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The .shabaka domain – a help or hindrance to digital agencies?

March 31, 2013 11:52 am

The launch of .shabaka is anticipated to take place in June of this year. The domain will exist in Arabic script – شبكة. – and translates to ‘.web’ in English.

The launch of .shabaka is part of the new top-level domain program being rolled out by Icann (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), the global regulator of web addresses. Icann approved the application for the new domain after a rigorous evaluation process, although contracts have yet to be signed.

Internet Domain Registry (IDR), the firm behind .shabaka, still need to prove to Icann that they have the technical prowess and financial soundness to maintain this milestone domain – since future registrants will be reliant on their service.

“If someone fails in their operation of a TLD (top-level domain) then all associated businesses would be affected,” says Yasmin Omer, IDR’s General Manager. “Icann seeks to protect registrants of those domain names and internet users in general.”

“It’s a game-changer because it’s an Arabic script TLD,” explains Omer. “This is going to bridge the gap between Arabic content and Arabic speaking internet users as, simply put, the Internet currently speaks English.

“With the introduction of .shabaka the Internet will essentially speak in Arabic. Arabic speaking internet users previously marginalised by the predominance of English will now be given equal access,” she tells AMEinfo.

“There is enormous commercial potential in the digital Arab landscape and Arabic script web addresses like شبكة. will be a significant factor in helping the next 90 million Arab Internet users navigate to Arabic content. شبكة. will help provide the platform needed to fuel greater Arabic orientated online entrepreneurism and innovation,” says Omer.

IDR’s entrant beat around 1,900 other applicants globally to reach this stage, but digital agencies in the region are not all enthusiastic.

.shabaka – a hindrance or help?

“I think it’s as cosmetic a change as can be,” says Yousef Tuqan Tuqan, CEO of Flip Media. “I think so many things are happening right now with regards to the Arabic internet that are so much more interesting and impactful. The fact we’ve now created .shabaka really does nothing for me as someone who works in the industry.”

Tuqan points to Google, Facebook and Twitter as brands who are working the hardest to ‘Arabise content’ and make it more accessible, but doesn’t believe an Arabic script domain will significantly impact the region.

“It’s more of a hindrance than anything. If someone from the rest of the world wants to access an Arabic site, they have to figure out how to type Arabic character on their keyboard now?” asks Tuqan. “We’ve got Top-Level domains like .ae and .jo and I think that’s pretty good at identifying stuff as being ‘of the region'”.

One of Tuqan’s concerns is that marketeers often lump the region into a single geography.

“If a car brand wants to make a website, it’ll be a Middle East website, not a US, Canadian or Swedish site. That becomes challenging sometimes in terms of setting up a domain name.”

“Our default with Flip is to use the .me domain, which I believe is from Montenegro. So our website is Flip.ME which is a fun way to reflect the fact we’re a Middle East agency. That’s good enough for me”.

It’s about what users, not agencies, want

Tuqan’s perspective is, of course, not necessarily reflective of the region. Abbas Jaffar Ali, publisher of tBreak Media, in an interview with Gulf News, said that he believes brands will opt for registering websites under .shabaka: “It is going to make easier for users and index the data. It will simplify the process,” Abbas said.

Global marketing and advertising agency Ogilvy published a comprehensive report back in 2011 outlining why it thinks Icann’s new top-level domain program presents significant opportunities for brands and marketing professionals. Though not specifically referring .shabaka, Ogilvy predicts brands will embrace new the new TLDs.

“There are some minor steps to go through before we launch the TLD in June, but it’s a win. We passed the evaluation with flying colours, so it’s safe to say we’ll certainly pass the testing process,” says Omer.

With such polarised opinions on the significance of .shabaka, the question is not just whether it will be adopted by Arabic language content providers, but how it will change the way both businesses and end users engage with the web. While it seems fair game to enable URLs in your own script, there remains the risk of isolating Arabic content from the rest of the Internet, and begs the question – was it broken? Did it need fixing?