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People are forgetting .com exists — ICANN survey

Kevin Murphy, September 22, 2016, Domain Policy

Have you ever heard of .com, .net and .org?

That question was posed to 3,349 domain name registrants in 24 countries by market research firm Nielsen this June and guess what — awareness of all three cornerstone gTLDs was down on a comparable 2015 survey.

Unbelievably, only 85% of respondents professed to be aware of .com’s existence, compared to 86% in 2015.

Equally unbelievably, awareness of .net and .org fell from 76% to 69% and from 70% to 65% respectively between 2015 and 2016, the survey found.

Those are just three among many hundreds of findings of the Nielsen survey, which was carried out in order to inform ICANN’s Competition, Consumer Trust & Consumer Choice Review.

The CCT is one of the reviews deemed mandatory before ICANN is able to launch the next round of new gTLD applications.

A great many of the numbers revealed by the survey are seriously open to question — some could even be empirically proven wrong.

But David Dickinson, project lead for Nielsen on the survey, told DI yesterday that the numbers themselves are less important than the trends, or lack thereof, that they might represent.

Nielsen carried out two surveys in 2015 — one of consumers and one of registrants — then repeated both surveys again a year later.

Respondents were selected from a pool of people who have at some point indicated to third-party market research companies that they are available to take surveys online, Dickinson said. They are usually compensated via some kind of redeemable loyalty points scheme.

The registrant surveys were limited to those who said they have registered a domain name. The consumer survey was limited to those who said they spend more than five hours a week online.

While the number of respondents were measured in the low thousands, the idea is that they provide a representative sample of all internet users and domain name registrants.

But there’s a lot of weirdness in the numbers.

Dickinson said that the 85% awareness number for .com could be due partly to random “mechanical errors” — people clicking the wrong buttons on their survey form — but said that lack of awareness was more common among younger respondents who were more likely to be aware of newer, less generic TLDs.

The surveys also highlighted a bizarre split in TLD awareness between consumers and registrants.

Given that registrants are a subset of consumers, and given that they are by definition more familiar with domain names, you’d expect respondents to the registrant surveys to show higher TLD awareness than those responding to the consumer surveys.

But the opposite was true.

The surveys found, for example, that 95% of consumers knew about .com, but only 85% of registrants did. For .net and .org the numbers were 88%/69% and 83%/65% respectively. None of it makes any sense.

Dickinson said that the 2015 consumer/registrant awareness numbers were “almost identical”.

“My only real conclusion here is that [in 2016] there was some systematic difference in the diligence that the registrants selected these names on these awareness questions, and that a large portion of that is just due to random variation,” he said.

“However, when we do look at those people who are registering new gTLDs, they tended to have much lower awareness of those legacy gTLDs than those people who were unaware or had not registered those new gTLDs,” he said.

“The people who said they did not recognize any of those new gTLDs at all the are very very centric on the legacy gTLDs and in particular .com,” he said.

“I think the data is overstated because of the random variation but there is a learning here when we break it down… that those legacy domains are becoming less relevant or less noticed by the younger people and the people who are registering these new gTLDs,” he said.

“I think there is a shift going on, but it’s not as big as what is stated here [in the numbers],” he said.

The surveys also looked at awareness and registration levels for new, 2012-round gTLDs, but again the numbers probably don’t accurately reflect reality.

For example, 39% of registrants claimed to have heard of .email domain names and 15% claimed to have actually registered one.

Again, these numbers don’t seem plausible. There are fewer than 60,000 .email domains in existence today. Even if there were only one million domain registrants in the world, 15% registration rate would mean at least 150,000 names should have been sold.

Dickinson said that this number could have been higher due to selection bias. The survey took about half an hour on average to fill out, so people more personally interested or invested in internet or domain name related stuff might have been more likely to stick around and complete it.

Interestingly, new gTLD awareness rates in North America were substantially lower than awareness elsewhere in the world. For example, only 25% of North Americans professed to have heard of .news, but that grew to 42% in Asia where most languages use a different script.

My sense here is that respondents — which all took the surveys in their native languages — may have just been clicking to confirm English words they recognized, rather than TLDs they had seen in the wild.

Nielsen clearly suspected that there would be an element of “false recall” among respondents because it actually included some fake TLDs among the real ones.

This led to findings such as: 26% of Africans have heard of .cairo, 17% of North Americans have heard of .toronto and 21% of South Americans have heard of .bogota.

None of those city TLDs exist.

Dickinson explained this as “assumed familiarity”.

“What very much seems to happen is that if something has an implied ‘face validity’ — it seems to make sense or seems to be readily interpretable — then those ones will get higher stated awareness than the ones that are just random letters, such as .xyz,” he said.

Indeed, while there are over six million .xyz domains out there today, with high-profile registrants including Google, only 13% of respondents claimed to be aware of it.

