What you don’t know about two letter TLDs like .io or .ai and why NOT to use them

A picture of a clipboard with a checklist of things to do for picking a domain names. The clipboard is on a desk next to a laptop.

In this article I’ll talk about what a top-level domain is anyway, why two letter top-level domains are different than the rest, why you should avoid them when picking a domain name and what I think the one exception to this rule might be.

What is a top-level domain?

First let’s talk about the terminology.

  • A website’s url like www.websitetechgirl.com has a few different parts with official names.
  • The domain name is websitetechgirl.com.
  • The subdomain is www. The most common subdomain used for websites is www, but a website owner can make most anything a subdomain for their own domain.
  • The top-level domain or TLD is the ending – in this case .com. There are lots of other top-level domains like .dev, .org, .gov (reserved for government organizations), .co, .io, .reviews. The list goes on and on. This is the important one to remember for the rest of this article.

Considerations in picking a domain name

There are lots of considerations in picking a domain name and I talk about a many of them in my article on mistakes to avoid when picking a domain name. One important consideration is which TLD to use. Most people prefer a .com name, but since many of these are taken they start looking for different endings. There are a few different two letter endings that have gotten really popular in the last several years and some of the are pretty cool. Or they sound cool anyway. Like .io or .ai.

All two letter TLDs are country codes

The problem with the two letter TLDs is that they are all really country code top-level domains or ccTLDs. Think .us or .uk. The .co domain is actually the country code for Columbia. That .ai domain that sounds so cool is the country code for Anguilla, a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean.

This isn’t a widely known fact. When you go to register a new domain name, it’s not something that will be made clear. Instead the cool sounding two letter TLDs will be prominently displayed enticing people to buy them. This is a tempting thing to do when the .com domain you want is already taken. However there are a few reasons to reconsider.

Reasons not to use country code top-level domains

Other TLDs are governed by the same, consistent rules, but not ccTLDs

All of the other TLDs have very specific rules that govern them. ICANN (The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is the nonprofit international corporation that sees to this. They have a lot of rules around domain name registration that actually ensure people are fairly protected. For example, you are always able to transfer a domain to a different register as long as it’s been more than 60 days since you registered the domain with the place it’s at.

Countries can make their OWN rules around their TLDs – and you are agreeing to follow them when you get the domain

However ccTLDs are governed by the countries that they belong to.

I was recently looking to transfer a ccTLD to a new domain registrar. I normally use NearlyFreeSpeech.net for domain registration and site hosting, but I found that they would not handle ccTLDs. Here’s an excerpt from what their FAQ page had to say:

Most ccTLD operators are part of or run on behalf of the country’s government. They typically include things in their registrar agreement like “Paragraph 1219: You will follow all of our country’s laws.” and “Paragraph 2751: The ccTLD operator reserves the right to terminate this agreement at any time for any reason.” That’s a problem.

For example, suppose that we offered registrations in Atlantis’s ccTLD and accumulated a few thousand domains. And maybe the Atlantis government decides they don’t like a site we host that criticizes their land subsidence policies. Next thing we know, they’re threatening to seize all those domains unless we cut somebody off, and claiming that we agreed to follow their laws on such matters.

While that may sound farfetched, we have had conflicts with foreign governments over member sites, and they don’t play nice. Handing significant leverage to people who may not have our members’ best interests at heart doesn’t seem like a good idea.

I’d rather just be obligated to follow the laws of the U.S. I don’t want to be agreeing to follow the laws of some foreign government which I am completely unfamiliar with and probably did not realize I was agreeing to when I picked a particular name for my website or risk losing the domain name for my site.

Trouble transferring the domain

As mentioned above, when I went to transfer a ccTLD recently, NearlyFreeSpeech.net wouldn’t support it. I decided to use Cloudflare as my domain registrar instead, but they also would not let me transfer it in. (It was a .co domain and strangely, Cloudflare listed .co domains as ones they supported but when attempting to transfer it, I got a message that said something like ‘Premium domains not supported’. Testing to see if I could register a new .co domain there gave a similar error message.)

So if you do own a two letter domain and you need to transfer it to a new domain registrar, support for them is not as universal as for the other TLDs. There are definitely places that will register them. I ruled out some of the other options based on past experience, but I did eventually find an option that I’ve been happy with so far.

Issues with administration of these domains in some cases

For a few countries’ domains there has also been rising awareness about issues with how those domains have been handled as far as who is allowed to administer these domains (and thus get the money from the domain registrations.) This is an issue worth reading up on and understanding. The io domain might sound cool but the domain just isn’t that cool anymore when you know the story behind it’s country.

The one exception

In general I would completely avoid registering any two letter TLDs. However, I am also the admin of a .co domain and that experience leads me to the exception to this rule. I’ve written another (shorter) post about why you MIGHT want to register the .co domain that matches your .com domain.

I for one will be steering clear of ccTLDs in the future, with the possible exception of getting the .co domains that match my .coms. I hope that this article helped you understand why you might want to do the same!