What is a TLD?
You’re probably familiar with the term TLD, but what is a TLD and what exactly does it stand for? The term TLD stands for top-level domain and refers to the ending of a domain name, or the section that immediately follows the dot symbol, such as .com, .net, .org, .edu, and others. You’ve almost certainly seen the plethora of country-specific TLDs (also known as a country code top-level domain, or ccTLD), such as .fr, .ca, or .co.uk. And you probably know that there are scads of other generic top-level domains (known as gTLDs), such as .inc, .business, and, yes, even .xxx. According to Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), there are currently more than 1,500 TLDs.
While there are over 1,500 TLDs, this article is intended to focus on the .io domain extension and will help provide answers to some of the more common questions we hear from startups, such as “What does .io mean?,” “What is the .io domain extension?” and, most pertinent to new businesses, “Should I use the .io domain for my startup?”
What does .io mean?
One TLD has become popular recently, especially among tech and SaaS startups: .io. This TLD is assigned to the British Indian Ocean Territory, the seven atolls of the Chagos Archipelago, which is south of India, and notably contains the Diego Garcia atoll, home to a U.S. military base. This domain has become popular in recent years, but have you ever wondered why? What is the .io domain extension doing in the tech space if it’s a country-specific TLD?
Before we cover the specifics regarding how and why the .io domain extension became so popular among tech startups, it’s important to understand how the creation of 1,500+ new TLDs have reshaped the world of domain names as a whole, and how businesses are finding new creative ways to no longer rely on .com when searching for the right domain and TLD for their brand.
Finding the right domain and TLD for your brand
You can’t launch a brand today without having a matching domain. For a new startup, you have two choices: Choose a brand name for which you can easily obtain a domain name, or find someone who owns the domain you want and buy it from them. If you choose the former option, you may have to create a new word, such as Uber or Lyft. This is why many companies are formed these days with “interesting” names. All the good .com domains have been taken already, though you may be able to create an effective two-word name that hasn’t been reserved. If you simply must have a specific name, you may have to pay a lot of money to acquire its domain.
There are of course other options. You can choose .co, .biz, .site, or .xyz, but none of these hold the same credibility of a brand’s website being housed by a .com domain.
Using a TLD as part of your brand
You may want to become creative and try to find a brand name where you can use an existing TLD as part of the word. For example, Sta.sh is DeviantArt’s personalized publishing platform for all members to upload and “stash” all of their images, writings, animations, and other creative works in progress.
Additionally, the .ly TLD has become increasingly popular as a means of creating a unique brand, based on a single word simply by adding “ly” to the end of it. Websites like Bit.ly, Profit.ly, List.ly, and Embed.ly have all created their own memorable brand names from doing nothing more than tacking on the .ly TLD after a single word relevant to their business.
While Google has confirmed that using a TLD as part of a keyword is completely ignored when it comes to ranking for search terms, this strategy has become very popular due to the inherent value of having a memorable domain with the appearance of removing the TLD altogether (no .com, .net, or .org necessary). Visual.ly, Persona.ly, Freebitco.in, Prodi.gy, and Sta.sh are just a few examples of popular website that have successfully employed this strategy.
Migrating from .com to another TLD
In some cases, businesses have even dropped (or more often, forwarded) their .com domains for a new, shorter or more relevant domain utilizing a different TLD. For instance, tour-eiffel.com now forwards to a more geographically relevant, keyword friendly domain that no longer requires a hyphen, Toureiffel.paris.
Additionally, an existing brand or domain name can sometimes be shortened with a newer TLD, and many companies have caught on and taken advantage of this as well. For example, the public school Lionsgate Academy was able to completely remove .org from their domain by moving lionsgateacademy.org to lionsgate.academy. Speaking of shortening a domain name, it has always been popular for companies with longer business names to take advantage of a shorter domain by using an acronym, like NHM.org (The Natural History Museum).
Unfortunately, there are very few, if any, 3 to 4 character .com domains available anymore – making it nearly impossible to utilize an acronym for a .com domain. The good news is that the massive increase in TLDs available in recent years has allowed businesses to find new ways to take advantage of shorter, more memorable domains that leverage brand awareness. Take for example, the Oregon based veterinarian company, Animal Health Associates. They were able to move their website from the long winded animalhealthassociates.org to the much more memorable aha.vet domain.
What is the .io domain extension doing in tech?
You may notice that a lot of tech startups and SaaS companies use the .io domain extension (E.g. Greenhouse.io, Material.io, Keywordtool.io, and Spring.io), and there’s a good reason for it. It’s similar to the abbreviation I/O, which means input/output, a common term when discussing computing processes. And it has other advantages, too. While it is technically a country domain, most people don’t connect it with its host territory. (This is similar to the ccTLD .tv for Tuvalu or .fm for the Federated States of Micronesia.)
It’s pretty easy to remember, as more companies in the tech space are using it, and it’s easy to pronounce: eye-oh. It’s short, and it’s visual, with its vertical bar followed by a circle. It’s more expensive than other domains (ranging from around $33 to $99 per year) – the price depends on which registrar you choose – but not by much. A number of well-known companies have registered this domain: yahoo.io, coke.io, and even google.io. In this case, these companies don’t actively use the domain, but have reserved them to protect their intellectual property, and most of them simply forward the .io domain to their primary domain. In fact, if you already have a .com or other domain for your brand, you might want to do the same.
And there’s one more reason the .io domain extension is becoming increasingly popular among tech startups, web applications, and SaaS startups. Google considers .io to be a generic top-level domain (gTLD), meaning that it is not country specific, so it may show up higher in search results anywhere in the world.
This may sound contradictory to some of the previous information mentioned about the .io domain extension, but it’s really quite simple. According to Google, there are a handful of country code TLDs (ccTLD) that are treated as generic top-level domains (gTLD) because they have “found that users and webmasters frequently see these more generic than country-targeted.” Officially, .io is a country-specific TLD for the British Indian Ocean Territory, but because it has become so popular and widely used among tech companies and startups, .io is unofficially considered a generic top-level domain and is considered by Google as such. (You may not know this, but some generic top-level domains are very popular: .top is used by some 3 million companies, .loan by more than 2 million, .xyz by nearly 2 million, .club has more than 1 million sites, and .online is at nearly 800,000.)
What does .io mean for your startup and should you use it?
One of the downsides of the .io domain is that it stands out. You might be wondering how that would be considered a downside – the simple truth is this: it shows that your brand doesn’t have a .com, which can be seen as a weakness. While this isn’t always a significant problem for tech firms, especially for SaaS companies, other brands might consider this a negative.
Additionally, until your brand reaches a certain level of popularity, it might be hard to find in web searches. If users just type the name of your brand without the .io extension, your company may not necessarily be the first hit in Google. (However, with predictive search, the TLD is no longer as important as it once was, so this won’t affect your brand once it gains some notoriety.)
There are no second chances with domains. Once the prized .com is gone, it’s gone (unless you can persuade its owner to sell it). You have a number of options, from .net to .co, to creative uses of other country codes, and .io is one that you should consider. If the .com domain is available, you should certainly buy it without hesitation, but you may want to consider other creative options as well.
While it’s likely that a .io domain extension won’t resonate with people outside the tech sector, it’s certainly worth considering if your SaaS startup is in need of a domain and you’re struggling to decide between a long, unmemorable .com or short, highly brandable .io. If your target is businesses, which is often the case with a SaaS service, the .io domain extension could be a great choice for building your brand.