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Is the .co rebid biased toward Afilias? Yeah, kinda

Kevin Murphy, January 17, 2020, Domain Registries

The Colombian government has come under fire for opening up the .co registry contract for rebid in a way that seems predetermined to pick Afilias as the winner, displacing its fierce rival Neustar.

As I blogged in November, Colombia thinks it might be able to secure a better registry deal, so it plans to shortly open .co up to competitive proposals.

A company called .CO Internet, acquired by Neustar for $109 million in 2014, has been running the ccTLD for the last decade. There are currently around 2.3 million .co domains under management, according to Colombia.

With the renewal deadline looming, the government’s technology ministry, MinTIC, published an eyebrow-raising request for proposals last month.

What’s surprising about the RFP is that some of the four main technical performance criteria listed are so stringent that probably only two companies in the industry qualify — Verisign and Afilias, and so far Verisign has not been involved in the RFP process.

The companies that have been engaging with the government to date are Afilias, Neustar/.CO, Nominet, CentralNic and Donuts.

First, MinTIC wants a registry that’s had at least two million domains under management across its portfolio continuously for two years. All five registries qualify there.

Second, it wants a registry that’s been involved in the migration of a TLD of at least one million names, either as the gaining or losing back-end.

That immediately narrows the pack to just two of the five aforementioned registries — Neustar and Afilias.

Verisign would also qualify, if it’s in the bidding, but I suspect it’s not. Taking over .co would look like a “buy it to kill it” strategy, which would be horrible optics for the Colombian government.

There have only ever been three migrations over one million names, to my knowledge: the Verisign->Afilias .org transition of 2003, the Neustar->Afilias .au move of 2018, and last year’s Afilias->Neustar .in handover.

CentralNic, Nominet and Donuts have all moved numerous TLDs between back-ends, but with much smaller per-TLD domain volumes.

Third — and here’s the kicker — the successful .co bidder will have to show that it processes on average 25 million registry transactions — defined as “billable EPP (write) transactions, as well as all EPP search (read) transactions” — per day. (All of the RFP quotes in this post have been machine-translated from Spanish by Google and run by a few generous Spanish speakers for verification.)

The RFP is not entirely clear on what exact data points it’s looking at here, but my take is that qualifying transactions include, at an absolute minimum, attempts to create a domain, renew a domain, transfer a domain and check whether a domain is registered.

The vast majority of such transactions are in the check and create functions, and I believe a great deal of that activity relates to drop-catching, where registries are flooded with add requests for just-deleted domains.

Whichever way you split it, 25 million a day is a ludicrously high number. Literally only .com, which sees 2.3 billion checks and 1.5 billion adds per month, sees that kind of action.

According to Neustar, which actually runs .co, it only sees 6.4 million transactions per day on average. The requirement to handle 25 million a day is “exaggerated, unjustified and discriminatory” against Neustar, Neustar told MinTIC.

But the RFP allows for the bidding registries to spread their 25-million-a-day quota across all of the TLDs they manage, and this MAY sneak Afilias over the line.

I say MAY in big letters because I don’t believe the numbers that Afilias (and probably other registries too) reports to ICANN every month are reliable.

If you add up the reported, qualifying EPP transactions for September in Afilias’ top four legacy gTLDs — .org, .info, .mobi and .pro — you get to over 25 million per day.

But those same records show that, for example, .mobi, .pro and .info had exactly the same number of EPP availability checks that month — 215,988,497 each.

This is clearly bad data.

I reported on this issue last May, when ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee informed ICANN that major registries were providing “not reliable” or possibly “fabricated” data about port 43 Whois queries.

Afilias, which was one of the apparent offenders, told me at the time that it was addressing the issue with ICANN, but it does not yet appear to have fully fixed its reporting to enable TLD-by-TLD breakdowns of its registry activity.

It is of course quite possible, even very likely, that Afilias has on average more than 25 million qualifying EPP transactions per day, but how’s it going to prove that to the Colombian government when the numbers it reports under contract to ICANN are clearly unreliable?

