We’re in a Digital Land Grab

Each website is a piece of land. Each domain is owned by someone, and despite the lack of physical property, we are in the middle of a giant land grab. The first wave happened with the purchasing of the dot-coms, made accessible thanks to search engines. Just like the railroads, early search engines like Altavista, Yahoo, and Google provided a clear, accessible path to the corners of the Internet in its infancy. Computers and other devices are the horse and buggies, the trains, the cars and planes we used to quickly get from place to place.

No, it’s not a perfect illustration, but it’s important to think of the digital world as a real world, the best one to compare it to isn’t old world Europe, but Virgin territory. Perhaps a comparison of the colonization of Mars or another planet would work better because there is no native population. But that hasn’t happened yet. The wild west, the pioneers, robber barons, gunslingers, saloon owners and titan bankers making a rush on new land is the best way to think of the current environment online. If we were to compare this decade to another it would be the 1870s. The first gold rush has come and gone, forcing millions of people out west for their piece of the action. People have set up shop, the railroads (search engines) can help you get anywhere. However, there are millions of unclaimed acres of land. The rule of law is limited, and most well implemented by the corporations who have made an investment in infrastructures like Google and Facebook.

Networks like Facebook, Google Plus, and Twitter have turned us from anonymous explorers into citizens if these communities, with a trackable identity, almost like IDs. They allow a person to be a person, not just a face.

Domains are a home, a storefront, an office. They’re they make up the physical square footage where life happens online. Understanding that person needed to be tied to their physical environment is one of the first and most important things to understand in digital migration. Once upon a time, the United States Constitution required you be a land owner in order to vote, this being the perceived definition of a country’s stakeholders. For the digital country, to matter and be a significant stakeholder you need to be a land/domain owner.

While it may be the wild west, there are still rules for property, business laws etc.
The organization ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), is the current governing body of the internet. Originally, the organization IANA had the function of determining who owns what domains and was developed by Jon Postel, a Computer Science researcher who was involved in ARPANET. In 1997, Postel testified that the existing system for determining ownership via IANA was a side project to his primary work and thus not sufficient to carry out such an enormous function as determining ownership of billions of domains, and have the ability to direct users to all of the correct locations. This functionality is essentially the same function as the role the post office and the secretary of state play in the real world combined. Because of this, the United States Department of Commerce commissioned ICANN as an international nonprofit, operating outside of the government and serves as a regulatory body similar in power but not in function to the federal reserve.

Most small business owners may know how to buy a domain. What they may not know is that that purchase is brokered by their registrar (usually something like GoDaddy, Network Solutions, Melbourne IT, etc.), who then registers the domain with ICANN for the given period of time that is paid for. That registration declares who owns the domain as well as the address of where the website lives. This is like filing a business license. For most domains, this registration fee is between $10 and $15 per year. However, like mortgage rates, it depends on the broker (registrar) and location. Just like in the real world, the major determining factor of digital real estate is location, location, location. In the case of domains, it comes down to the name. For simple and widely used terms, turned into domains like insurance.com, internet.com, htoels.com, business.com, etc., their values are upwards in the tens of millions of dollars. Their value mostly lies in projected traffic based on what people are likely to type into search or enter directly into their URL bar. At the end of the day, it’s just digital foot traffic.

There is often confusion about the difference between a registrar and a host. Simply put, a host is where a website actually lives. There must be a physical hard drive somewhere in the world where a website lives. Remember, stored memory is physical, microscopic, but physical, so it needs a physical home somewhere on earth. The host can be thought of as office space. Do you remember the “address” that is associated with the registration of the domain? That is where ICANN acts like the post office. The user will send a request out to the intent saying “where does mybestfreindswebsite.com live.” That is called a ping. The response comes from global hubs that keep ICANN’s records and respond with the IP (internet protocol) address instructing where your browser should go. Those are instructions to direct your browser to call information regarding a particular domain in a particular city, in a particular building, in a particular server stack somewhere in the world. At the end of the day, people are directed to the right address, open the metaphorical door, and enter your website.