“The more implied familiarity or sense of familiarity there is, the more likely people are to feel like they’ve been there or seen it, so it’s definitely a false recall, but the learning from that is that the more interpretable… those things are then they have more easy acceptance by consumers than things that are not interpretable,” Dickinson said.

The surveys did not only cover awareness and registration patterns. There are literally hundreds of data points in there covering different perceptions of TLDs new and old. I’ve just focused here on the ones that made me question whether the survey was worth the time, expense and paper it was written on.

But Dickinson said that the raw numbers are not necessarily what the ICANN review teams should be looking at.

“Maybe the absolute number is not exactly dead-on, but what are the relationships between the numbers?” he said.

“I tend to look at the relationships, so for example one of the objectives of doing this survey was to see if the new gTLD program impacted the perception of the industry in any way, or trustworthiness in the industry,” he said.

“For example, we can say we’re not sure it improved — the numbers didn’t change significantly in that direction to allow us to definitively say it improved — but it certainly did not decline,” he said. “We can rule out that it declined.”

“Overall, we can say that the new gTLD program is emerging with fairly strong awareness, relative,” he said.

“We can also say with certainty that none of those new gTLDs are anywhere approaching the awareness of the legacy gTLDs, and even if there is some erosion in the legacy gTLDs it’s going to take a long time for those to reach parity, if they ever do,” he said.

The Nielsen surveys are one input to the work of the volunteer CCT Review Team, which intends to publish its preliminary report before the end of the year.

CCT-RT chair Jonathan Zuck recently published a blog post on the ICANN web site giving a progress report on recent work.

Famous Four VP goes solo, claims $400,000 sale

Kevin Murphy, September 22, 2016, Domain Services

Former Famous Four Media VP of sales Richard Downs has launched a new consultancy business aimed at new gTLD registry operators.

The new company, GTLD Systems is offering a multitude of services but is mainly a way for smaller registries to outsource their sales and marketing operations.

Downs told DI an early success was a recent $400,000 deal, selling a few FFM premiums (in .review and .download) to a single end user. He says he has a pipeline that he hopes will bring his total sales to $1 million before the end of the year.

He said he’s sold over $3 million in premiums over the last few years at FFM.

Spain-based Downs said that he has three employees, one a Chinese-speaker, in three different western-European countries.

Among the services on offer are premium list creation and sales, registrar channel management, Chinese regulatory approval consulting, supplier negotiations and marketing consulting.

Downs was with FFM for about three years. Before that, he was in digital recruitment.

Watch: Hollywood actors trash Trump, promote .vote

Kevin Murphy, September 22, 2016, Domain Registries

Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, James Franco, that bloke who plays the Hulk, and a “shit-ton of famous people” are starring in a new anti-Trump attack viral that promotes a .vote domain name.

The video, put together by cult director Joss Whedon, gently spoofs quick-cut celebrity-ensemble appeals, while making a serious point about US presidential candidate Donald Trump being a threat to domestic race relations and global security.

It directs viewers to SaveTheDay.vote, where they are encouraged to register to vote in the November 8 poll.

Here it is:

It’s probably the highest-profile “in the wild” spotting of a .vote domain to date.

While I doubt it will work magic on .vote registration volumes, it’s certainly no bad thing for the visibility of new gTLDs in general.

At time of writing, the video had received about 1.2 million views on YouTube, less than 24 hours after its release.

.vote is an Afilias gTLD with post-registration usage restrictions. It currently has about 1,800 names in its zone file but only one domain in the Alexa one million most-visited sites.

Could ICANN reject Verisign’s $135m .web bid?

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2016, Domain Registries

ICANN is looking into demands for it to throw out Verisign’s covert $135 million winning bid for the highly prized .web gTLD.

ICANN last week told the judge hearing Donuts’ .web-related lawsuit that it is “currently in the process of investigating certain of the issues raised” by Donuts through its “internal accountability mechanisms”.

Donuts is suing for $22.5 million, claiming ICANN should have forced Nu Dot Co to disclose that its .web bid was being secretly bankrolled by Verisign and alleging that the .com heavyweight used NDC as cover to avoid regulatory scrutiny.

ICANN’s latest filing (pdf), made jointly with Donuts, asked for an extension to October 26 of ICANN’s deadline to file a response to Donuts’ complaint.

It was granted, the second time the deadline has been extended, but the judge warned it was also the final time.

The referenced “internal accountability mechanism” would seem to mean the Cooperative Engagement Process — a low-formality bilateral negotiation — that Donuts and fellow .web bidder Radix initiated against ICANN August 2.

The filing states that the “resolution of certain issues in controversy may be aided by allowing [ICANN] to complete its investigation of [Donuts’] allegations prior to the filing of its responsive pleading.”