It’s a little harder to determine whether Neustar would qualify under the 25-million transaction rule, because some of its largest zones are ccTLDs — .co, .in and .us — that do not publicly report this kind of data. Its comments to the RFP suggest it would not.

Numbers aside, I’ll note that there’s very probably an inherent bias towards legacy gTLD operators like Afilias and against relative newcomers such as CentralNic if you’re counting EPP transactions. As I noted above, a lot of these transactions are coming from drop-catch activity, which is more prevalent on larger, older TLDs where there are more dropping domains that are more likely to have existing backlinks and traffic.

The fourth technical requirement in the Colombian RFP that looks a bit fishy is the requirement that the new registry must have channel relationships with at least 10 of the largest 25 registrars, as listed by a web site called domainstate.com.

I can’t say I’ve looked at domainstate.com very often, if at all, but a quick look at its numbers for September strongly suggests to me that it does not count post-2012 new gTLD registrations in its registrar league table. One registrar with almost four million domains under management doesn’t even show up on the list. This arguably could give an advantage to a registry that plays strongly in legacy gTLDs.

That said, it’s probably an academic point — I don’t think any of the bidders for the .co contract would have difficulty showing that they have 10 of the top 25 registrars on board, whichever way you calculate that league table.

Cumulatively, these four technical hurdles have led some to suggest that Afilias has somehow steered MinTIC towards creating an RFP only it could win.

Apart from what I’ve discussed here, I’ve no evidence that is the case, and Afilias has not yet responded to my request for comment today.

Luckily for the bidding registries, the Columbian RFP has not yet been finalized. Comments submitted by the bidders and others are apparently going to be taken on board, so the barriers to entry for respondents could be lowered before bids are finally accepted.

MinTIC posted an update last night that extends the period that the RFP could run, and the transition period should Neustar lose the contract. A handover, should one happen at all, could now happen as late as February next year.

Neustar pays $109 million for .CO Internet

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2014, Domain Registries

Four years after relaunching the Colombian ccTLD .co as a global top-level domain, .CO Internet has been acquired by its long-time partner Neustar for $109 million.

The .co registry will become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Neustrar, which already runs .biz and .us, following the close of the deal.

.CO recorded revenue of $21 million in 2013, of which Neustar took $4 million as its back-end registry provider, according to Neustar.

The .co zone currently stands at about 1.6 million names, according to the companies. That seems to mean it added roughly 200,000 net new names in 2013, judging by its 2012 numbers.

The company relaunched .co in 2010, having jointly bid with Neustar for a Colombian government contract.

It was the last truly impressive TLD launch, with 200,000 registrations on day one and over 1 million in its first year.

While the space is still stuffed with speculators, unlike some other TLDs .co is also widely, visibly used by its intended audience — start-ups and entrepreneurs.

.CO is known primarily for its marketing acumen — some new gTLD registries could learn a thing or two — which Neustar CEO Lisa Hook raised as a selling point in today’s press release:

By combining .CO Internet’s innovative domain marketing capabilities with Neustar’s distribution network and technical resources, we will be able to broaden our registry services and the .co brand worldwide, while creating shareholder value.

Neustar expects the deal to close within a month.

.CO Internet looking for more registrars

.CO Internet is expanding its registrar channel with a new Request For Proposals.

The company wants would-be registrars to respond with the commitments they’re willing to make to market and promote .co domains, particularly in markets where .co is not currently popular.

Only ICANN-accredited registrars need apply.

Amusingly, registrars also need to be specifically accredited to sell .biz domains. Presumably this is due to .CO’s relationship with back-end provider Neustar, which also runs .biz.

The company has about 30 registrars right now, but many of those operate very large reseller networks, so there’s no shortage of places to buy a .co if you want one.

.CO deliberately kept its registrar numbers low — only 10 at launch — in order to cut down on abuse and to keep a tighter leash on gaming during the 2010 landrush process.

The RFP can be found here.

