What is a Domain Name Registrar?

In the first article in this series I take a look at what a registrar is when it comes to Webhosting.

What is a Registry?

In order to answer the question What is a Domain Name Registrar? you first need to understand what a Domain Name Registry is.

The simplest answer to this question is that a domain registry administers a Top-Level Domain (TLD). TLDs come in two types: generic TLDs (a gTLD) and country-code TLDs (a ccTLD).

A TLD is the last part of a domain name, and it is common practice to say it with the preceding "dot". For example, .com ("dot com") and .de ("dot D E") are TLDs.

The easiest way to know if a TLD is a ccTLD is by counting how many characters long it is (excluding any preceding dot). All country-code TLDs are 2 characters, such as .de, .eu, .us, and .uk. All TLDs with a longer length are generic TLDs.

A registry is, to put it simply, the big database that contains all the domain names in a TLD and all the information about those domains (expiry date, registrant name, contact details, etc.).

A registry operator or Network Information Centre (NIC) administers the registry. For example, the .uk registry is administered by Nominet, and the .com registry by Verisign.

If you need to change anything about your domain name, you need to tell the registry operator to make the change in the registry. With some registries you can do this, but the majority require a middleman (a Registrar) to act as a conduit between you and the registry operator.

The root domain can also be called . ("dot"). Technically, every domain in existence also ends in a dot (for example my site is web.johncook.uk.) because ICANN runs the registry for "dot" and then delegates all the TLDs to the registry operators (e.g. Nominet for .uk.). The operators for TLDs can further delegate to other registry operators (e.g. the Ministry of Defence for .mod.uk.). A lot of server administrators don't check their sites and services work with the trailing dot.

Real Top Level Domains

Some TLDs have pseudo-TLDs (a term I just made up). An example of that would be .co.uk. .co.uk is not delegated to another registry, rather it is a pseudo-TLD (or Second Level Domain, SLD) also administered by Nominet. JohnCook.co.uk, for example, is a domain registered with Nominet. JohnCook.UK is a completely different domain, also registered with Nominet.

Mozilla used to classify TLDs as one of 4 different types:

  1. Only second level domains
  2. Only third level domains
  3. Mixed second and third level domains
  4. Other

.uk used to be an example of type B, although .sch.uk uses 4th level domains. Nominet started offering SLDs and .uk is now of type C (although technically with .sch.uk they should probably be type D). Such complexity is the reason why Mozilla ditched such groupings and created the Public Suffix List (PSL).

The reason I bring this up is one of importance: some people sell domain names that aren't real domain names. Using the definition that a domain name is an entry in a registry (as opposed to the definition that a hostname is an entry in DNS) some TLDs are fake. An example of a fake TLD is .uk.com. Someone bought uk.com and decided they could make money by selling sub-domains.

The registrant of uk.com could, at any time, forget to renew their domain name or sell it to someone else. You'd have no-one to complain to (except maybe the courts by suing the person that sold you the "domain name") because it wasn't a real domain name—if it is not in the registry, the registry won't get involved.

The Public Suffix List (PSL) does not care about real or fake TLDs. All it cares about are delegation points. .uk.com is in the PSL, as is .dyndns.org. The PSL basically says "different people might have control of the sub-domains of this (sub-)domain". It will probably be replaced by something else at some point when it becomes too big.

A fake TLD is one that registrars will try to sell you as if it is a real TLD.

What is a Registrar?

When you want to make a change to your .com domain, you tell your registrar to make the change. The registrar then relays that order to the registry. The registry carries out the order if everything is OK, and your change is made.

That is pretty much all a registrar is: an entity that relays your (the registrant's) orders.

In the case of domain name registrations (also called purchases) and renewals, the registrar also acts as a relay for payments. The registrar tells you how much you need to pay, you pay the registrar, and then the registrar puts that money in a money pile somewhere.

When all the chargeable transactions are totted up by the registry (typically monthly) the registry tells the registrar how much it needs to pay. The registrar then takes that money from the cash pile and pays the registry.

Most registrars charge more than what the registries charge them for registrations and renewals (the wholesale price) because they have overheads for their systems, staff, annual registry fees, etc.

Some big registrars may even charge less than what it costs them, as they could rely on upselling other products to you or because they are selling you an "offer" on the first year (with the much higher-than-wholesale renewal price being hidden in the small print on another page of their site).

