Column One: What am I bid for the site

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DO I hear pounds 16,400 bid for Well, no, because you couldn't actually hear anything as the web's first online auction of domain names began yesterday. But you could see speculators piling on to the maddest land rush since the Klondike as bids began popping up within minutes of the auction site opening for business.

At 3.30pm, about 300 website names of varying utility came on to the block. For some the bidding was especially fierce: and started at pounds 15,000 each and within 90 minutes were above pounds 16,000.

But don't become angry if that was to be the site of your Internet business: the hammer does not fall on bidding until 12 February.

In a sense, the site is a final triumph of the Internet: it sells things that have no physical expression, and indeed no existence outside the Internet, and yet somehow generates money for two out of the three participants in any transaction - the seller and the auctioneer.

"We take 5 per cent of the final price and oversee the transfer of the domain name's ownership from the previous owner to the highest bidder," explained John Sewell, managing director of Phase8, an Internet services group that set up the site. "What's really exciting is that there are so many names waiting to go up for auction - we've got hundreds, and there are some really cracking names - such as,,,

"We're still not sure, though, whether to help auction the sex ones. We're holding off that while we think about it."

Such as? "Er ..., ... um ... I don't think we can put those up."

Domain names are the lingua franca of the Internet: they are what users need to understand where they are going to. Anyone can register a domain name made up of up to 255 characters, suffixed by ".com" or "", for as little as pounds 5 at various official sites Those belonging to large companies are generally already taken, but some people register names in the hope that someone will, in the future, want to use them to build a "brand name". Think what you might have asked from's executives if you had registered back in 1995...

Then again, it's easy to get it wrong. Nobody was biting at, even for a paltry pounds 125. And nobody showed much interest in a name that had a reserve price of pounds 20,000. One could only wonder - shouldn't the registrar of have been able to foresee that they were asking too much?