A transcript of my in-depth conversation about domain names with the creator of WordPress.
Two weeks ago I had Matt Mullenweg, creator of WordPress and CEO of Automattic, on the Domain Name Wire Podcast to talk about domain names. It was one of the most interesting podcasts I’ve published (and already the most downloaded), in part because Matt brings an outside-the-industry view to domain names.
I encourage you to listen to the podcast. But for those that prefer reading, I’ve published the transcript below.
- Why Matt thinks domain names are more important than ever
- Why he thinks domain names are undervalued
- How you can get a .blog domain before everyone else
- Why WordPress Foundation goes after certain cybersquatters
- How many .blog domains Matt thinks can be registered in 2017
Andrew Allemann: My guest today is Matt Mullenweg. He is the creator of WordPress and the CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. Matt, welcome to the program.
Matt Mullenweg: Honored to be here. Glad to talk.
Andrew Allemann: Matt, I want to talk about a number of things today, including .blog, which is obviously very relevant to my audience, as well as trademark protection of WordPress and domain names, but first, I’ve been using WordPress for Domain Name Wire since 2005 …
Matt Mullenweg: Awesome.
Andrew Allemann: … And I realize I kind of take it for granted. Yeah, 11 years, which I guess isn’t too long after WordPress came to be. Can you give us a brief overview of really, how WordPress started?
Matt Mullenweg: You must have been one of the first couple thousand users, because we were very small at that time. WordPress started as an extension of an existing open source project, called b2/cafelog, that myself and a fellow in the UK named Mike Little picked up and took over the development of. We decided to call this new thing that we were working on, a fork in open source terminology, WordPress. It became kind of the official continuation of this older project, which had kind of stopped development. Over time, we’ve always stayed very true to our ideals of open source, things being free in every sense of the word. Free as in freedom, as well as free as beer, and being very user-focused. We always try to think about what does the author need? What does the developer need? What does the person visiting the site need? And remove as much friction as possible. That’s something we’re still trying to do today.
Andrew Allemann: Today, you’re CEO of Automattic, and it’s Automattic that’s gone out and raised the funding, puts out a lot of new services, but I’ve always been a little bit confused. Can you explain the role of, say, Automattic, WordPress Foundation, in this entire ecosystem?
Matt Mullenweg: Sure. You can think of it almost like three branches of government. There’s WordPress the software, which is licensed under the GPL, and available with all the freedoms of the GPL license. You can use that for basically any purpose. The only rule that is GPL says is that if you share it, you need to also provide whoever you share it to the same freedoms. Kind of like a sharealike license in creative commons. The WordPress foundation is a lightweight, small non-profit that we do educational things through, like WordCamps and other outreach programs, and that holds the actual WordPress trademark.
Andrew Allemann: Got it.
Matt Mullenweg: That’s something that Automattic donated to the Foundation, for its sort of non-profit stewardship. Finally, there’s Automattic. This is a for-profit company. Looks a lot like any other company. We work a lot like an open source project in that much of the code we put out is open source, and every one’s distributed. We’re now about 470 people in over 50 countries, so, really, all over the world. Our main office only has about 5 or 10 people on it, any given day. We’re very, very distributed, and we have three main products: WordPress.com, which is … Think of it like a default easy way to get introduced to the WordPress world.
Andrew Allemann: A hosted WordPress software, if you will.
Matt Mullenweg: Exactly. If you were talking to a friend and sending them the best place to get started, that would be WordPress.com. Jetpack is for more power users, who run on more advanced hosting. Let’s say a web host, or their own servers, but it brings them lots of cloud features, lots of things that we’ve built out, to sort of enhance WordPress. Think of Jetpack as kind of the first plug-in you install in every WordPress, because it provides so much value. It makes it faster, it gets you more traffic, helps your SEO, et cetera. Finally, there’s WooCommerce, which is an e-commerce platform built on top of WordPress. This, you should think of maybe in the same space of like a Shopify, but a lot more flexible and advanced. With all the benefits and downside, so you might need to be more of a developer or use a developer to really customize it to your needs, but it’s unparalleled in its flexibility, because you can control every line of code.
That’s kind of the main three, and then this year, we are launching a fourth, which is this .blog TLD.
Andrew Allemann: Awesome. Before we talk about .blog, I do want to mention one, I guess it’s probably a footnote, of Automattic, but it’s a site I use a lot, which is one you acquired called Lean Domain Search.
Matt Mullenweg: Oh, yeah.
Andrew Allemann: For those that aren’t familiar with it, it’s one of the sites I use when I need to find a domain name and I can’t find a good one.
Matt Mullenweg: Me too.
