Why is it so hard to be a good domain registrar?

Guest Post by Marco

I recently moved all of my domains away from GoDaddy, because they’re terrible.1

After soliciting registrar recommendations on Twitter, it seemed like the most-liked registrars were Namecheap, Hover, and Gandi, in descending order.

Whenever you solicit product or service recommendations, you need to put the results in context: most people are going to recommend what they use, so choices with a lot of recommendations might just be the most popular, not necessarily the best. It’s more significant when a responder has actually used multiple choices and recommends one over the others.

But most people haven’t used more than one or two domain registrars, because of the answer this question by David Bressler:

Why do you think it’s so hard to be a good registrar?
Because there’s very little incentive to be.
The reason GoDaddy is so successful is because they’re usually the cheapest. And for geeks like us who host elsewhere and don’t need a lot of support, domain registrars don’t need to do very much — it’s a commodity business, so for most of us, we’ll go wherever’s cheapest.

After that initial sale, we’re strongly locked in:

  • Most domains are set up once and then forgotten. We rarely need to interact with the registrar after the sale, so if there’s anything we don’t like about them, we’re only forced to deal with it (and only reminded that we might want to switch someday) a few times per year.
  • If we want to buy a new domain, it’s easiest to buy it at the registrar that we already use for our other domains.
  • There’s almost never a driving reason to switch away from a registrar with any urgency or timeliness. Most domains happily auto-renew every year, auto-billing their associated credit cards, without any trouble or changes.
  • The process of transferring out is complex, most of us have never done it so it’s intimidating, and it can cause an hours-long DNS outage if it’s not done perfectly.
  • You can only transfer a domain once every 60 days, so even if you move somewhere and hate it immediately, you can’t do anything about it for two months, after which you’ll probably decide that you’ll deal with it “someday” and just let it keep auto-renewing.
So even if you aren’t crazy about your registrar, the lock-in effects are so strong that you’re very unlikely to ever switch away: it’s just easier to keep letting your domains auto-renew every year. This creates very little incentive for registrars to provide great service or invest much in their control panels and other after-purchase costs.

Since most buyers choose whatever’s cheapest and rarely reconsider their choice, GoDaddy wins most of the time, and they have no reason to treat their customers any better.

The biggest question I get asked when I mention that I’ve left GoDaddy is: For who?

From the recommendations for Namecheap, Hover, and Gandi, I chose Gandi because I wanted everything under one roof, and they were the only one of the three who could register my one .FM domain and also sold SSL certificates.

The transfers were fine… except I had a huge DNS outage on Marco.org because its DNS was hosted by GoDaddy, and Gandi wouldn’t prepopulate its DNS servers with its info before it arrived. Their support staff took two days to answer that question. And I broke my “all under one roof” requirement the other day by buying Instapaper’s SSL certificate from RapidSSL because my Gandi SSL certificate — which was supposed to be free with the transfer, but wasn’t, and I got tired of waiting and just paid for a standalone order — still hasn’t been issued after 6 days. (I emailed them this morning and asked them to just cancel the order at this point. No response yet.) And their web control panel, despite being a lot better than GoDaddy’s, isn’t great — it’s simply adequate, with common operations still requiring too many clicks and still showing a lot of little bugs and update lag. (I don’t know yet if any registrar has a great control panel.)

Over the years, with my own domains and various consulting clients’, I’ve used Register, GoDaddy, PairNIC, and Gandi. I wouldn’t really recommend any of them, but Gandi seems the least bad among them.

But next time I buy a new domain name, I’m buying it at Hover. And if it goes well, I’ll probably move all of my domains there. Someday.


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