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Is Verisign’s .net in trouble?

Kevin Murphy, September 24, 2014, Domain Registries

The zone file for Verisign’s .net gTLD has shrunk by almost 100,000 domains in the last few months.

I’ve been tracking .com and .net’s zone numbers since mid-March, shortly after the current wave of new gTLDs started going live, and while .com seems to be still growing strong, .net is definitely trending down.

The bulk of .net’s decline seems to have happened of the last three months. Its zone file count has decreased by 95,590 domains in the last 90 days, according to my numbers.

Here’s a chart, which you can click to enlarge, to illustrate what I’m talking about:

.net

I don’t have comparable figures from previous years, so I can’t be certain that the downturn is not related to summer seasonality.

But if there is seasonality, it doesn’t appear to have affected .com, which has added over a million names to its zone over the last 90 days.

.net

The last formal registry transactions report we have from Verisign for .net shows a decline of a little over 7,000 names under management in May.

Are these the early signs of trouble ahead for .net?

The TLD has always been a bit of an oddity. Originally designed for network operators, it was opened up and pitched in the 1990s by Network Solutions as a catch-all that should be acquired alongside .com.

That “Oh, I may as well buy the .net while I’m here” mentality stuck in the primary market, and I’ve often encountered the “I’ll throw in the .net for free” mentality in the secondary market.

But in a world of hundreds of new gTLDs I wonder whether .net’s brand caché will shrink.

If a registrant decides they can clearly do without defensively registering the .guru, the .pics, the .horse and the .wtf, perhaps they’ll start wondering why they bother to register the .net too.

Is .net on the verge of an unprecedented drop-off in registrations?

I’ll have to reserve judgement — that last 90 days might be a blip, and it only represents 0.63% of the .net business — but it’s going to be worth keeping an eye on, I think.

With 15 million names, the .net business is worth about $93 million a year in registry fees to Verisign.

Verisign plans TLD standards group

Kevin Murphy, September 22, 2014, Domain Tech

Verisign is trying to form a new industry standards-setting association for domain name registries and registrars.

To be called the Registration Operations AssociationTM (yes, according to its web site it is apparently already trademarked), Verisign wants potential members of the group to meet in October to figure out whether such an association is needed and what its remit would be.

But the Domain Name Association apparently has other ideas, suggesting in a recent blog post that the DNA would be the best place for these kinds of technical discussions to take place.

In the second of a series of three blog posts revealing the ROA plan, Verisign senior director Scott Hollenbeck said:

The primary purpose of an association would be to facilitate communication and technical coordination among implementers and operators of the EPP protocol and its current extensions to address interoperability and efficiency obstacles.

EPP is the Extensible Provisioning Protocol used by registrars to transact with all gTLD and many ccTLD registries. It’s an IETF standard written by Hollenbeck over a decade ago.

One of the problems with it is that it is “extensible” by design, so every time a registry extends it to deal with a peculiarity of a particular TLD, partner registrars have to code new connectors.

In a world of hundreds of new gTLDs, that becomes burdensome, Hollenbeck explained in his posts.

An industry association such as the formative ROA could help registries with common requirements standardize on a single EPP extension, streamlining interoperability.

That would be good for new gTLDs.

It’s no secret that many registrars are struggling to keep up with new gTLD launches while providing a good customer experience, as Andrew Allemann pointed out last week.

The need for cooperation seems plain; the question now is what is the correct forum.

While Verisign is pushing for a new group, the DNA reckons the task could be best-performed under its own umbrella.

Executive director Kurt Pritz blogged:

Given its multi-functional and global diversity, the DNA will be an effective place to coordinate discussion of these issues and to involve broader domain name industry involvement.

Verisign isn’t a DNA member. In fact, it appears to be the only significant back-end registry provider in the western world not to have purchased a membership.

But Pritz said in his post that technical discussions would not be limited to DNA members only — anyone would be able to participate without coughing up the $5,000 to $50,000 a year the group charges:

Recognizing that industry-wide issues are… well … industry wide, the DNA Board determined that this work must include those inside and outside the DNA, welcoming all domain name industry members. Scott and others from Verisign and other firms are invited regardless of whether they join the DNA.

So is the industry going to have to deal with two rival standards-setting groups?

In the many years I was a general Silicon Valley tech reporter, I must have written scores of articles about new technologies spurring the creation of competing “standards” organizations.

Usually, this involved pitting an incumbent monopolist such as Microsoft against a coalition of smaller rivals.

It makes for great headlines, but I’m not sure the domain name industry is big enough to support or require multiple groups tackling the same problems.

With resource-strapped registries and registrars already struggling to make new gTLDs work in any meaningful way, I doubt their geeks would appreciate duplicating their efforts.

I don’t know whether the DNA or ROA would be the best venue for the work, but I strongly suspect the work itself, which almost certainly needs to be done, only needs to be done once.

Verisign wants interested parties to meet in Los Angeles on October 16, just as the ICANN meeting there concludes. The meeting may also be webcast for those unable to attend in person.

Reported mass exodus from .com explained

Kevin Murphy, August 15, 2014, Domain Registries

Did Verisign suffer from a massive 2,600% increase in the number of deleted .com domain names this April?

