A website address can usually be separated out into four sections. Firstly, there’s the HyperText Transfer Protocol, which governs how data is distributed across the World Wide Web. Then there’s the unique domain name which identifies a company or enterprise (such as UK2), with the top level domain identifying either a country (.fr, .de) or an industry (.net – an abbreviation of network).
This system of website identification works well, but it has one or two complicating factors. Foremost among these is the presence in some web addresses of second level domains. If you’re not sure what that entails, consider co.uk. The .uk suffix is the United Kingdom’s country code top-level domain – every nation has its own ccTLD. The co. prefix (not to be confused with standalone .co addresses) is known as a second level domain, adding context to the TLD.
Second among equals
Second level domains were popularised in the internet’s formative years when domain registration was an unlicensed free-for-all and cybersquatting represented a global issue. When ICANN was founded in 1998 to regulate domain sales, one of their first acts involved appointing a domain registry to supervise every country code or generic TLD. The provision of UK-specific domains was handed over to a company called Nominet, who are generally perceived to have done a good job in bringing order to a formerly chaotic marketplace. However, the legacy of second level domains was already established in mature online markets like the United Kingdom. The global term for a company (.com) had already been commandeered by American businesses, and it remains synonymous with firms on the other side of the Atlantic.
Here in 2019, second level domains represent an anachronism. They also pose a number of drawbacks:
1. Risk of mistyping.
Every additional character in a domain name increases the likelihood of it being mistyped. Losing potential customers because of a wrongly entered address could directly impact on a company’s end of year balance sheet.
There are .co TLDs, .uk TLDs and co.uk TLDs. The latter could easily be mistaken for another TLD, just as Mail.com accounts are often accidentally entered as Gmail by people who aren’t paying enough attention.
3. International ambiguity.
Few nations had matched the UK’s rate of internet take-up by the time ICANN rendered longer ccTLDs irrelevant. Overseas citizens are often perplexed by our use of prefixes, which weren’t really needed elsewhere.
Earlier this decade, Nominet took action to resolve the anomaly of second level domains. In 2014 they announced a five-year transitional period, during which owners of a co.uk address could exclusively reserve a matching .uk address. After June 25th this year, the moratorium will end, enabling anyone to buy the .uk version of an existing co.uk domain. Given the
potential for angry customers and malicious competitors to snap up these sites, companies are being urged to secure proprietary .uk domains quickly. A simple 301 redirect from a .uk site to the existing co.uk portal is recommended, as duplicated online content damages search engine rankings for both websites.
Nonetheless, recent events in India suggest the second level domain’s days may already be numbered. India has completed a transition from co.in to .in, removing three characters from most web addresses without major complaints among businesses or the public. Many companies have dropped their co.in sites and moved content over to the shorter .in URLs. While there’s no need to jeopardise decades of familiarity by abolishing co.uk domains altogether, their popularity will gradually decline as the UK migrates towards the international standard of a two-letter ccTLD.