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Domain name antics: Lessons in protecting and promoting your reputation online from the US presidential primaries

US Presidential Race

Donald Trump has emerged as the Republican nominee in the US presidential race and Hillary Clinton is almost there with the Democratic National Convention to be held this month. Amongst the drama of a spirited and polarising race, what’s there to learn about protecting and promoting your reputation online? Is there, by any chance, a correlation between the savvy acquisition of relevant domain names, and success?

Particularly since Barack Obama’s groundbreaking campaign in 2008, a strong digital strategy is considered integral to successful political campaigning — in the US, and around the world. From building awareness through social media to collecting donations through a campaign website, the internet offers myriad opportunities to influence voters and build support.

The humble domain name is a small but significant ingredient in this. It’s both a signpost to a candidate’s home on the web, and an element of their online brand. At Nominet, we have been looking with interest across the Atlantic at all this high-profile domain name related activity, and we think it’s high time for a round-up of candidates’ domain name strategies. Or lack thereof: the failure of some to secure relevant domains is well documented. So, in no particular order, here are the best/worst (depending on your perspective) domain name antics from the US presidential primaries.

Early Republican favourite Jeb Bush, who bowed out of the race in February, didn’t manage to obtain JebBush.com, which for a while redirected to Trump's campaign website. He also failed to register JebBushforPresident.com and JebBushforPresident.net, both of which were used to say unflattering things about the candidate. According to the Washington Post, the former is run by "a bearded gay couple who have been 'madly in love' since 1996”, to criticise Bush's position on LGBTQ issues.

Republican runner-up Ted Cruz probably wished he had purchased TedCruzforAmerica.com, a domain with a storied history. First, it redirected to the website for the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare, against which Cruz once led a government shutdown). Next, it redirected to the Canadian Government's immigration page. It’s currently being used to peddle a dating service called ‘Maple Match’, which “makes it easy for Americans to find the ideal Canadian partner to save them from the unfathomable horror of a Trump presidency.”

Another former Republican contender, Carly Fiorina, suffered a similar experience. Visiting CarlyFiorina.org brought you to a page that read, “Carly Fiorina failed to register this domain. So I’m using it to tell you how many people she laid off at Hewlett-Packard” via 30,000 'sad face' emoticons, which apparently take four and a half minutes to scroll through. This inspired its own hashtag — ‘#domaingate’. But Fiorina fired back at media labelling it a “major gaffe” on the part of her campaign, telling reporters to check HillaryClinton.net, which had mysteriously begun redirecting to Fiorina’s official campaign website. It now redirects to Donald Trump’s campaign website, as does PresidentSanders.com.

Trump himself purchased up to 3,000 domain names, in an effort to stop people discrediting him online. If you're running for president (or launching a business, product, campaign, or blog), it is a good idea to secure the most relevant domains before someone else does. While there is a case for doing this, an aggressive defense strategy which involves the purchase of domain names that you wouldn’t want anyone else to own is ill-advised, simply due to the sheer number and variety of domains available. Anybody with an axe to grind against a brand – or in this case, a politician – will find a creative way of registering a derogatory website. For example, comedian John Oliver started a campaign to “Make Donald Drumpf again”, arguing that the name ‘Trump’ has a mystique not present in his original family name of ‘Drumpf’, and using the website donaldjdrumpf.com, complete with a browser plugin to change every instance of the word ‘Trump’ to ‘Drumpf’. Another example (perhaps not so creative, but emphatic nonetheless): loser.com currently redirects to the ‘Donald Trump’ page on Wikipedia.

What lessons can businesses learn?

The domain name antics across the Atlantic gives us two main takeaways. The first is that forward planning is essential: make sure your domain strategy forms part of your overall marketing plan.

If you’re launching a new product, check that the relevant domain names are available, and that consumers won’t be confused by similar names. You should also think about what signals you want to send your audience. If your market is in the UK, a .uk domain name might be most suitable. Likewise, if you’re marketing to a Welsh audience, .cymru or .wales may be more appropriate. Perhaps one of the new gTLDs, such as .shop or .expert might be better for your business. Whatever domain ending you choose, check the names you want are free.

While the domain name might only form a small part of your marketing strategy, it is an important one nonetheless, and getting the basics right is key, as the US presidential hopefuls have demonstrated.

The second lesson is to know your rights, especially when facing criticism or exploitation of your brand. As Donald Trump (and Taylor Swift) found out, bulk-buying domain names might prevent some embarrassment, but it isn’t going to stop detractors from having their say. After all, free speech is one of the internet’s most enduring values.

However, there is a line, and when it’s crossed you do have rights. If a protest site is libelling you, or using your name or brand to make money, measures exist to dispute them and cancel their registrations. In general, the registry for the domain in question will have a process for dealing with disputes, based on unfair or abusive use of a brand or trademark.

But, fair protest is generally allowed. For example, in 2014, British laser eye surgery provider Optical Express attempted to force a legitimate protest site offline over allegations that it was funded by a rival. As these were unproven, the website was allowed to remain online. However, in a similar case involving low-cost airline Ryanair, the defendant was forced to hand the domain name ihateryanair.co.uk back as he was found to be earning money through affiliate links to travel insurers.

Being in the public eye – whether as a brand or a politician – may inevitably involve some level of scrutiny, criticism, or attempts to make money off your name. Failures by the Bush, Clinton, Fiorina and Sanders camps to register simple domain names were alarming oversights given the importance of online campaigning in this year’s presidential race. From a branding perspective, it’s the equivalent of Amazon forgetting to register Amazon.com. Although this does happen, as you may recall Google had its own close call recently when a man was able to buy its domain name for $12.

As the unfortunate creators of an online poll to rename a £200m polar research ship will tell you, you can’t predict what will happen on the internet, but there are basic steps you can take to protect yourself.

Russell Haworth is chief executive officer at Nominet

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