Vernon McCarthy, Moderator of the .govt.nz namespace, shares his experiences and notes how changes in the way we find information online have meant changes in the government’s approach to domain names.
The way we find websites on the internet has changed over the years. In some respects, the exact nature of a website’s domain name, e.g., metservice.com, doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Rarely does anyone type a domain name into a browser anymore. Instead, we just use search engines, or follow links in our bookmarks, emails or social media.
At the same time, a .govt.nz domain name, e.g. webtoolkit.govt.nz, serves to identify a website as an authoritative government resource. Depending on the name, it can also provide information about what agency is responsible for the website, e.g. ird.govt.nz, or what the site is about, e.g. climatechange.govt.nz. For these reasons, it is still important that .govt.nz domain names be well managed and used consistently in a manner that the public can easily understand.
Shifts in the way people use domain names have had an impact on how the Department of Internal Affairs manages the .govt.nz domain namespace.
So many domain names
For many people, there’s little difference between a domain name and a website. This was certainly truer when we used to type domain names into a browser. Accordingly, for every website the government created, it was typical to register a distinct third level .govt.nz domain name (e.g. name.govt.nz). By 2012, there were over 1300 .govt.nz domain names for the approximately 200 government entities eligible to use the .govt.nz namespace. Given that the majority of these are small organisations that only require one or two domain names, most agencies were holding more registered domain names than they needed. In fact, a few organisations are to this day managing more than 30 domain names. In some cases, this number is as high as 90.
Ideally, every registered .govt.nz domain name is actively managed by the agency that registered it. But this is not always the case in practice. Until recently, some agencies were unsure of how many domain names they owned, the purpose of the names, or how to make administrative changes regarding them.
Accordingly, the .govt.nz Moderator took up the challenge of reducing the total number of domain names and ensuring a more long-term, strategic, and user-centred approach to managing domain names.
Fourth level (sub)domains
One of the things we did to help accomplish this was to actively speak with agencies about using fourth level domains name under one of their existing third level domains. For example, initiative.agency.govt.nz is a fourth level domain under the third level domain, agency.govt.nz.
For agencies, the process of setting up a fourth level sub-domain is straightforward. There’s no requirement to apply for the fourth level, as the third level is already registered to the agency. An agency can create as many fourth level domain names as it needs, and at no cost.
The use of fourth level domains reduces the number of requests for new third level domains that the Moderator has to assess, and the number of third level domains the moderator has to manage.
Search engine search results include the domain name. A fourth level domain name helps to place the associated website within the context of the agency, whose name appears at the third level, while allowing the words at the fourth level to describe the site’s purpose or content, e.g. careers.agency.govt.nz.
While every new application for a domain name is considered on it’s own merits, this approach is a considerable improvement on the generic domain names of the past that gave no clue about the service being provided or the agency responsible , e.g. e-quip.govt.nz and phew.govt.nz.
Overall, we’ve been pretty successful with this approach. Applications for new third level domain names have reduced from one per week in 2012 to a single application in the last quarter of 2013. From an operational perspective, it’s saved the time and effort of everyone involved. Agencies haven’t needed to write a business case to argue the need for a new third level domain name. The Moderator hasn’t needed to respond to nearly as many requests for new names, or deal with their administration. And, perhaps most importantly, there is increasing consistency in the .govt.nz namespace as a whole as its domain names become more meaningful and easier to understand.