net in languages other than English.
    And that includes searches. In Thailand, there are around 65 million google searches monthly containing the Thai word “เพลง” (songs or music).
    So yes, there is so national pride in play, but mainly its a matter of most people communicate, search, and put websites up in their own language. Having a domain name to match is a “no-brainer” …
    I live and work in Thailand and notice lots of Thai websites spell “.com” as “.คอม” (Thai translit for .com) in their website logos, even though “.คอม” doesn’t exist yet.
    When it does in 2013, you will see an increasing number of local websites switching to using “fully IDN” .com website names.
    There are lots of Thai IDN websites already. Domain registrations of IDN.com in Thai are growing around 1% per month. That will increase substantially when the .com turns into Thai.
    So to answer your initial question, lots of people use IDNs, but you don’t find that out by talking to a few people in Europe. Its not the right continent :)

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