Go Daddy claims half-boobed Super Bowl ads success

Kevin Murphy, February 4, 2013, Domain Registrars

Go Daddy reckons its two commercials broadcast in the US during the Super Bowl last night were the most successful in the company’s history, according to two key metrics.

The company said in a press release:

Last night’s ads delivered more new customers and more overall sales, as compared to any other Super Bowl campaign in the company’s history.

Go Daddy has been advertising during the game for nine years. This year was the third in which is has partnered with .CO Internet, the .co registry, on one of the ads.

One of the ads was shameless, vintage, attention-grabbing Go Daddy — primarily comprising a lingering shot of a passionate kiss between an attractive female model and a male geek archetype.

The other, which advertised .co, largely eschewed mammary glands in favor of the “Underpants Gnomes” theory of domain name advertising, in which registering a domain somehow leads to fabulous wealth.

ICM Registry used a similar tactic in its launch advertising late 2011.

The Super Bowl is the season finale of a little-played fringe sport known as “American Football”.

Viewers of the annual US broadcast traditionally pay special attention to the regular commercial interludes because the brief, fleeting moments of actual sport are so soul-sappingly tedious.

.co sees DUM grow by a quarter, renewals dip to 63%

Kevin Murphy, December 26, 2012, Domain Registries

.CO Internet said that domains under management in its .co TLD has grown by 24.39% so far in 2012, standing at about 1.4 million at the end of November.

In a blog post last week, the repurposed Colombian ccTLD registry also said that its “blended renewal rate” for the last few months is roughly 63%.

That’s down slightly from the 66% that .CO reported on its first general availability anniversary in July 2011.

Second-year renewals are higher, in the mid-70s, according to the company.

About 93% of its DUM are second-level .co domains, the rest are mostly Colombia-targeted .com.co names.

Blacknight dumps .ie from free domain program, replaces it with .co

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2012, Domain Registrars

Blacknight Solutions has dropped its local ccTLD, .ie, from the free domain name program it offers in partnership with Google to Irish small businesses.

It’s being replaced with .co, the repurposed Colombian ccTLD, which has been getting an indecent amount of traction in regional projects targeting small business recently.

“Unfortunately, while we may be the market leader for .IE, we feel that the restrictions on the domain impose too many restraints to benefit program participants,” Blacknight CEO Michele Neylon said.

Supporting the highly restrictive ccTLD was imposing too many costs and headaches, Neylon said. The company will continue to sell the domains, just not through the program.

Blacknight, Google and the Irish postal service have been offering companies a free year domain registration and hosting under the banner of Getting Business Online for over a year.

In May, Blacknight reported that in the first year only about 21% of companies participating in the program chose .ie.

The .co domain is of course unrestricted.

It’s another regional win for .CO Internet, which markets .co as the TLD of choice for startups.

Just last week .CO Internet announced that Startup Britain, a private-sector entrepreneurial campaign backed by the UK government, had switched from a .org to a .co.

Paul Goldstone puts co.com up for sale

Kevin Murphy, March 8, 2012, Domain Sales

The domain name co.com has been put up for sale by domain investor Paul Goldstone.

The domain, which received 4.5 million unique visitors and 14 million page views in 2011, will be brokered jointly by DomainAdvisors and SellDomains.com, according to a press release.

I can immediately think of two companies that should be interested.

It might be a very smart move for .CO Internet, the .co registry, to buy the name and wildcard the third level in order to capture .co typo traffic.

It’s also exactly the kind of address CentralNic – which sells third-level names under domains such as us.org and uk.com – likes to use as a pseudo-gTLD.

If these two and others get into a bidding war, Goldstone could wind up making a packet.

DomainAdvisors CEO Tessa Holcomb said she expects the domain to fetch a “multi seven-figure” price.

O.co loses 61% of its traffic to O.com

Overstock.com’s decision to rebrand itself O.co had a disastrous effect on the internet retailer’s traffic, according to its CEO.