Andrew Allemann: You guys, what brought Matt Mazur on board, and acquired that a few years ago. It’s a great product, great product.
Matt Mullenweg: I totally agree. Thanks for plugging that.
Andrew Allemann: Yeah, absolutely. Where does VaultPress fall within this? That’s another product I use a lot.
Matt Mullenweg: We think, just internally, of VaultPress, Akismet, those sorts of things as being under Jetpack.
Andrew Allemann: Got it, got it.
Matt Mullenweg: In fact, we’re doing a lot of product improvements to help them work better together. You’ll be able to sort of one-click activate VaultPress, all these other things, if you already have Jetpack installed.
Andrew Allemann: For anyone listening, who’s not familiar with VaultPress, it’s a paid service that does backup and security scans of your WordPress website. The security scans, to me, are really the most important thing. It’s saved me a number of times, finding intrusions and that sort of thing, so that’s a valuable product.
Matt Mullenweg: The idea is, if you have a site that is really important to you, the investment in VaultPress is like insurance for your blog.
Andrew Allemann: Oh, yeah.
Matt Mullenweg: It’ll insure … It does real time backups as well, so anything that changes it, literally backs it up within seconds. If, God forbid, something happens to your site, you literally have an up to the second backup offsite, very protected and safe.
Andrew Allemann: Right. I know personally, in the years I’ve been using, and I’ve had to use that backup a couple times. It’s well worth the … I don’t know what the price is now, but it’s small potatoes compared to the importance of your site saying up.
Matt Mullenweg: Yeah, especially yours, where it’s a business.
Andrew Allemann: Yeah, yeah, exactly. If it goes down, that is not good from a revenue standpoint.
Let’s talk about .blog. I think it was a bit surprising, but exciting when it came out in May that Automattic will be behind .blog. You know the auction was won by a company called Primer Nivel and the face of that company is a guy who’s known fairly well in the .co namespace. When did Automattic kind of get involved in this bid for .blog?
Matt Mullenweg: I think some of the first emails going back to this were probably 2011, when TLDs were very first announced, was when we started thinking about it and talking about it, but we were driving that entire auction process. We didn’t get in to register, and we also didn’t want it to be public that we were involved, but we were able to sort of work through Primer Nivel as a proxy, to sort of do what we would have done if we were publicly involved. In this auction process, you don’t want to incite too much competition, especially the way it works, where the proceeds are distributed to the people who didn’t win the auction.
Andrew Allemann: Right. I think I was scratching my head after the auction. I was like, “Wait a minute, who won this?” It all made sense a couple years later.
Operating a top level domain name is no small investment. I know you can’t really disclose it, but I’ll just say it was about $20 million dollars to acquire .blog, and there’s a lot of investment on the back end. You have employees, you have the registry agreement and all that sort of stuff. Why did you decide that this made sense to pursue?
Matt Mullenweg: I think it was actually around 2013, but the context was, originally one of the applications, I think, Google’s was a closed application, so basically, you could only have a .blog if you were on blogger. Actually, to be honest, you probably understand some of these issues better than me.
Andrew Allemann: Sure.
Matt Mullenweg: That just felt very anti-web to us, and just the idea that something as universal as the idea of a blog, which has been one of the most democratizing forces, I think, on the open web, would be closed to a single company with a fairly mediocre product, which is Blogspot.
Andrew Allemann: Fair enough.
Matt Mullenweg: Part of it was like, “Ah, this shouldn’t happen.” That ended up not being as much of an issue later. When we start to dig in, when they started refusing their closed applications and everything, we thought it was actually pretty interesting as a business, just the idea that, of all the TLDs that we saw kind of on the market, people use blog as a subdomain a ton, or subdirectory. We could see a lot of that migrating to be .blog, and then, of course, we’ve kind of been doing blogging for over a decade, so it’s very near and dear to our hearts. We felt like, for people who wanted to, we could provide some pretty good software for them. Of course, if people want to use something else, including Blogspot, they’re welcome to, but a lot of the sites on the website use WordPress, and we’re always looking to increase that.
Andrew Allemann: Got it. The term blog, it has kind of morphed over time, because I know WordPress for example, a lot of sites it powers wouldn’t be considered blogs right now. Do you think there’s a point in the future where the term kind of goes away, and it’s just, “This is my website”, not my blog?
Matt Mullenweg: Actually, I used to hate the word blog, which is kind of funny that we spent a lot of money buying the TLD. It sounds like something in your drain, you know? When I first heard it in the late ’90s. Then it had very political connotations, if you remember those days where it was the first time people heard about blogs. I feel like they took down some political … it was like, a Republican said something at a private party, and someone blogged it.