Not quite, although the bizarre spike in deletes may have highlighted an area where the company was previously out of compliance with its ICANN Registry Agreements.

April’s .com registry report, filed with ICANN and published last week, shows 2.4 million domains were deleted, compared to just 108,000 in March and 90,000 in April 2013.

The spike looks surprising, and you may be tempted to think it is in some way related to the arrival of new gTLDs.

But look again. Could .com, a registry with over 116 million domains under management, really only see roughly 100,000 deletes every month? Clearly that number is far too low.

So what’s going on? I asked Verisign.

The company said that it has implemented “voluntary” changes to its reporting of deleted domains, based on the standard new gTLD Registry Agreement, which specifies what must be reported by new gTLD registries.

It said:

Prior to the April 2014 monthly reports, and per the ICANN gTLD registry reporting guidelines, Verisign reported on only deleted domains outside of any grace period.

There are five “grace periods” permitted by ICANN contracts: the Add Grace Period, Renew/Extend Grace Period, Auto-Renew Grace Period, Transfer Grace Period, and Redemption Grace Period.

The familiar Add Grace Period allows registrars to cancel registrations within a week of registration if the registrant made a typo, for example, and asked for a refund.

The Redemption Grace Period covers domains that have expired and do not resolve, but can still be restored for 30 days at the request of the registrant.

According to Verisign, before April, domains that were deleted outside of any of the five grace periods were reported as “deleted-domains-nograce”.

From April, the company is reporting domains only as “deleted-domains-nograce” if they delete outside of the Add Grace Period.

According to my reading of the .com contract, that’s what Verisign should have been doing all along.

The contract, which Verisign and ICANN signed in late 2012, defines “deleted-domains-nograce” only as “domains deleted outside the add grace period”. There’s no mention of other grace periods.

The same definition can be found in the 2006 contract.

It appears to me that Verisign may have been under-reporting its deletes for quite some time.

Verisign said in response that it does not believe it has a compliance issue. A spokesperson said: “[We] voluntarily updated our reporting of deleting domain names so that our reporting is aligned with ICANN’s reporting clarifications for the new gTLDs.”

Verisign: 41% of new gTLD sites are parked

Kevin Murphy, August 13, 2014, Domain Registries

As much as 41% of domains registered in new gTLDs are parked with pay-per-click advertising, according to research carried out by Verisign.

That works out to over 540,000 domains, judging by the 1.3 million total I have on record from June 29, the day Verisign carried out the survey.

Domains classified as carrying “business” web sites — defined as “a website that shows commercial activity” — accounted for just 3% of the total, according to Verisign.

There are some big caveats, of course, not least of which is .xyz, which tends to skew any surveys based on “registered” names appearing in the zone file. Verisign noted:

XYZ.COM LLC (.xyz) has a high concentration of PPC websites as a result of a campaign that reportedly automatically registered XYZ domains to domain registrants in other TLDs unless they opted out of receiving the free domain name. After registration, these free names forward to a PPC site unless reconfigured by the end user registrant.

On June 29, .xyz had 225,159 domains in its zone file. I estimate somewhat over 200,000 of those names were most likely freebies and most likely parked.

The practice of registry parking, carried out most aggressively by Uniregistry and its affiliate North Sound, also threw off Verisign’s numbers.

Whereas most new gTLD registries reserve their premium names without adding them to the zone files, Uniregistry registers them via North Sound to park and promote them.

Tens of thousands of names have been registered in this way.

Coupled with the .xyz effect, this leads me to conclude that the number of domains registered by real registrants and parked with PPC is probably close to half of Verisign’s number.

That’s still one out of every five domains in new gTLDs, however.

Judging by a chart on Verisign’s blog, .photography appears to have the highest percentage of “business” use among the top 10 new gTLDs so far.

Verisign also found that 10% of the names it scanned redirect to a different domain. It classified these as redirects, rather than according to the content of their final destination.

ICANN says Verisign should stay in charge of root zone

Kevin Murphy, May 21, 2014, Domain Policy

Verisign should stay in its key role in root zone management after the IANA transition process is complete, according to ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade.

The company currently acts as “maintainer”, alongside the US government as “administrator” and ICANN/IANA as “operator”.

This means Verisign is responsible for actually making changes — adding, deleting or amending the records for TLDs — in the root zone file.

In a blog post yesterday, Chehade said that ICANN will “establish a relationship directly with the third-party Maintainer”, adding:

As a means to help ensure stability, ICANN’s recommended implementation option is to have Verisign continue its role as the Maintainer. However, we will be working closely with all relevant parties including the Root Zone Operators to ensure there are contingency options in place to meet our absolute commitment to the stability, security and resiliency of the Domain Name System.

I wholeheartedly agree that Verisign should stay in its role, or at the very least that ICANN should not take over.

As we’ve learned over the last couple of years of software glitches in the new gTLD program, some of them security-related, ICANN would be a poor choice today to maintain this critical resource.

Chehade noted that the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration would be replaced in its “administrator” role by whatever mechanism the ICANN community comes up with during the transition process.