These rules are essentially the same for every website in the world. While the average GoDaddy customer will typically be sent to a tiny hard drive shared with dozens of other small businesses, in a warehouse in Arizona, Facebook has their own megaplexes of servers littered all over the world. The most elaborate of which is in the Arctic Circle, simply to save on the air conditioning bill to cool all of those computers. While the registration of a website costs a little bit of money, rent (hosting) can cost way, way more, depending on the size of the website.

In the coming years, the Internet will continue to expand and add more “real estate” which come in the form of new gTLDs such as .co, .lawyer, .music, these openings could be like the Louisiana purchase (high value land) in some case, other cases it is more like the purchase of Alaska (containing a large amount of unusable land). However, at the end of the day, the land island and many people think it’s worth taking while it’s here. It’s unsure if the land will be worth anything, however it’s important. All that being said there is the alternative side of land value, which argues, it’s not necessarily the location, it’s what you do with it. The same could be said for factories, mines, warehouses and many other physical locations of businesses that hold massive amounts of revenue despite horrible locations.

The metaphor must go on!
As a digital property owner, it would be idiotic not to protect your property. Locks, guns, safes, security systems, and insurance for your business would be a must in the wild west. In the digital world, the same rules apply. Every person who has a website absolutely must do the following. The Internet is full of viruses, hackers, glitches and frankly incompetent people that everyone should be protecting themselves against.
Security (lock your doors):

  • If a purely mechanical Turing machine was able to hack rotating Nazi codes in World War II, how much easier do you really expect it is for a complex digital program to crack the password “password?” Even if you use personal information, most of it are publicly available simply by looking up your ICANN registration information. While you can pay to have your registration information kept private, nothing replaces using complex passwords and rotating them every three months or so.
  • A website is not simply a locked down fortress. Every comment field, client login, social media sharing button is a potential crack that viruses or hackers can exploit and get inside. The only way to protect against this is to set up an antivirus software. Basically, these kinds of software are digital night guards. They are designed to sweep through your site and look for anything that has slipped in through the cracks of your website and left behind malware or viruses. Depending on their level of services they will either alert you to the issue or remove the unwanted files themselves.
  • SSL: Secure Socket layers are basically additional encryption, that is put on to any transactions or interactions that happen on your site. It’s a special code that scrambles the information once it leaves your site, and is retranslated by an independent third party once the information reaches its destination. It’s like an armored car and is mandatory for websites that facilitate the purchase. However, it is also highly recommended for any website, as much as a security money bag would be for any store manager making deposits. In fact, search engines are now checking for SSL certificates when judging the trustworthiness of a website.
  • Backups (the best insurance you can get).
    Sometimes things just happen. We see this over and over again, whether it is a human error where someone is in a server and accidentally hits the delete button, or as a result of viruses or hacking that couldn’t be prevented, having a copy of your website is like insurance. If all else fails just re-upload it. Ideally, these backups would either be in the cloud or on a server at another location. For the same reason ARPANET diversified their network (because the Cuban Missile Crisis scared the socks off of them) so that a single weapon couldn’t take out their system, a small business owner should have regular backups of their sites made at a different location just in case of corrupted or destroyed servers. Remember that most servers are physical computers. That means if you’re hosted in Florida you’re prone to hurricanes, Boston servers might have blizzards. At the end of the day, no one knows what could happen so it’s always best to be safe.
  • Maintenance: like a janitorial and maintenance staff of an actual building, things in the website collect dirt and cobwebs, light bulbs need replacing etc, you get the idea. From a website’s perspective, someone should always check under the hood once a month, to clear out spam comments, update plugins, look for broken links, and make sure that the site is generally up to code.

Granted not every small business owner has the time or expertise to manage their website, backups, security and maintenance all on their own. Fortunately, there are several options. Most hosting services offer backups and security as add-on features. The maintenance is all that is really left for you to do. If that is still too difficult there are digital marketing agencies that take care of everything on your behalf, like a property management company. Finally, there are companies like Squarespace, Weebly, and Wix that offer registration, hosting, security, and maintenance all in one package. While these services are far less versatile than, and cannot be customized as much as an independently managed website, as well as the fact that they currently have drawbacks in ideal practices of Search Engine Optimization, they certainly make it easy for a small business to simply exist online, and rest assured that their site is protected.

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