Andrew Allemann: Oh, okay.
Matt Mullenweg: People thought it was like, things you do to attack companies or people. That’s why all the services at the time, if you remember this, because every internet giant had a blogging service, none of them except for Google had the word “blog” in it. Yahoo! called it 360, AOL called it Journals, MSN called it Spaces. They all kind of made up …
Andrew Allemann: There was a negative connotation at the time, sort of.
Matt Mullenweg: At the time, I was at C-NET, which had download.com and a bunch of other things, and they saw a blog as like, this upstart threat to their sort of media empire, so they were very anti-blog as well. What’s happened in the past ten years, is, I think, that people who have been introduced to publishing online, maybe through Twitter, maybe through Facebook, maybe through somethings else: Xanga, Blogspot, whatever, have sort of discovered the power of having your own voice and your own home on the web.
The word “blog,” like you said, has evolved so much, and the fact that I distinguish, as I’m sure all of your listeners do, the difference between a blog and a website, and sort of blogging systems and CMSs. Of course, WordPress does all of it, but it’s a meaningful distinction to us, but more and more, when I do support on WordPress.com, or talk to people, to them, it just means a website. It’s actually sort of, the word keeps expanding, and morphing to encompass more and more, which is kind of funny. A lot of times, I say, make a WordPress. That kind of encompasses everything you could want to do.
Andrew Allemann: Another interesting kind of maybe shift in mindset and stuff is that, obviously, I’m in the domain name business. I’m a big proponent of everyone using domains, but I hear a lot of people, especially out in Silicon Valley say, “oh, domains don’t matter that much anymore. We have apps and the quality of your domain doesn’t matter all that much, too, because everyone finds it through Google.” What are your thoughts on that?
Matt Mullenweg: I think they matter more than ever.
Andrew Allemann: That’s good to hear.
Matt Mullenweg: The things is that the people saying that probably want you to be mediated through someone else. They want you to advertise on Facebook, or advertise on Google or wherever to reach your customers. In reality, you want to have a direct relationship, especially if you’re building a more substantial business.
.com, there’s a lot of them. What’s it, like 125 million now-ish? It’s a very crowded namespace. The new TLDs, I think, have an incredible opportunity to be like, much more memorable and easy to hear, on like, a radio commercial or see on a billboard, or something like that. I think what we all need to do, something, probably, your listeners are very aware of, is just get people more used to these.
Part of our hope for .blog is by making it pretty mainstream, both through tying it in to WordPress.com and doing a lot of promotion, and finding some cool founders to have some of the initial .blogs … By the way, if any of your listeners have any awesome ideas there, we’re very open to it. We really want to help legitimize all these new gTLDs. We kind of want to open up the whole market for everyone. Business-wise, Automattic’s always been about generating, giving back way more than we get, and I feel like this is kind of, really, our first opportunity to do that in the domain space. All we’ve really done before is sell the standard ones, when someone registered a WordPress blog. This allows us to kind of use some of our influence and clout and technical expertise to perhaps open it up to an entirely new class of consumers.
Andrew Allemann: You know, it’s interesting. I was in Seattle at a domain meetup when this news came out about Automattic being behind .blog. I was with a lot of these new top level domain name companies, and they were all thrilled, because they were like, “Hey, here’s a company that can actually make an impact on user awareness,” which, let’s face it, awareness of new domain options is pretty low right now.
Matt Mullenweg: Yeah, and to be honest, we can’t do it alone. We’re going to need everyone’s help. That’s what’s kind of beautiful about the model, is there will be lots of re-sellers and registrars, and everything. I think that we’re trying to put everything in place, to make .blog a success, and I think that will be hugely amplified or not by how much the broader domain name community gets behind it, which is part of why I wanted to come and talk to you today.
Andrew Allemann: Someone, obviously, who has a blog on WordPress.com will be able to easily upgrade to, say, a .blog domain, but then you also want to get the GoDaddys, the enoms, the Tucows of the world, all these companies to carry .blog, and sell it much like a .com today, right?
Matt Mullenweg: Totally. It is nice to have a fresh namespace. I’m sure anyone who instruments their sign up procedure, see how many people get really frustrated and drop off when they’re looking for a name. They can’t find one that they want.
Andrew Allemann: Right. One of the complaints I hear about new top level domain names is that they’re expensive, and this is kind of changing a little bit. We have this shift between a lot of domains selling for like a dollar, right, every year, and others for $30. I know you can’t talk about your wholesale price, but it seemed from reading the site that it seems like perhaps these will be a little bit more expensive per year than a .com of $10 or $15?
