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Trading In ‘.edu’ for ‘.com’

The news that, after what seems like forever, new Internet domain names will be allowed has sparked conversations among college CIO’s and communication specialists about the limits of the “.edu” domain. The news has also provoked serious talk about what might be gained by trading in those three letters strongly linked to higher education for Web addresses like “yourgreatuniveristyhere.com” or even something that ends in “.weberstate” or “.brownuniversity.”

Some observers worry, though, that an influx of new names might dilute the power of “.edu,” which has been the online way to say “a legitimately accredited institution of higher education in the United States.”

Weber State University is among those that have already started branching out, with “getintoweber.com” as an online destination.  It is “a vanity URL we pursued to dovetail with our ‘Get Into Weber’ marketing campaign that started in 2007,” says John L. Kowaleski, director of media relations. “We wanted something catchy and easy to remember, since the intended audience for “getintoweber.com” was prospective students.”

Why not simply add a “getintoweber.edu” address to the existing “weber.edu“? Because “.edu” is restricted by the “one per institution” rule that has been in effect since 2001, says Gregory A. Jackson, a vice president of Educause, the higher-education-technology group that administers the “.edu” domain. “The U.S. Commerce Department, which gave us the contract to administer the domain, views ‘.edu’ as something that identifies an institution, not multiple names that mean the same insitution,” he says.

That limit is what led Weber State to “.com,” Mr. Kowaleski explains. “While we could have directed this audience to weber.edu, that option presented several drawbacks from a marketing standpoint.”

First, at the weber.edu home page, it would have been hard for prospective students to find the right link to apply or get more information amidst all the essential links for existing students, faculty, and staff. Second, the “.com” URL let Weber State track Web traffic on that site, giving the marketing and admissions departments valuable feedback. At the time, it would have been hard to pull that info out of the main weber.edu address.

“We don’t see this ‘.com’ site as diluting the weber.edu domain, simply augmenting it for a target audience,” Mr. Kowaleski concludes, noting that once a student is admitted, all future interactions with the university go through the main address.

Other institutions have made similar decisions. San Diego State University, for example, uses “aztecshops.com” for its campus bookstore and dining facilities.

Mr. Jackson says that Educause is beginning discussions with the Commerce Department about the .edu domain, and that the “one per” rule is on the table—just it has been before—because something meant to simplify the online presence of colleges “has often had the opposite effect” as institutions are forced to use other domains for special purposes.

But, he notes, the advantage of the “one per” rule is that it’s simple. “It’s a bright-line criterion” he says. If a college could have several .edu’s, he asks, who would decide how many? Should bigger institutions be allowed more? It gets murky very quickly, he says.

Asking the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers for a domain of one’s own—”.weberstate” or “.trinity,” for instance—would avoid some of those problems. But that’s an expensive route to go. A college has to pay Icann $185,000 to become the administrator of a domain, and then $25,000 each year to maintain it. And the college has to adhere to strict rules about who gets the domain and who doesn’t, which could cause other problems. “What if you say that alumni can have ‘.dartmouth’ in order to strengthen connection to the school?” Mr. Jackson says. “And then an alumnus involved in some shady dealings uses that address? You can’t ban them. Icann won’t let you pick who you like and who you don’t.”

Other problems will crop up for colleges that want to grab another new domain, “.xxx,” before some pornography site grabs up “yourschool.xxx.” In order to block such an eventuality, a college would have to own trademarks to all permutations of its name, including “uyourschool” and “yourschoolstate” and so on.

In any event, does the tail end of a Web address really matter anymore? “When was the last time you typed a whole URL into a browser?” Mr. Jackson asks. Web browsers and search engines complete addresses or offer you links. “Personally, it isn’t clear to me that there’s a reason for great concern,” he says.

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