Patrick Byrne told financial analysts yesterday that “O.co was my bad call” and that “about eight out of 13 people who were trying to visit us through O.co, eight were typing O.com”

It’s not clear what the source of the data is, or why the measurement given was out of 13, but it works out to 61%.

Byrne noted that people may have typed o.co instead after figuring out that o.com doesn’t work – it’s currently reserved, alongside most other single-letter .com domains, by Verisign.

His comments came as Overstock reported 2011 revenue down 3% to $1.05 billion and fourth-quarter revenue down 10% to $314 million.

Byrne said on a conference call with analysts:

There were some bad decisions for which I take responsibility in marketing O.co. O.co was odd in that it worked on one level. It did get out there into people’s heads, but what we discovered, and we turned it up slowly and we actually had nice adoption from the beginning of last year, gradually people shifting to O.co and then, but we got into the Christmas season and it worked terribly for people who were not familiar with us. There was a tremendous amount of traffic diverting to O.com and I think we’ve figured out that it was about eight out of 13 people who were trying to visit us through O.co, eight were typing O.com. Now some of them may have come, trying anyway.

The company bought o.co from registry .CO Internet for $350,000 in July 2010, during the .co relaunch. It later said it would rebrand the company on its new domain.

It even bought the naming rights to the Oakland Coliseum, which is now known as the O.co Coliseum.

Until quite recently, Overstock was an important .CO Internet reference customer. Now, I’m guessing, not so much.

Overstock has “slowed” its rebranding, reverting to referring to o.co as a “shortcut” rather than its primary address, which remains overstock.com.

The company bought o.info last year and this week launched the site as an information portal for its products. It also operates o.biz as a business-to-business site.

Startup America obtains s.co and offers free .co domains to entrepreneurs

Kevin Murphy, February 2, 2012, Domain Registries

Startup America, an initiative to encourage entrepreneurship in the US, has relocated to S.co and will offer a free one-year .co domain registration to registered members.

For .CO Internet, the .co registry, this is a pretty sweet marketing coup.

The Startup America Partnership is a private initiative created a year ago in response to White House calls for grassroots economic stimulus.

It’s chaired by former AOL chief Steve Case, and has over a billion dollars in support commitments from tech heavyweights such as IBM, Intel and HP.

Signing up to the program grants entrepreneurs resources such as discounted accounting software and access to workshops. Now, they’ll also get a free .co domain for a year, if they want one.

As part of the deal, Startup America, which was located at startupamericapartnership.org, can now be found at s.co.

While .CO has been commanding prices for single-letter .co domains of, anecdotally, over a million dollars, I’d be surprised if any significant money has changed hands here.

For a Colombian TLD to become part of a flag-waving American initiative such as this, giving it access to its core target customer base… well, let’s just say that even if it gave away s.co for free, which I think it probably did, it would still be a very smart deal from .CO’s end.

.me beating .co in start-ups?

Kevin Murphy, February 1, 2012, Domain Registries

The .co top-level domain may have more registrations, but more tech start-ups are opting for .me domain names, according to an informal study.

Doctoral student Thomas Park compiled a list of 1,000 start-ups added to TechCrunch’s CrunchBase database last year and found that entrepreneurs chose .co 1% of the time, versus 1.7% for .me.

As caveats, the difference between the two TLDs only works out to seven companies and .me, which launched in 2008, does of course have a two-year head start over .co.

I’m also guessing that CrunchBase has an English-language bias, which could skew the results. While .co has meaning in more countries it lacks the call-to-action punch of .me in English.

Nevertheless, I think the results are interesting because .CO Internet heavily targets start-ups in its marketing and currently has twice as many domains under management (over 1.1 million) as doMEn, the Afilias/Go Daddy joint-venture .me registry.

Park’s results show that .me had a 0.50% share in 2010 and a 0.80% share in 2009 while .co managed to get one company (0.10%) on the list during the half of 2010 it was live.

The survey found that .com is the runaway first choice for entrepreneurs, with about 85% of the start-up market, but you knew that already.