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Verisign upgrades its cash-printing machine but warns post-pandemic “could go either way”

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2021, Domain Registries

Verisign has named the date for its long-anticipated .com prices increases, as it reported another healthy quarter and year of growth.

The company announced that the annual wholesale fee for a .com domain is going up from $7.85 to $8.39, effective September 1. That’s in line with the 7% annual cap reinstated by the Trump administration and rubber-stamped by ICANN.

It’s the first .com price increase since 2012, when reg fee was frozen by the Obama administration’s Department of Commerce under its longstanding contract with the company.

The $0.54 price increase would mean an extra $82.5 million for Verisign’s top line, assuming the .com base remains static at today’s level of 152,883,064 domains. The reality is very probably that registrations will continue to grow, however.

Verisign is allowed to increase prices by 7% three more times under its current ICANN contract. It was allowed to take the Trump bump last year but deferred due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Registrants are able to lock-in their current renewal rates for up to 10 years before the price rise kicks in, assuming registrar fees don’t increase in the meantime.

.com is of course a fabulously successful business, and it received a pandemic-related boost last year, due to a increase in small businesses moving online due to lockdown rules, which was reflected in Verisign’s fourth-quarter and full-year results.

Verisign reported fourth-quarter net income up from $148 million to $157 million, on revenue that was up 3.1% to $320 million.

For the full year, net income was up from $612 million million to $815 million, on revenue that was up 2.7% at $1.23 billion.

Operating margin is always an metric where Verisign shines — I often get phone calls from analysts baffled as to why ICANN allows such blatant profit-taking — but it was down a tad to 65.2%, from 65.5% in 2019.

That’s probably not enough to dislodge its crown as the company with the highest operating margin of the S&P 500.

Speaking to analysts and investors last week, Verisign said it’s projecting 2021 operating margin down again, to be between 64% and 65%, because of increased investment in its infrastructure and the $4 million annual bung it’s agreed to pay ICANN.

While Verisign is only going to see one quarter of higher prices this year, it seems the majority of its increased revenue will trickle down to the bottom line.

The company expects its domain growth to be between 2.5% and 4.5% in 2021. Execs noted continuing pandemic-related uncertainty. CFO George Kilguss said:

when the pandemic subsides and things start opening it up, I think it could probably go either way either it could accelerate or it could slow a little bit. We’re just not sure how the market would react just as we were somewhat uncertain when this whole pandemic started

In other words, while coronavirus proved an unexpected boon, post-pandemic economic recovery may not necessarily be a good thing for the industry.

.com renewals lowest in years, but Verisign sees lockdown bump anyway

.com and .net saw decent growth in the lockdown-dominated second quarter, despite Verisign reporting the lowest renewal rate since 2017.

The company last night reported that it sold more new domains in Q2 than it did in the same period last year — 11.1 million versus 10.3 million a year ago.

It added a net 1.41 million names across both TLDs in the quarter, compared to growth of 1.34 in Q2 2019.

CEO Jim Bidzos did not directly credit coronavirus for the bump, but he told analysts that the growth was driven primarily by small businesses in North America getting online. The US went into lockdown in the last week of March.

Verisign has now upped its guidance for the year. It now expects growth in domains of between 2.75% and 4%. That’s higher than the guidance it was giving out at the start of the year, pre-coronavirus.

The company had lowered this guidance to between 2% and 3.75% in April due to coronavirus uncertainties, which with hindsight clearly seems overly cautious.

On the flipside, Verisign’s estimated renewal rate for the quarter was down to only 72.8%, down from 74.2% a year ago, the worst it’s been since Q1 2017, when renewals were suffering through the tail-end of a massive Chinese junk drop.

But Bidzos said that the low rate was “primarily related to the lower overall first-time renewal rate”, suggesting that it might be more due to registrar promotions or heightened speculation a year ago than any coronavirus-related drag factor.

For Q2, Verisign reported revenue up 2.6% year over year at $314 million, with net income up from $148 million to $152 million.

The company also announced yesterday that it is freezing its prices across all of its TLDs until March 31, 2021.

You’ll recall that it gets the right to increase prices 7% starting on October 26 this year, under its new deal with ICANN and the US government, and Verisign confirmed yesterday that there will definitely be a price increase next year.

Because there’s a six-month notice period requirement in the contract, news of the timing of this increase could come as soon as September this year.

Nominet raises .uk prices

Kevin Murphy, October 1, 2019, Domain Registries

Nominet is to raise the price of a .uk domain name in January, adding a couple million quid to its top line.

The company’s annual registry fee will increase by 4%, from £3.75 to £3.90 ($4.77), on January 13 next year.

Nominet said the increase is to reflect “some of the increased costs of running the registry business since prices last changed in 2016.”

While it’s a modest £0.15 extra per name per year, at the current registration volume that works out to just shy of £2 million ($2.45 million) more revenue per annum.

Perhaps predicting a backlash from large-volume registrants, Nominet told registrars:

We appreciate that price rises are never popular, but even after this modest rise, .UK domains remain extremely competitively priced in the market and accessible to all.