Matt Mullenweg: I would expect it to retail in kind of the $20 to $30 range. To be honest, I think that’s an incredible bargain, because really, what you’re doing is you’re hanging your shingle. You’re like, getting a piece of digital land that’s truly yours, and can be yours forever. That’s something that … I actually think domains are way undervalued, to be totally honest. I’m sure some of your listeners would agree that they’re so unique. It’s really like, when you compare what you would spend on a domain to like, a phone number, which is a random series of digits, not even talking about an 800 number or something like that, or a sign in front of your store, an internet connection in your coffee shop. Any of these basic things you do to do your business, your domain and your website’s probably going to be their best value, because even if let’s say you get a high end hosting account for like $300 a year or something, that is still how, increasingly, that’s going to be how you show up in Google, and listings. People are going to search for you, people are going to …
Andrew Allemann: It’s not something to skimp on, that’s for sure.
Matt Mullenweg: No, I think it’s one of these things. It is frustrating … Does it make sense to spend a million dollars on a .com? I think, if you haven’t figured out the rest of your business yet, maybe that should be something you do very deliberately. We’ve all seen it where just having a good domain doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a good business.
Andrew Allemann: Right. What was that app, that color app? I think they bought color.com for a few hundred thousand, raised a lot of money, and I think it was basically shut down a couple years later.
Matt Mullenweg: Actually, it’s something I tell a lot of start-ups. I’m like, you know, “Get something easy to start. If you get traction, you can always buy the domain later.”
Andrew Allemann: Yeah, yeah.
Matt Mullenweg: Or try to, at least.
Andrew Allemann: Right, right. A lot of my listeners like to profit off that, when a person comes to buy it eventually.
Some of these will also have premiums attached to them, right? Some of the better names?
Matt Mullenweg: I believe so. There will be premium tiers for like the more generic, or high-value words. Still, I think they’ll be a pretty good bargain compared to if you’re, especially, buying something on the secondary market.
Andrew Allemann: Right.
Matt Mullenweg: No one wants to be a .info, right? Part of how we’re seeing the program and putting everyone in it is we want .blogs, especially when they launch, to be associated with like, cool websites, and things that people like to visit. We’ll be reaching out to companies that have interesting blogs, celebrities and musicians, artists, writers … This is what we’re trying to seed it with, and like I said, anything that your listeners have in mind, drop us a note.
Andrew Allemann: Okay, cool. One more question on .blog before we shift. I could have sworn you wrote this on your blog post, but I can’t find it anymore. You had put out there a number of quarter-million .blog activations by the end of the year, within a year, something along those lines. Can you kind of give me an idea on how big of an opportunity you think this will eventually be?
Matt Mullenweg: That’s actually on the nic.blog site. It says we expect to activate about 250,000 new names in 2016. Yeah. In some ways, making goals is always tough, especially if you say it publicly. Part of me feels that that’s conservative, and part of me feels like it’s a stretch, and part of it feels like we’re low-balling it a little bit. We will, of course, see, and there’s going to be a lot to learn, but I think that one thing … I think we could do a million domains in 2017, and one thing that’s always on my mind, and just sort of inherent to Automattic’s now 10-year history is that we iterate. You’ll never hear me promise for anything that we’ll get it right, right out of the gate. We’ll try our darndest, but what we will do is relentlessly iterate, and listen to customers, listen to partners, and keep trying things until we create something that has a good fit for our customers, and users, and the world at large.
Andrew Allemann: Got it, got it. At NamesCon a couple years ago, that’s the domain conference that was in Vegas, if I can jog your memory a little bit, you said that Automattic would register WordPress under all these new top level domain names that were coming out, but you wouldn’t use them. Can you explain, has that idea shifted, or … At the time, you had said, “Look, we want people to know that WordPress.com and WordPress.org are the authoritative places to say, get the software, use WordPress, that sort of thing. Is that still your thinking?
Matt Mullenweg: Yeah. It’s really when you think about it from a product point of view. It’s confusing enough that there’s two things called WordPress. I don’t think, to the average consumer, the .com, .org distinction means a lot. They kind of ignore everything after the dot. Introducing more of those, I think, would just sort of engender more confusion, which is the last thing we’re trying to do. We’re trying to simplify and streamline, so that people who hear about WordPress, whether that’s from a friend or some of the marketing that we’re starting to do, will be able to go to either and get the solution they need.
Andrew Allemann: But that strikes me a little bit, when we talk about new top level domains, one of the complaints about them has been, “Oh, man, massive confusion. Now I’m not paying attention to what’s right of the dot.” Do you think, going back to what you said earlier, that will change as you promote it?
