No rush to adopt domain names written in Chinese in China

A global Internet governing body last month approved new languages for use in domain names, but at least in China some Web sites have hesitated to rebrand into Chinese from their well-known names written in Latin characters.

Chinese regulators have long promoted the use of Chinese-language domain names and forecast that their spread would boost Internet use in the country. China was one supporter of the recent move by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to allow countries and territories to apply to show the country-code part of domain names in their native language. The change would, for instance, let a Web site owner register a domain ending in the two Chinese characters for "China" rather than .cn, the country code for China.

But local companies seem less excited than Chinese authorities about the change.

Domains in Chinese script could appeal mainly to users who are elderly or live in rural Chinese areas, said Sam Flemming, founder and chairman of CIC, an Internet word-of-mouth research company in Shanghai. Those are the main users that may not be used to typing Web addresses in English or in Pinyin, a phonetic spelling system often used online to replace Chinese characters with Latin ones.

"For people that are currently online, they're much more used to it," said Flemming.

The ICANN decision has not yet taken effect, but Chinese regulators have already allowed local companies to register domain names that have Chinese characters throughout their names, including at the country-code level. Those domains can only be visited within China, or by computers using Chinese DNS (Domain Name System) servers. Local portal Tencent, for instance, can be visited by typing in the Chinese characters for "Tencent-dot-China". But the portal can also be reached at qq.com, which takes fewer strokes to type.

A Chinese domain name might not make sense for some Web sites. Many Chinese companies use numbers in their domain names that are widely associated with their brands. Local portal NetEase keeps its Web site at 163.com. In some cases the numbers also have intentional second meanings. The name of one local travel site, 51766.com, sounds similar to the phrase "I want to go travel" when the numbers are pronounced in Chinese.

Internet users are also widely familiar with Latin-character domains, so big Chinese Internet companies may not need to change them. Taobao.com, a major retail and user auction Web site, has registered variations of its domain name in Chinese but has not decided yet if it will use them, a company spokeswoman said. Baidu.com, China's leading search engine, declined to comment on questions about Chinese domain names. But typing the Chinese script for "Baidu-dot-China" into a browser calls up a Web site that does not immediately appear to belong to the company.

Youku.com, the country's top video streaming Web site, will use Chinese versions of its domain but is not sure if they will help draw more users, said company chief financial officer Liu Dele in an e-mail. The company has registered variations in Chinese including "Youku-dot-company". But perhaps the most important domain, "Youku-dot-China", is held by someone else who registered the name first, Liu said.

That may not matter. Users who are not used to typing English often visit Youku via a search engine rather than directly typing its Web address, said Liu. Still, Youku would like to buy the domain back for a reasonable price.

"At least this will prevent confusion," Liu said. "But we don't think it's a big deal for our traffic and brand."

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