In other words, Donuts is either hopeful that ICANN may be able to resolve some of its complaints in the next month, or it’s not particularly impatient about the case progressing.

Meanwhile, fellow .web applicant Afilias has demanded for the second time that ICANN hand over .web to it, as the second-highest bidder, throwing out the NDC/Verisign application.

In a September 9 letter, published last night, Afilias told ICANN to “disqualify and reject” NDC’s application, alleging at least three breaches of ICANN rules.

Afilias says that by refusing to disclose Verisign’s support for its bid, NDC broke the rules and should have its application thrown out.

The company also confirmed on the public record for what I believe is the first time that it was the second-highest bidder in the July 27 auction.

Afilias would pay somewhere between $57.5 million and $71.9 million for the gTLD, depending on what the high bid of the third-placed applicant was.

In its new letter, Afilias says NDC broke the rule from the Applicant Guidebook that does not allow applicants to “resell, assign or transfer any of applicant’s rights or obligations in connection with the application”.

It also says that NDC was obliged by the AGB to notify ICANN of “changes in financial position and changes in ownership or control”, which it did not.

It finally says that Verisign used NDC as a front during the auction, in violation of auction rules.

“In these circumstances, we submit that ICANN should disqualify NDC’s bid and offer to accept the application of Afilias, which placed the second highest exit bid,” Afilias general counsel Scott Hemphill wrote (pdf).

Hemphill told ICANN to defer from signing a Registry Agreement with NDC or Verisign, strongly implying that Afilias intends to invoke ICANN accountability mechanisms (presumably meaning the Request for Reconsideration process and/or Independent Review Process).

While Afilias and Donuts are both taking issue with the secretive nature of Verisign’s acquisition of .web, they’re not necessarily fighting the same corner.

Donuts is looking for $22.5 million because that’s roughly what it would have received if the .web contention set had been resolved via private auction and $135 million had been the winning bid.

But Afilias wants the ICANN auction outcome to stand, albeit with NDC’s top bid rejected. That would mean Donuts, Radix, and the other applicants would still receive nothing.

There’s also the question of other new gTLD applications that have prevailed at auction and been immediately transferred to third-party non-applicants.

The most notable example of this was .blog, which was won by shell company Primer Nivel with secretive backing from WordPress maker Automattic.

Donuts itself regularly wins gTLD auctions and immediately transfers its contracts to Rightside under a pre-existing agreement.

In both of those cases, the reassignment deals predated, but were not disclosed in, the respective applications.

There’s the recipe here for a messy, protracted bun fight over .web, which should come as no surprise to anyone.

Chinese investor pumps $7 million into M+M as .vip pushes firm into profit

Kevin Murphy, September 20, 2016, Domain Registries

Minds + Machines made a profit, kinda, in the first half of the year, due to the popularity of .vip in China.

The company today announced a loss of $1.9 million for the six months to June 30, compared to a $1.6 million loss in the comparable 2015 period, on revenue that was up 115% at $7.4 million.

But factoring out discontinued operations — M+M started to close its registrar and registry back-end businesses during the half — it actually managed to sneak a profit of $56,000.

Its revenue was also unaffected by one-time gains from gTLD auction losses, something which had pumped up its top line regularly for the last few years.

Chairman Guy Elliot said in a statement to the markets that M+M “has successfully been navigated out of troubled waters”.

The turnaround is due in no small part to the success of .vip, which racked up over 400,000 registrations in its first month (back in May), the large majority of which were sold to Chinese investors.

The company said that $5.5 million of the $8 million in H1 billings were made in the first 21 days of .vip’s availability.

Having started 2016 with no sales in Asia whatsoever, it expects 45% of its revenue to come from China by the end of the year.

As a direct consequence of .vip’s sales, M+M has received a £5.5 million ($7.2 million) investment from Goldstream Capital Master Fund I, a Cayman Islands shell company owned by Chinese private equity firm Hony Capital.

Hony, which manages $10 billion in assets, is perhaps best known for owning the pizza restaurant chain Pizza Express, which it acquired for $1.54 billion in 2014.

According to its web site, Hony’s own investors include three large Chinese state-owned investment vehicles.

The investment deal includes clauses preventing Hony from trying to get a director on M+M’s board and/or launching a hostile takeover bid.

It will own 7.17% of M+M after buying 50 million shares at £0.13 each, assuming M+M’s simultaneously announced £13 million ($17 million) share buyback is fully subscribed.

M+M opened a subsidiary in China (a Wholly-Owned Foreign Enterprise) during the half, in order to better serve the Chinese market and comply with Chinese government regulations.

It simultaneously laid off 44% of its staff in the US — engineers no longer needed due to the shift into an almost entirely marketing-focused business — and expects to end the year with only 13 employees there.