Matt Mullenweg: I think the difference is that we have an existing brand, and a single product, where a new TLD is an opportunity for someone, say, to create a brand new brand and sort of stake out a new space that might not be held by anyone else already. Obviously, I don’t recommend going and getting trademarks on different TLDs, that’s not a good … You could get Microsoft.blog, maybe, but I don’t know if it’s a good idea, and certainly not one you should build a business on. You could come up with something new that might be taken on .com and not used, or might be used for something totally different, and that could be really interesting … Or, a more generic word.
Andrew Allemann: Got it. Like Domain.blog. Someone wants to start a domain blog.
Matt Mullenweg: Or transfer something like a domain name wire to a domain.blog.
Andrew Allemann: I’ve got DNW.com, too, so I kind of like to promote that one, my short one. I have to ask, and you may not know the answer to this, but I’ve noticed that someone, through MarkMonitor, which is your guys’ brand protection domain agency, has been registering “Matt” under a lot of top level domain names. I’m curious if that’s for you.
Matt Mullenweg: Man, wow. I wonder who that could be? I didn’t know you were an investigative journalist, too.
Andrew Allemann: I track registrations and I was like, “Hmm.”
Matt Mullenweg: A lot of Matts going out there, huh?
Andrew Allemann: Yeah.
Matt Mullenweg: I’m a Houstonian, and there’s another famous Houstonian named George Foreman. Boxing fame, or the Foreman Grill fame, depending on what generation. He did a funny thing where, he has 7 or 8 kids, and they’re all named George. Boys, girls, everything. In theory, if there was a Matt who loved domains, and he was expecting a large progeny in the future, he might want a different TLD for all of them, so they don’t run into each other.
Andrew Allemann: There you go.
Matt Mullenweg: That, perhaps, could be a future contribution he makes to the gTLD space. Allegedly. Hypothetically.
Andrew Allemann: Hypothetically, of course.
The WordPress trademark, I’ve noticed a couple lawsuits and some UDRPs, some cyber squatting complaints over the past year, filed by WordPress Foundation, against people using WordPress in a second level domain name. Can you tell me kind of what the policy is there, and why?
Matt Mullenweg: Yeah, and to be second level, you mean like WordPress dot something?
Andrew Allemann: Yes.
Matt Mullenweg: Typically, we don’t go after everything, obviously. There’s probably tens of thousands out there. What we do try to go after is if people are using that name in a way that’s confusing to consumers. Then, we especially go after anyone who’s using it to distribute malware or spam, or do something that’s kind of actively harmful. There’s kind of like the medium-bad, and then there’s the super-bad. WordPress is like an operating system for the web, so it’s targeted by all sorts of unscrupulous characters who want to latch on and exploit it, or exploit … We bring a lot of new people to web publishing. A lot of our customers are not that savvy, and they can and do get confused by very similar sounding names. We have seen them abused a ton. We have a very shared interest with Google, ICANN, with everyone in sort of this space, to make sure that people aren’t abusing this name in particular.
Andrew Allemann: Right. Got it. Okay. All right, awesome. Listen, I appreciate your time, Matt. If any registrars are listening, or if people who want to start a site on .blog, those … Call them start-up founders, you know, .blog founders, who should they reach out to, or how should they get in touch with Automattic?
Matt Mullenweg: Sure. Check out, we talked about nic.blog earlier. I don’t know if there’s a contact form on there, but we will put one very, very soon. We have an RRA available there, so people can sign it, if you’re sort of a registrar and you want to get going on. If you have a good idea for the founders thing, actually, probably the easiest way to get in touch is my contact form. My website is ma.tt, and you can get in touch there. Just drop what the idea is, especially if it’s, you work with someone, or maybe you are someone. Maybe you have some very prominent listeners that could really be an awesome example of a great site on a .blog.
Andrew Allemann: Got it.
Matt Mullenweg: Then you’ll be able to get it a few months before the rest of the world.
Andrew Allemann: Awesome.
Matt Mullenweg: Also, if anyone’s friends with Kanye or Drake, that would be awesome.
Andrew Allemann: All right. Hey, Matt, thanks so much for coming on the program today.
Matt Mullenweg: It’s my pleasure.
Andrew Allemann: My guest today has been Matt Mullenweg. He is the creator of WordPress and the CEO of Automattic.
That’s a wrap on this week’s podcast. You can listen to all previous podcasts at DNW.com/podcasts, or on iTunes, stitcher and in the Google Play Music Store. Thanks for listening.
Voiceover: Thanks for listening to the Domain Name Wire Podcast. For the most up-to-date news and tips about the domain name business, visit us online at DomainNameWire.com, or follow us on Twitter, @DomainNameWire.