Web gatekeeper got money's worth from Super Bowl ad

February 10, 2005|By Mike Himowitz

ONE OF THE few hot spots in this year's sanitized lineup of Super Bowl commercials featured a brunette who had trouble keeping everything tucked into a tight-fitting white tank top.

If you saw it, you would definitely remember her. So here's the bonus question: What company did she represent and what does that company sell?

That's a little tougher, right? Considering its prominent display on the front of the model's well-filled tank top, the company's name may be somewhat memorable - GoDaddy.com. As for the company's line of business, GoDaddy.com is an Internet domain registrar.

So how many of you know what an Internet domain registrar actually does? Not many, I'd bet. Obviously, the company isn't peddling anything with the mass market appeal of cold beer, hot cars, slick cameras, fast food, soft drinks and other traditional Super Bowl fare.

So why would a company that 99.9 percent of the world has never heard of, and whose business 99.99 percent of the world doesn't understand, come up with $4.2 million for air time on the most expensive TV broadcast of the year?

The answer is an interesting tale of the backroom workings of the Internet and the millions of dollars at stake in its most obscure corners.

First things first: An Internet domain registrar is a company that has the right to register with the Internet's governing authority the names that businesses, institutions and individuals use for their Web sites.

They're part of a system developed so that Web surfers don't have to remember the real Internet address of the sites they want to contact.

Those addresses consist of a long string of numbers and periods that virtually no one can remember. For example, if you want to search the Web, it's a lot easier to type www.google.com into a browser's address bar than it is remember Google's real address, which is http://216.239.37.99. So Google.com is the search engine's domain name.

Obviously, these names have to be unique, and they can also be very valuable. During the early days of the Internet gold rush in the late 1990s, the wise guys who recognized the commercial potential of the Web snapped up popular, generic domain names such as shopping.com and later sold them for millions. Big corporations, many of which were slow to catch on, wound up battling for and ultimately winning the right to use the trademark-based Web addresses that early birds had snapped up in hopes of a quick score.

In this name game, registrars are the gatekeepers. If your name is Fred, and you want to register a domain name, such as fredscoolsite.com, you'll have to engage a registrar to make sure it's not being used and then enter that name - and yours - into the Internet's bookkeeping system.

Later, when you actually set up a Web site using that domain name, your Web site hosting company or Internet service provider will enter it into a system of central computers called Domain Name Servers. When a customer types www.fredscoolsite.com into a Web browser, his system will contact the nearest Domain Name Server, which looks up the name and provides his computer with the real, numeric Internet address. He doesn't see any of this, of course - it happens in the background, usually in a fraction of the time it takes to read this sentence.

Typically, registrars charge customers a fee for their service, ranging from less than $10 to as much as $35 a year. Many of them, like GoDaddy, sell additional services, such as Web site and e-mail hosting. They might also act as brokers between those who have registered domain names and people who want to buy them.

Back to the Super Bowl. Given the tens of millions of potential customers for Bud Light, Pepsi, Big Macs, Hondas, Lay's potato chips, Subway sandwiches and other mass-market goodies, it isn't hard to figure out why those companies are willing to pay millions for a couple of spots in the biggest sports broadcast of the year.

But how many of you expect to be in the market for a Web site domain in the next few months? Very few, probably. Which would logically make the Super Bowl a ridiculously expensive medium to reach a relative handful of potential customers.

According to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the nonprofit organization that oversees domain names, about 400 domain registrars have been certified worldwide.

Although nobody knows how many domain names are registered - estimates are 60 million to 70 million - GoDaddy, a seven-year-old firm based in Scottsdale, Ariz., has become one of the most aggressive and successful registrars. That's largely because it's among the least-expensive, charging as little as $8.99 to register a domain name for a year.

Of that charge, 25 cents a year goes to ICANN, which keeps the organization's budget running. The rest stays with the registrar.

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