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The .web gTLD could go live in 2016

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2016, Domain Registries

The new gTLD .web could be coming to the internet sooner than expected after two of the remaining barriers to delegation disappeared.

Following the withdrawal last week of an application for the plural .webs, an auction for .web could happen in the next couple of months, enabling a go-live date possibly in 2016.

.web, often considered the most desirable truly generic gTLD, has had a rough time of it in the 2012 ICANN new gTLD program.

There were seven applications for the string. Google, Web.com, Donuts, Radix, Afilias, Schlund Technologies, Nu Dot Co all applied.

The registrar Web.com (owner of Network Solutions, Register.com, et al) appears to be especially keen to get the domain, given that the string more or less matches its brand.

It perhaps should have been a straightforward auction shoot-out.

But, complicating matters, bespoke printing firm Vistaprint had filed two applications — one vanilla, one “community” based — for the plural version of the string, “.webs”.

Vistaprint runs a website development service called Webs.com. It’s the plural of the Web.com brand.

Web.com wasn’t happy about Vistaprint’s .webs applications, so it filed String Confusion Objections against both, arguing that .web and .webs were too confusingly similar to co-exist on the internet.

While there are now many examples of plurals and singulars living together (see .auto/s, .fan/s and .gift/s), the registrar won both of its SCO complaints, meaning Vistaprint’s two applications and the seven .web applicants were lumped together into the same contention set.

If two strings are in the same contention set, only one can survive to be ultimately delegated to the DNS.

Vistaprint appealed the SCO decisions, first with a Request for Reconsideration to the ICANN board (predictably unsuccessful) and then with an Independent Review Process complaint.

While the IRP was being mulled over, .web was in limbo.

The IRP was unsuccessful. The IRP panel ruled in October that ICANN had not violated its bylaws in accepting the SCO panel’s decision.

But it gave ICANN a nudge, suggesting that perhaps it could give Vistaprint leave to appeal the original SCO determinations via another mechanism.

In early March, the ICANN board proper decided that:

the Vistaprint SCO Expert Determination is not sufficiently “inconsistent” or “unreasonable” such that the underlying objection proceedings resulting in the Expert Determination warrants re-evaluation.

The board said that the .web/.webs contention set should be processed as normal; in other words: go to auction.

That removed the first barrier to the .web/.webs auction going ahead.

The second barrier was the fact that Visaprint had file two applications for .webs — one regular, one “community”.

By self-identifying as a “community”, Vistaprint qualified for the Community Priority Evaluation. A winning CPE means all competing applications — including the .web applications in this case — would be eliminated.

While the CPE process is far from perfect, I think the chances of Vistaprint winning would be pretty slim.

Perhaps Vistaprint agreed with me. Whatever the thought process, the company has withdrawn its “community” application. The withdrawal was reflected on the ICANN web site at the weekend, according to the little birds at DI PRO.

What this means is that the seven .web applications and Vistaprint’s remaining, non-community .webs application will be going to auction together.

It could be a private auction, where the proceeds are divvied up between the losers, or an ICANN “last resort” auction, where ICANN gets all the money.

Either way, the winning bidder is likely to pay a LOT of cash for their chosen string.

GMO Registry paid $41 million for .shop back in January. I’d be flabbergasted if .web wasn’t eight figures too.

If Vistaprint offers to pay more money for .webs than Web.com wants to pay for .web, Web.com will be eliminated from the race and Vistaprint will get .webs.

In that scenario, the remaining six .web applicants fight it out for control of the gTLD.

However, if Vistaprint loses against Web.com then all of the seven .web applicants fight it out at auction.

Depending on the identity of the winner and the timing of auctions and pre-delegation testing, it could slip into the root and possibly even become available before the end of the year.

That’s assuming no more surprises, of course.

UPDATE: This post originally incorrectly described the rules of the .web/.webs auction. It was updated with a correct explanation at 2120 UTC.

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Greimann wins Nominet board seat

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2016, Domain Registries

Key-Systems general counsel Volker Greimann has been elected to Nominet’s board as a non-executive director, beating two rival candidates.

Nominated by Blacknight and EuroDNS, he got 1,169,785 of the 2,144,612 votes cast, beating Dot Advice CEO Phil Buckingham and Namesco domain development manager Kelly Salter.

Nominet uses a somewhat complex single transferable vote system in its elections, in which members votes are weighted according to how many .uk domains they have under management.

Voting power is capped at 3% of the total pool for each member, so no one registrar or small group of registrars can capture the election.

Salter, who had been nominated by top-ten registrars Go Daddy and LCN.com, was defeated in the first round of voting, with Greimann picking up the majority of the votes as a second preference, enabling him to win.

