Web Informant #239, 2 March 2001:
Picking the right registrar

http://www.strom.com/awards/239.html

The choices for domain registrars got even more confusing yesterday, with a new agreement between Verisign and ICANN. A registrar is the company responsible for keeping track of domain owners and responsible for collecting money from the owner. This is usually a different entity from the domain registry, which is the master list of all domain addresses. Verisign currently does both duties.

This is an accident of history. In the olden days of the Internet, we didn't have no stinkin' choices when it came to domain registrars. We had Network Solutions, now owned by Verisign. They had a monopoly, care of our US government. While life was simple, you had to play by their rules. I remember finding the direct-dial phone number of a tech support person at Network Solutions and guarding it like the gold bars in Fort Knox. This is because it was customary to communicate with the company via email, which often went unanswered for days or weeks.

Anyway, welcome to 2001, and now we have dozens of registrars to choose from. All of them will now gladly take your money and give you one of the few remaining dot com addresses that no one else has registered.

And yesterday's agreement -- which still has to be approved by numerous government and corporate factotums -- will move the responsibility of all the dot org domains from Verisign to some new non-profit entity, sometime before the end of 2002. You can imagine that this is a big sacrifice for Verisign -- after all, about ten times as many people register a dot com as a dot org address, which were originally intended for non-profit corporations but have been polluted by people who couldn't get a dot com.

But choosing among this huge list is a chore, especially when it comes time to renew your domain ownership. If you haven't purchased the rights to your name for several years, at some time in the next year you will have to renew. You can stick with your present registrar, or try to find someone new to do business with. You can do this before your renewal time as well, and supposedly your additional time will be credited with your new registrar. But I think it makes the most sense to change registrars closer to the renewal time.

I had long been a customer of Network Solutions, and last fall when I needed to renew my registration I went shopping around. I wasn't really interested in price, although I was curious what the competition had created in terms of prices. Of course, many of the registrar web pages I examined weren't clear on their prices: in addition to the fees charged to register your domain name, you had hidden fees for various other activities: many registrars want to sell you into hosting your domain with them, something I wasn't interested in (and wouldn't recommend to any of you either). You can read more about my decision process in WI #225 here.

My first concern was security. I didn't want someone other than I to muck around with my domain registration. At the minimum, the web-based admin interface should have some kind of password protection. I also wanted the web interface to be clearly designed and easy to use, because it wasn't something that I was going to spend a lot of time using once I got everything setup. Another requirement is that I wanted to own my name, and not have any legal barriers with a registrar if it came time for me to change registrars -- some of them have poorly worded legal agreements that don't make my rights as a domain owner clear. Some of these agreements reserve the right to cancel your domain name in the case of a trademark or other dispute, which can be dicey for you as a domain owner.

In addition to my legal rights as an owner, I also wanted some assurance of good customer support, both via email and phone, because I was familiar with the lousy support offered by Network Solutions. This meant getting information from various friends who have used other registrars and gathering their impressions. Finally, I wanted to make sure that my chosen registrar was going to be around for at least another couple of years, so I wouldn't be left in the lurch. That meant dealing with an established company. Ideally, I wanted to be able to have some kind of access to the CEO, in case things got really sticky. (This is where being a journalist and having a good rolodex comes in handy.)

The problem I found, as I began to investigate these alternative registrars, was that it was impossible for me to do any comparison shopping. Apart from obscure prices, I couldn't really evaluate the web interface of any of the registrars unless I was willing to sign up with each of them for service. The irony of this is very frustrating: the web has made it so easy to do research, except when it comes time to evaluate web-based services. I don't know why more companies don't offer a demonstration of their web-based interfaces on their sites: perhaps they just assume they are done when they complete a web-based interface.

What is needed is an independent review of various registrars. There is someone trying to do just that: Chris Truax, a California intellectual property lawyer, has put together a very nice site that contains reviews about legal and pricing issues, along with various "alerts" that he has gathered from reading the fine print for each registrar's domain agreement. It is a site worth taking a look at. There is another site called RegSelect that also lists price comparisons and other helpful registrar information.

But you may want to seek other's opinions. I asked my friend Paul Hoffman, who is another Old Internet Hand and has spent lots of time working with various registrars, for his requirements. He told me:

         I also want to have the ability to add my own name servers associated with my own host names, to protect my domain resources.

         And I want to be able to mass-update my contact information for all of my registered names, so I don't have to edit each individual domain record.

These are all good suggestions. Hoffman also mentioned something that I have been worried about, and that is getting spam email from your registrar once you set up your domain name with them. Network Solutions has been particularly annoying in this regard. Ideally, I don't want to hear from my registrar unless my domain is up for renewal, and then a simple, single email about one or two months before it expires is adequate. There is no need to keep pestering me with emails about various promotions, including hosting come-ons. And I have heard, although not been able to verify, that some registrars automatically renew your domain and charge your credit card, without any notification to you beforehand. That isn't great either.

As I said in my earlier essay, I ended up going with Register.com as my registrar, and I have been happy with them, after an initial series of clerical missteps. I would be curious what your own experiences with domain registrars has been, and if you have any other suggestions on how to shop around for the right one. And one final resource for those of you who are just getting started looking at domain issues, from About.com, that does a nice job covering the various issues that Paul and I mentioned here.

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David Strom
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