First, Some Context
ICANN – the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (a California based, nonprofit corporation, btw) is the most widely recognized agency responsible for domain name oversight. Currently the agency manages a list of
approved Top Level Domains that include generic TLDs such as the familiar .com and .net, as well as country-specific TLDs like .uk (United Kingdom) and .eu (European Union).
In 2003 ICANN introduced sponsored TLDs. These are TLDs that are put forward and regulated by a sponsoring agency, and typically correspond to an entire industry or sector – examples include .gov and .travel. The requirements to own or participate in such a TLD are controlled by the sponsoring agency (.aero TLD registrations are limited to members of the air-transport industry).
In June 2011, ICANN voted in favor of a massive expansion of TLDs allowing companies to apply for arbitrary generic TLDs – these new gTLDs are expected to roll out sometime in 2013.
The barrier to entry is fairly steep, with the application fee for a new gTLD sitting at $185,000, along with a $25,000 annual fee. Furthermore the applying entity must meet a number of criteria before an ICANN review board, including the ability to operate and administrate a domain name registry. The current round of applications ended in April of 2012. As of June 2012 over 1900 applications have been filed, however an application does not guarantee ownership. In many cases a number of entities have applied for the same generic TLD: .app was applied for by 13 companies including Amazon and Google (who has also applied for .youtube and .google among others).  In these cases an auction will ultimately determine the final owner.
We spoke with a senior person at ICANN and learned that the funds raised go to assembling expert teams to evaluate the proposals, and subsidizing the cost of establishing new gTLDs for countries less able to afford the costs but looking to create additional domains beyond their international suffix.
The bottom line seems to be that bigger brands will likely be granted gTLDs for their own brand names, while smaller brands will be left out due to the high cost.
Impact on Branding and SEO
ICANN expects that the new gTLDs will have a major impact upon internet branding, however the actual
impact on existing domain and brand owners remains unclear. Much of the discussion has centered
around the likelihood of defensive measures taken by big brands in order to shore up their own
Nevertheless, the new domains do offer up some interesting branding possibilities. Addresses like
product1.yourbrand and product2.yourbrand could make www.yourbrand.com/product1 a thing of the
past. In terms of SEO however, unless the major search engines introduce some truly sweeping changes
these permutations are actually a bad move.
Furthermore it’s likely that search engines won’t assign any additional value to the owner of a gTLD. 
Owning a currently available .travel domain for example won’t get you anywhere without applying
standard SEO practices – these are necessary to get any domain to rank, whether it’s a .com or a .pepsi
(who incidentally haven’t seen fit to apply for a gTLD, along with Facebook and a number of other
companies).  Finally it should be noted that search engines are not currently looking at TLDs as
keywords, so an attempt to optimize product1.yourbrand will optimize for the product1 keyword
without any impact on the yourbrand TLD.
The Line From Google
The official line from Matt Cutts, in charge of Search Quality at Google, is that, “… you shouldn’t register
a TLD in the mistaken belief that you’ll get some sort of boost in search engine rankings.” Cutts further
states that he wouldn’t bet on a TLD to get any boost “in the long-term either.” 
It’s important to note however that currently, exact match URLs are seen as important to both branding
and SEO. That means if the price of entry into the gTLD market drops, or we start seeing a preference
for branded gTLDs in search engine rankings, the new expansion will “suddenly become very
The high barrier to entry means that at least in the near term, new gTLD registrations will be limited to
big brands with large budgets. Many of these registrations will likely be made purely in the defense of
While all companies will want to keep an eye on new developments (and especially any significant price
drops or moves by competitors), small to mid-tier brands will be better served in the current market by
focusing on inbound marketing. This means strengthening the position of existing domains in the search
results, as well as leveraging any other domains the company might own to better target local markets
and drive qualified consumers to desired landing pages.
These continuing developments in the online space only serve to further underscore the importance of a
robust SEO and internet marketing strategy.