Buckingham was essentially the “domainer candidate”, backed by Netistrar and Namedropper, who’d promised to address the controversial issue of Nominet’s 50% price increase.

The price increases are arguably less important to registrars which can pass the increase on to their customers, than they are to domainers, which have to swallow the added costs themselves.

Buckingham secured about 34% of the votes in the second round.

Only 15% of the members eligible to vote did so, though that’s up from 12% last year.

The full results can be found here.

Nominet will hold its Annual General Meeting in London tomorrow.

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Domainers up in arms as DomainTools pricing rockets

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2016, Domain Services

Domain investors are loudly complaining about DomainTools’ plan to double its prices and slash query limits.

Some are even calling for a boycott.

Effective June 25, all the existing non-enterprise membership tiers are being folded into a new “Personal” account, which costs $99 a month or $995 a year, DomainTools said.

Previously, customers on a “Professional” account paid $49.95 a month. Some were paying as little as $12 under older, discontinued Gold, Silver and Bronze plans.

If the price hike weren’t significant enough, the company is also reducing the number of queries customers can make.

Whois History reports have been slashed from 100 domains to 25, for example, as have Hosting History reports. The Brand Monitor tool has been reduced from 10 monitored strings to 3.

DomainTools offers a broad range of services in its standard bundle, and the cuts are pretty much across the board.

DomainTools said in an email to bloggers this week that a 30% discount will be offered on the first payment under the new plan for existing customers, adding:

The Personal Membership package adds four products that have never been offered before to individual members. Bulk Parsed Whois and Reverse Whois Research Mode have previously only been available to Enterprise members. In addition, we are including our newest product, Reverse IP Whois, which works like our Reverse Whois for domain Whois, but across IP Whois records. And finally, Personal Membership also includes 5 Domain Reports per month.

The company says that it is focusing more now on its enterprise security customers, where one imagines margins are higher than its mass-market domainer-oriented services.

Domainers, as you might expect, are not happy. Message boards and domainer blogs are filled with negative commentary.

There are currently 50 comments slamming the move on DNW, many saying they will quit the service, and a call for a boycott on NamePros

Some are predicting customers will flock to rivals DomainIQ and Whoisology.

Disclosure: myself and several other domain industry bloggers are on complimentary plans and will not be affected by these changes. In some months, the new Personal plan would have been adequate for my needs; in others, not so much.

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M+M turns $22m profit into $10m loss

Kevin Murphy, April 27, 2016, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines today reported a 2015 loss of $10 million and further outlined its “transformative” restructuring and China strategy.

It’s the second full year of operating results M+M has posted since its first new gTLDs went live, and they’re not encouraging.

Revenue for accounting purposes was $6.3 million, but the cost of sales was $6.2 million, leaving gross profit of just $101,000.

Factoring in $12.1 million of operating expenses, a $7.9 million gain from losing new gTLD auctions, and other expenses, the total loss before tax was $10 million.

That’s compared to the $22 million profit M+M reported for 2014, a number entirely reliant on $33.7 million of auction loss payments.

The company also reported its “billings”, a line item that does not use the accounting method of deferring revenue across the life of a domain and is therefore more in line with incoming cash.

Billings for 2015 were $7.9 million, compared to $5 million in 2014. Gross profit under that measure was $1.7 million, but the $12 million of operating costs still made the company very unprofitable.

Ignoring the auction benefits in 2015, which will not last forever, it’s pretty clear that M+M was a company spending much more operating new gTLDs than it was making from them.

COO/CFO Michael Salazar said in a statement:

However, billings of $7.9 million for the year were simply not of a sufficient scale to cover the associated cost of sales ($6.2 million) and operating expenses ($12.2 million), which combined reached $18.4 million for 2015. Similarly, the $0.6 million savings achieved in the period by the decisions mid-year to stream-line the existing operational set-up were not of a magnitude to have any material impact in the year under review. That said, forfeited cost of sales and operational expenses as a result of the 2015 cost-cutting decisions will amount to $2.7 million in 2016

It’s perhaps little wonder that activist shareholders, apparently not prepared to play the long game, threw out half of the board and key senior executives during the period.

Former PR man Toby Hall took over as CEO in February, replacing co-founder Anthony Van Couvering, and announced earlier this month that M+M is dumping its registrar and back-end registry businesses.

Its registrar customers have been sold to Uniregistry, and it will outsource its registry back-end to Nominet, to save costs.

Salazar said that the two deals will lead to $2 million in savings, but won’t be complete before the fourth quarter. It seems unlikely they’ll have a great impact on 2016 numbers.

Headcount has been reduced from a peak of 61 to 43 at the end of the year, and is expected to drop further to 25. Salazar said this will save it $4.7 million a year.