If US dollars are your frame of reference, .uk names will still actually be cheaper following the price increase than they were following the 2016 price increase, due to exchange rate fluctuations.

The last price increase went into effect in March 2016. Before that, prices had been unchanged since 1999.

PIR says it has no plans to raise .org prices

Public Interest Registry claims it has no plans to raise its wholesale fee for .org domains, in the face of outrage from domainers and non-profits.

Under a proposed renegotiated contract with ICANN, price caps that have limited PIR to a 10% price increase every year would be removed.

But in a statement last week, the company said:

Rest assured, we will not raise prices unreasonably. In fact, we currently have no specific plans for any price increases for .ORG. We simply are moving to the standard registry agreement with all of its applicable provisions that already is in place for more than 1,200 other top-level domain extensions.

This does not necessarily translate to a commitment to not raise prices, of course. PIR may have “no specific plans” today, but it may tomorrow.

Over 3,300 people and organizations filed comments with ICANN about the proposed removal of the price caps, almost all of them negative.

Comments came initially from domain investors, but they were soon joined by many non-profit .org registrants and others.

Most claimed that it was unfair to allow unlimited price increases in legacy, pre-2012 gTLDs such as .org, which can be seen more as a public trust.

PIR went on to point out in its letter that it has not raised its prices — believed to be still under $10 a year — for the last three years.

But it might be worth noting that senior management has changed in that period. Brian Cute left the CEO job a year ago and, after an interim caretaker manager, was replaced by Donuts alumnus Jon Nevett in December.

.org’s registration numbers have been dipping. Over the last three years, it’s dropped from a peak of 11.3 million to 10.6 million at the end of 2018.

But it’s also renegotiated its back-end contract with Afilias over that period, meaning it’s now paying millions less on technical running costs than it once was.

PIR also reiterates that, like many of its customers, it is also a non-profit that is not motivated by investors and share prices.

More than half of its profits go to fund the Internet Society, itself a non-profit organization.

“We are different. We are mission based and not every decision is a financial one; we are not just driven by the bottom line,” its statement says.

PIR says that registrants are also protected by the measure in all ICANN gTLD contracts that allows registrants to lock in prices for up to 10 years in the event of a price increase, and by the fact that .org operates in a competitive market.

Reasonable people can and do disagree on whether these are effective protections in a case like .org.

Non-coms say .org price cap should be RAISED

Kevin Murphy, April 30, 2019, Domain Registries

With the entire domain name community apparently split along binary lines on the issue of price caps in .org, a third option has emerged from a surprising source.

ICANN’s Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group has suggested that price caps should remain, but that they should be raised from their current level of 10% per year.

In its comments to ICANN (pdf), NCSG wrote that it would “not object to the price cap being raised by a reasonable level”, adding:

Rather than removing price caps from the agreement entirely, these should be retained but raised by an appropriate amount. In addition, this aspect of the contract should be subject to a review midway through the contract, based on the impact of the price changes on non-profit registrants.

The NCSG does not quote a percentage or dollar value that it would consider “reasonable” or “appropriate”.

The letter notes that Public Interest Registry, which runs .org, uses some of its registration money to fund NCSG’s activities.

The NCSG disagrees with the decision to remove price cap provisions in the current .org agreement. On the one hand, we recognize the maturation of the domain name market, and the need for Public Interest Registry to capitalize on the commercial opportunities available to it. Public Interest Registry, as a non-profit entity, supports many excellent causes (including, it is worth noting, the NCSG). On the other hand, as the home for schools, community organizations, open-source projects, and other non-profit entities that are run on shoestring budgets, this registry should not necessarily operate under the same commercial realities that guide other domains. Fees should remain affordable, with domains which are priced within reach of everyone, no matter how few resources they have. Consequently, we support leaving the price cap provisions in place. We would not object to the price cap being raised by a reasonable level.

Basically, the ICANN community group nominally representing precisely .org’s target market doesn’t mind prices going up, just as long as PIR doesn’t get greedy.

It’s slightly surprising, to me, to find NCSG on the middle ground here.

There are currently over 3,250 comments on the renewal of PIR’s registry contract with ICANN — coming from domainers, individual registrants, and large and small non-profit organizations — almost all of which are firmly against the removal of price caps.

The only comments I’ve been able to find in favor of the scrapping of caps came from the Business Constituency. Intellectual property interests had no opinion.

I don’t believe the registries and registrars stakeholder groups filed consensus comments, but Tucows did file an individual comment (pdf) objecting to the removal of caps.

Non-profits worth $2.6 billion a year say .org price caps should stay

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2019, Domain Registries

Eight large US-based non-profits, several of them household names, have put their names to a letter demanding that Public Interest Registry should not be allowed to increase its .org registry fees beyond 10% a year.

Combined, these eight outfits have revenue of roughly $2.6 billion per year.

PIR’s fees are currently under $10 per domain per year. It has roughly 10.6 million names under management.

The organizations signing the letter are TV network C-SPAN, broadcaster NPR, conservation charity the National Trust for Historic Preservation, retired persons advocate the AARP, environmental groups the National Geographic Society, the Conservation Fund and Oceana, and disco legends YMCA of the USA.

