It has been about an year since ICANN approved IDNs (Internationalized Domain Names) on November 16, 2009. Now, the euphoria is over and the first adopters are already the proud owners of their Internationalized Domain Names. Many Web CMS with an IDN are already in operation but does this mean that you to need to rush to get your IDNs (if you still haven't done it, of course)?
The question about the benefits of IDNs for you and your company might be a no-brainer at all. If you don't do business in a language different from English, then IDNs is not a topic of concern to you. However, if you do business in countries where the official language is not English and you need to get local in order to reach your customers, then you might have to think a bit if the benefits of IDNs outweigh their potential disadvantages.
What's an IDN?
IDNs (Internationalized Domain Name) can be defined in many ways but probably the best definition is given by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the institution that handles them. The definition is as follows: “Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) are domain names represented by local language characters. Such domain names could contain letters or characters from non-ASCII scripts (for example, Arabic or Chinese)” (source: http://www.icann.org/en/topics/idn/).
The adoption of IDNs might not look a big deal but actually it is. Prior to the official green light to IDNs, it wasn't possible to register a domain name with characters different from the characters in the English alphabet. This was quite an issue for languages such as French, Spanish, German or the Scandinavian languages, which use a Latin alphabet but they have their specific symbols (i.e. Non-ASCII symbols), which are not present in the English alphabet. The domains and URLs in all non-ASCII languages had to transcribe their special symbols and use them this way.
It was even worse for Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic and other alphabets where the symbols aren't even close to Latin symbols. These languages couldn't register a domain name or have URLs in their alphabet. It felt unfair -- the Internet is global but you can't register a domain name and have URLs in your language.
The reason for this was purely technical -- the standard was still in the makings. There were many technical issues that had to be solved and without going into the technical details (you can find more of them in this FAQ) that made IDNs possible, it is not an exaggeration to say that IDNs are a huge step towards the internationalization of the Internet.
As of today, one year after IDNs are possible, there aren't millions of them in use. One of the reasons is that a specific country domain needs to go through a lengthy approval procedure before registrars can start offering it to the public. Thus not many countries have their IDNs approved and therefore can't use them. The list of approved IDNs (or IDN ccTLD -- IDN country code Top Level Domains) is updated frequently with new domains.
What I Will Gain If I Have an IDN
In addition to the fact that the IDN ccTLD of your country hasn't been approved yet, there are also other reasons why IDNs are still not in wide use. Many companies and individuals haven't even heard of IDN ccTLDs and some of those who have, are pretty skeptical and don't rush to register such a domain. This is easy to understand but when you have in mind the advantages of IDNs, maybe a second thought is necessary. Here are some of the benefits of having an IDN:
You are being nice to your countrymen/locals you are doing business with. The major benefit is that you show your respect to your countrymen/locals. For instance, for governmental institutions, or local branches of international companies, or for companies that deal only on the local market, an IDN could have a high image value. You are showing your appreciation to local culture and language.
IDNs are user-friendly. English is spoken by millions of people all over the world but in those countries where English isn't an official language, there are large groups of people who might not even know the English alphabet and for whom typing an URL in ASCII symbols is really hard. All these people will certainly appreciate it when your domain and URLs are in an alphabet they use.
Maybe the advantages of IDNs don't look so fascinating and you might be hesitant to register an IDN, even if you will benefit from it. If in doubt, register an IDN today because the choice is still rich -- in a sense, the situation resembles the early days of the Internet, when you could pick a bunch of lucrative domains and all of them were free. Even if you don't use your IDN, having one isn't expensive, so just book early because later you might not be able to get the domain you like.
Does an IDN Bite? What Are the Risks?
Nothing in life is perfect and IDNs aren't an exception. Here are some of their dark sides:
Weird symbols pose a language barrier. If you have an IDN and you have international visitors, for them the weird symbols in an alphabet they don't understand could be quite of a barrier. Sure, they could copy the URL rather than type it in the browser, but still dealing with unfamiliar symbols is pretty stressful. Also, typing an URL from a keyboard that doesn't have the layout for the particular alphabet is a challenge, though virtual keyboards can help and there are also other options to enter the symbols without typing them.
Frauds are easier. A very serious concern about IDNs is that they will make frauds easier. This is especially true for domains that use the English symbols plus some non-ASCII ones. For instance, cmswire.com looks exactly the same as сmswire.com but the difference is that the first letter in the second domain is the Cyrillic letter “с” rather than the English letter “c”. To a user they look just the same but to computers these are two different symbols and it is possible to mimic the address of a legitimate site and fraud users. If users are careful (and they don't follow a link but type it instead), frauds won't be that easy but still this is a risk to have in mind. Additionally, registrars might not allow to mix characters in a domain name, so actually as the saying goes, “If there is a will, there is a way”, the problem with spoofing can be solved.
Some applications might not function properly when the URLs contain non-ASCII characters. In order to support non-ASCII symbols, they are translated from Punycode to ASCII and this process involves browsers, DNS and other applications and might not always go smoothly. Recent versions of Mozilla browsers and Internet Explorer work with non-ASCII symbols, which is good but besides them there are many old versions still in use. There are many other potential points of failure where things can go wrong. Sure, don't expect an apocalypse, but still, IDNs add one more level of complexity.
IDNs are just one more step in the direction of making the Internet truly global. For many years billions of people were denied the ability to have domain names and URLs in their own language. Now, with IDNs, this is slowly changing.