Even with these cost reductions, M+M will still need to essentially double its revenue in order to hit operating profitability, it seems.

The company is pinning some of its growth hopes on .vip, which it expects to do well in China. It launches May 18.

Hall said in a statement that M+M would not follow the lead of competitors (Famous Four Media springs to mind) by offering first-year registrations for free to build market share. He said:

Based on the enquiries received during Sunrise and feedback gained through our two recent marketing trips to China, it is clear that there is genuine interest in the domain both within and outside of China. As a result, we will not be using a year-one freemium approach to simply inflate year-one registrations. Instead, we intend to be keenly priced to ensure margin to ourselves — and registrations — as well as protect the integrity of the domain. The volume we anticipate to be generated through keen pricing will then support the sales of our premium names in this domain.

The company also plans to invest in its .law sales team, because billings for that gTLD have been behind expectations.

M+M had $34.6 million in the bank and eight outstanding contested new gTLD applications at the end of the year.

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Registrars say Amazon is “closing” open gTLD

Kevin Murphy, April 25, 2016, Domain Registries

A group comprising some of the largest domain registrars has claimed Amazon is attempting to close off a new gTLD that it previously indicated would be unrestricted.

The 12-strong group, which includes Go Daddy, Network Solutions and Tucows, also claims that the company’s proposal for a “Registration Authentication Platform” is anti-competitive.

The complaints follow Amazon’s filing of a Registry Services Evaluation Process request with ICANN in March.

The RSEP speaks in broad terms about rejigging the conventional domain registration path so that all .moi sales are funneled through Amazon’s registry site, where registrants will have their eligibility verified and then be offered a set of add-on “technology tools” before being bounced back to their chosen registrar.

Amazon hasn’t said who will be eligible to register .moi domains, nor has it explained what technology tools it plans to offer. I expect the tools will include things such as hosting and security, where many registrars currently make money.

Unsurprisingly, many registrars are not happy about these vague proposals.

In a comment (pdf) to the RSEP filed yesterday, they said:

Ultimately, the use of pre-registration verification and “optional” value added services will negatively impact competition. By tying both practices in a TLD, a TLD Operator can create a “captive audience” via the pre-registration verification and then offering optional services. This will effectively bypass the existing registration and purchase process, putting TLD Operator in a privileged position. The TLD is set up to capture customers earned via the Registrars marketing efforts to promote its own tools and services.

It’s not unusual for “sponsored” or “restricted” gTLDs to implement registry-side verification, they admitted, but said that .moi is meant to be “open”.

They wrote:

While this practice is not explicitly prohibited under gTLDs, we believe that post-delegation inclusion of these practices should only be allowed in compelling circumstances because they are, in effect, retroactively “closing” what was applied for and approved to be operated as an open, generic TLD.

Amazon’s application for .moi, like all of its new gTLD applications, is not entirely clear on what the company’s plans are. There’s vague talk about eligibility, but no details and nothing substantial to suggest a tightly restricted zone.

The signatories to the registrar comment represent the majority of registered domain names. They are: Astutium, Blacknight Internet Solutions, Domain.com, EuroDNS, GoDaddy.com, OpenproviderNetEarth One, Key-Systems, Netistrar, Network Solutions, Nordreg, Realtime Register, Tucows Domains.

One registrar, Com Laude, whose sister company Valideus handles Amazon’s gTLD applications, wrote a comment (pdf) expressing the opposite view.

Com Laude says that it’s not unusual for registries to require registry-side verification. It points to .bank, .pharmacy and .travel as examples.

The company also claims that the 12 registrars are in essence complaining about the idea of vertical integration — where registries and registrars are under common ownership — which is already in place at companies such as Uniregistry and Rightside.

Com Laude’s Jeff Neuman wrote:

We do not believe that it is unacceptable for a company like Amazon to do what these other companies have been doing for some time. To apply different standards to Amazon Registry than it does for each of the other vertically integrated entities would single them out for disparate treatment – especially when there is no factual basis to believe that Amazon Registry has not adhered to its vertical integration-related obligations under the Registry Agreement.

What’s going on here, I suspect, is a bit of a proxy war.

Neither Amazon nor the registrars care a great deal about .moi, I think. The gTLD is merely a canary for Amazon’s 30-odd yet-to-be-launched gTLDs. The company has the rights to potentially more attractive strings, including .book, .song and .tunes.

Amazon originally wanted to make these strings “closed generics”, or what ICANN calls “exclusive access” gTLDs, where only Amazon could register names.

It has since disavowed such plans, but still hasn’t said who will be able to register names in its portfolio or how they will prove eligibility.

.moi was not originally identified as a closed generic by ICANN, but it could represent a model for what Amazon plans to do with the rest of its stable.

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