In a joint letter, submitted as part of ICANN’s public comment period on the renewal of PIR’s .org contract, they write:

We agree with the current .org registry operator, the Public Interest Registry, that the .org gTLD “has assumed the reputation as the domain of choice for organisations dedicated to serving the public interest.” We have come to rely on this reputation to help distinguish the online presence of our organizations from the online presence of organizations that are not intended to serve the public interest. As nonprofit organizations, we also have come to rely on the certainty and predictability of reasonable domain name registration expenses when allocating our limited resources.

Sourced from Wikipedia and tax returns, here’s how much revenue these non-profits bring in per year:

  • NPR — $208 million (2016)
  • C-SPAN — $73.2 million (2014)
  • YMCA of the USA — $169.5 million (2017)
  • National Geographic Society — $188 million (2017)
  • AARP — $1.6 billion (2016)
  • The Conservation Fund — $238 million (2017)
  • Oceana — $53 million (2017)
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation — $62.9 million (2017)

Limited resources indeed.

The deadline for comments is midnight UTC tonight, about two hours from the dateline on this post.

Donuts raises prices on most TLDs by up to 9%

Portfolio registry Donuts is to jack up prices on most of its 241 gTLDs by up to 9% later this year.

Base-rate price increases of between 6% and 9% will his 220 TLDs, while 16 will remain at their current pricing.

The increases, which do not affect registry-reserved “premium” domains, will likely mean an increase of a few dollars in most cases.

(UPDATE: Donuts says the average price increase is about $1.75.)

Five gTLDs will see their prices reduced. Donuts said .group will see a 35% price reduction. It currently sells for about $30 a year at GoDaddy.

The prices were announced to registrars yesterday and, due to ICANN rules, will not come into effect until October 1.

Registrants are able to lock in their current pricing for up to 10 years by renewing before that deadline.

.CLUB announces three years of price increases

Kevin Murphy, January 15, 2019, Domain Registries

.CLUB Domains is to increase its wholesale registry fees by $1.90 over the next three years.

The company announced that the increases for .club names will come on July 1 this year, next year, and in 2021.

The current price is $8.05 per domain per year. This will go up to $8.95, then $9.45, then $9.95.

They’re the first price changes .CLUB has implemented, other than discounts, since its launch in 2014.

The gTLD had almost 1.5 million names under management at the last public count, and has about 1.16 million names in its zone file today.

It saw a growth surge in the second half of 2018 due to aggressive discounting in China — with AliBaba selling new names for as little as $0.44 — which led to a corresponding increase in abuse.

.CLUB is a rare example of a private TLD operator that is fairly open about its financials.

New gTLD to increase prices 10x, add blockchain voting service

Kevin Murphy, January 4, 2018, Domain Registries

The new gTLD .voting is to suffer a steep price increase as its registry bakes a new “e-voting solution” into its offering.

Valuetainment, the Germany-based registry, informed registrars of its decision recently.

While I don’t know the exact figures involved, it appears the annual wholesale cost of a .voting domain will rise more than tenfold.

Currently, the retail price of a .voting domain can range from $60 to $100 per year. After June 1, that price is likely to start around the $600 mark.

But the registry also told registrars it plans to bundle in with each domain an “e-voting solution” in which “votes are anchored in the blockchain”. There would be no additional charge for this service.

This actually smells a bit like innovation, something the new gTLD program has lacked to date but which sometimes scares away registrars that see mainly implementation and support costs.

Steep price increases also have a track record of scaring away registrars, as Uniregistry discovered last year.

I understand the plan is to apply the price increase to renewals for all existing .voting domains, which currently number a little under 1,000.

At the last count, two thirds of .voting domains had been sold via German reseller platform RegistryGate, with GoDaddy a distant second.

Registry representatives have not responded to a request for information about the blockchain-based voting service, so I can’t tell you much more about it other than blockchain-based systems are in vogue right now due to the popularity of speculation in electronic “currencies” such as Bitcoin.

.blog renewal prices will not go up, registry promises

Knock Knock Whois There, the .blog registry, has promised not to raise its wholesale fees on existing registrations.

The company, which is affiliated with WordPress, seems to have made the move in response to ongoing registrar discomfort following Uniregistry’s plan to significant raise the price of several of its new gTLDs (which has since been backpedaled).

The promise has been baked into the Registry-Registrar Agreement under which all of its registrars can sell .blog names.

The new RRA reads (with the new text in italics):

5.1.1. Registrar agrees to pay Registry Operator or its designee in accordance with the fee schedule set forth in Exhibit A for initial and renewal registrations and other services provided by Registry Operator to Registrar (collectively, “Fees”). Registry Operator reserves the right, from time to time, to modify the Fees in a manner consistent with ICANN policies and Registry Policies. However, once a domain is registered, Registry Operator will not modify the Renewal Fee of that domain.

This of course leaves the door open for KKWT to increase the price of a new registration, but it seems renewal prices are frozen.

I believe the current wholesale .blog fee starts at $16 per year.

The new RRA also adds ICANN-mandated language concerning the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy and a clarification about registrar legal indemnifications, KKWT said.

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