Sim suburbia

Bridge-building game

Who owns Nissan.com?

Well, Nissan Motor Co. doesn’t — though it’s suing like hell to try and get it. And in doing so, it is proving a little-discussed fact: That dot-com brand names are becoming more useless every day.

Here’s the backstory. In 1991, a guy named Uzi Nissan founded a North Carolina company called Nissan Computer Corp. In 1994, he registered the domain name Nissan.com. In 1995, as you might imagine, a worried Nissan Motor lawyer wrote a letter expressing “concern” about Uzi Nissan’s use of the domain name — but didn’t demand the entrepreneur give it up.

Now dig this: The following spring, Uzi Nissan also registered Nissan.net to start an ISP. That’s right; even though Nissan Motor had expressed concern about someone else owning Nissan.com, the executives remained so totally clueless about the Net that — nearly one year later — they hadn’t gotten around to registering Nissan.net. And keep in mind, this was a full 18 months after Josh Quittner famously registered McDonalds.com and wrote about it for Wired. This whole domain-name thing was not a big secret or anything. How gormless can a major multinational firm get?

Of course, after a gazillion stories about the Net in appeared in Fast Company and the Red Herring and other florid dot-com media, eventually even Nissan wised up to the importance of the Web. So in 1999 — precisely at the peak of dot-com hysteria — it met with Uzi Nissan to try and buy the name off him. He wanted millions; the company refused to play ball. So the lawyers were summoned, and now Nissan Motor Co. is suing to have the domain transferred to them.

It’s a really interesting snapshot of the old domain-name wars, which I’d thought were pretty much over. It’s quite ironic, too — because if Nissan Motor Co. had just waited until this year, I bet Uzi Nissan would have sold that domain for probably $200,000, or even less.

Why? Because nobody pays big cash for domains any more. And why don’t they do that? For a seldom-discussed reason: Because very few Net users type in raw URLs any more. People just go to Google and pump in a search term instead. Looking for Nissan cars? You pump “Nissan” into Google. And what do you get? That’s right — Nissan Motor Co.’s official site, as the first two hits. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have a site at Nissan.com; you find them anyway.

Consider what’s happening here. Google has effectively decreased the importance of owning one’s own precise dot-com brand name. When people use Google, they find you no matter what your URL is.

Want more proof? Collision Detection itself is a good example. Back before I launched this, I wanted to get CliveThompson.com. But I couldn’t; it’s owned by someone in Britain, possibly someone who’s trying to sell it to the incredibly rich Sir Clive Thompson, founder of the giant British pest-control/security/conferencing/tropical-plants/hygiene/parcels-delivery empire (no, I’m not making that up).

So I figured, okay, if I can’t have CliveThompson.com, I’ll just use Google to do an end-run around this. I’ll set up a blog that has my name on it, and see whether the whole machinery of linking will work. Sure enough — after a couple of months, this blog started appearing as the top hit in Google for “Clive Thompson”. It doesn’t matter who owns the actual “brand name” of Clive Thompson. This place is where you wind up.

Which reminds me that I should post more often, heh. I’ve been busy lately! Honest!

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson