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Afilias retains .org back-end deal

Kevin Murphy, November 15, 2016, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry is sticking with Afilias to run the .org registry back-end.

The announcement came yesterday after a open procurement process that lasted for most of 2016.

Over 20 back-end providers from 15 nations — basically the entire industry — responded to PIR’s February request for proposals, we reported back in March.

Afilias retaining the contract is not a huge surprise. The bidding process was widely believed to be a way for non-profit PIR to reduce its costs, believed to be among the highest in the industry.

PIR said yesterday:

Afilias was selected as the best value solution based on the objective criteria and requirements set forth in Public Interest Registry’s procurement process. It is anticipated that Afilias will commence operations under the new contractual agreement on Jan. 1, 2018.

It’s very likely that the new deal will be worth a lot less to Afilias than the current arrangement, which costs PIR about $33 million per year.

In 2013, the last year for which we have Afilias’ financials, .org brought in $31 million of its $77 million revenue.

It’s believed that PIR is currently paying about $3 per domain per year, but Kieren McCarthy at The Register, citing unnamed industry sources, reckons that’s now been bumped down to $2, saving PIR about $10 million per year.

The .org gTLD has about 11.2 million domains under management, but its numbers have been slipping for several months, according to registry reports.

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.

Nominet has sights set on .org after M+M deal

Nominet chief Russell Haworth is hopeful that its new outsourcing deal with Minds + Machines will help it win a much more lucrative back-end contract — .org.

The company is among the 20-plus companies that have responded to Public Interest Registry’s request for proposals, as its back-end deal with Afilias comes to an end.

Nominet is one of a handful of companies — which would also include Verisign, Afilias, CNNIC and DENIC — that currently handles zones the size or larger than .org, which at over 10 million names is about the same size as .uk.

It, like PIR, is also a not-for-profit entity that donates excess funds to good causes, which could count in its favor.

But Haworth told DI today that showing the ability to handle a complex TLD migration may help its bid.

“I personally think that it would stand us in good stead, but we’ll have to see how the process plays out,” he told DI today. “With .org there’s 19-odd players pitching for that, so it’s a fairly competitive field.”

If the migration were to happen today, we’d be looking at around 300,000 domains changing hands. It’s likely to be a somewhat larger number by the time it actually happens.

Collectively, it will be one of the largest back-end transitions to date, though the largest individual affected gTLD, .work, currently has fewer than 100,000 names in its zone.

Haworth said that the plan is to migrate M+M’s portfolio over to Nominet’s systems one at a time.

He was hesitant to characterize the migration process as “easy”, but said Nominet already has such systems in place due to its role as one of ICANN’s Emergency Back-End Registry Operators.

Earlier this year, Nominet temporarily took over defunct dot-brand .doosan, in order to test the EBERO process.

A back-end migration primarily covers DNS resolution and EPP systems.

It sounds like the EPP portion may be the more complex. Some of M+M’s gTLDs have restrictions and tiered pricing that may require EPP extensions Nominet does not currently use in its TLDs.

But the DNS piece may hold the most risk — if something breaks, registrants names stop resolving and web sites go dark.

Haworth said Nominet is also talking to other new gTLD registries about taking over back-end operations. Registries signed three, five or seven-year contracts with their RSPs when the 2012 application round opened, and some are coming up for renewal soon, he said.

Nominet says it will become a top ten back-end after the M+M migration is done.

Over 20 companies fighting for .org contract

Kevin Murphy, March 31, 2016, Domain Registries

More than 20 companies want to take over the back-end registry for the .org gTLD, according to Public Interest Registry.

PIR put the contract, currently held by Afilias, up for bidding with a formal Request For Information in February.

It’s believed to be worth north of $33 million to Afilias per year.

PIR told DI today that it “received more than 20 responses to its RFI for back-end providers from organisations representing 15 countries.”

That represents a substantial chunk of the back-end market, but there are only a handful of registry service providers currently handling zones as big as .org.

.org has about 11 million names under management. Only .com, .net and a few ccTLDs (Germany, China and the UK spring to mind) have zones the same size or larger.

PIR said it would not be making any specific details about the bidders available.

The non-profit says it plans to award the contract by the end of the year.

$33 million .org contract up for grabs

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2016, Domain Registries

Public Interest Registry, operator of .org, has put its back-end registry services contract up for grabs.

The deal could be worth around $33 million a year, judging by its current relationship with incumbent back-end Afilias.

PIR said in a statement today:

The organisation desires to contract with a qualified back-end registry services provider that shares a similar reputation and holds itself to the highest operational and ethical standards. The selected back-end registry service provider should be a “valued business partner” – an organisation that combines outstanding qualifications in service delivery with the ability to engage Public Interest Registry in a business relationship that seeks strategic and innovative approaches to enhance the capability and efficiency of service delivery.

The contract was actually supposed to end in January, according to the Internet Society resolution that approved it back in 2010.

According to PIR’s most recent available tax return (pdf), Afilias was paid $33.2 million in 2014.

It was paid $31 million in 2013 when its total revenue for the year we know to be $77 million. So it’s a pretty big deal for Afilias.

The payments are mainly, but not exclusively, for domain name registry services, according to PIR’s tax returns.

Afilias also operates a few additional services related to PIR’s expansion in the non-governmental organization market, such as a database of NGOs used for validation purposes.

But if we over-simplify things, a roughly $33 million annual payout for a 10-million-domain zone works to something in the ballpark of $3 per name per year.

Given some of the numbers I’ve heard thrown around over the last few years, I expect there are a few back-end providers out there that would be more than happy to offer a cheaper deal.

It will be the first time Afilias has had to fight for the .org contract since 2010, thought PIR has done a couple of analyses over the last few years to make sure it’s getting a fair deal in line with market prices.

Since 2010 the number of back-end registry providers has exploded due to the advent of the new gTLD program, so there will be more competition for the .org contract.

That said, none of the new providers are yet proven at the scale of .org, which has over 10.6 million names at the last count.

PIR expects to award the contract before December 2016.

Interested vendors have until March 5 to express their interest on this web site.