Registry Promotions

Some registries give offers to registrars. Nominet, for example, have a sort of loyalty scheme—if you sell a lot of domains/renewals you get a reward (a rebate on your next invoice). That potentially makes it so cheap to sell .uk domains you can undercut the smaller registrars or rip-off your customers by not passing on the lower cost (or only doing so for the first year as an "offer").

Nominet also do other "offers" for registrars, because apparently raising wholesale prices to rake in more money and giving a small amount back to big registrars is important in "a promotion driven industry".

As a consumer, I'd rather have consistent long-term pricing than not knowing how much renewing will cost. As shown from the 51 minute mark in the following video, Nominet not only ignored my concerns but brushed them off by comparing the price hike to the price of Starbucks, as if that is something everyone buys.

Thumbnail of YouTube video: Pricing Session - Nominet Registrar Meeting 21 January 2016

Video: Pricing Session - Nominet Registrar Meeting 21 January 2016

Play Video Embedded Watch Video on YouTube Google Privacy Policy Google Cookies
— John Cook (@WatfordJC) January 21, 2016
— John Cook (@WatfordJC) February 8, 2016

The fact of the matter is if you put up the price of something for no good reason, I'm going to cut down on the quantity of that something I buy, switch to something that is better value (e.g. my switch to SIP providers for calls), or stop buying it completely (e.g. my boycott of Snickers bars after they shrank the size without reducing the price).

As was said in the video, I had 6 .uk domains for personal use (JohnCook.UK, WatfordJC.UK, WatfordJC.co.uk, JohnCook.co.uk, TheJC.me.uk, and one for my nephew). As a result of the 50% price hike, I decided to consolidate my Web sites so that I would be paying the same amount per year, by dropping WatfordJC.co.uk when it was due for renewal last year, and TheJC.me.uk when it is up for renewal in September 2024.

Can I Cut Out the Middleman?

While it is possible to cut out the middlemen, it is unlikely something that will be cost effective.

Cutting out the Registries

In the case of cutting out the registry, the answer is no. Actually the answer is yes as you can purchase a gTLD, but that will set you back at least $185,000 plus annual fees.

You could also create your own TLD, but as the root (.) would not be ICANN you will not be reachable by the majority of people. Such TLDs are said to use alternative/alternate (DNS) roots, and some examples are NameCoin (.bit), Tor (.onion) and OpenNIC (numerous TLDs including resolution of the NameCoin and New Nations roots).

The problem with alternative roots are that most resolving nameservers do not support them, meaning your domain will be less reachable. TLD conflicts are another problem, with RFC 2826 (IAB Technical Comment on the Unique DNS Root) talking about the importance of a single DNS root.

If you used a .bit domain and then Bit.ly decided to pay ICANN for .bit, most resolvers that support alternative roots as well as ICANN will stop supporting NameCoin's .bit and start using Bit.ly's .bit. You would have to change domain.

An extreme example of an alternative DNS root is that of name.space.

Cutting out the Registrars

Cutting out the registrars is possible, depending on the TLD.

As I mentioned earlier, some TLDs do not have registrars. One example is ISNIC and the .is registry.

As for TLDs that do have registrars, it will come down to how the registry operates.

You can, for example, completely cut out registrars when it comes to .uk domains by registering your domain directly with Nominet (in effect, Nominet becomes your registrar). Registrations and renewals are much more expensive that way, however, at least with Nominet.

An alternative is to become a registrar yourself. The cost will vary by registry, with some TLDs requiring you to become an ICANN accredited registrar (a high price to pay).

With Nominet you can become a self-managed TAG holder (i.e. a registrar with a TAG that manages domains registered in your own name). Becoming a Nominet registrar is essentially free, although if you have a poor credit rating you might need to deposit some money with them. Unless you are a Nominet Member, however, you would pay the same prices as you would if you went the registrarless way of doing it.

Becoming a Nominet Member and a Nominet Registrar gives you access to the Nominet wholesale prices. Becoming a Nominet Member costs £480.00 with a £120.00 annual fee (prices including VAT).

Because changing registrar does not carry a fee with Nominet, most registrars allow you to transfer in and out at no cost. You could effectively become a self-managed TAG holder without becoming a Nominet Member and just transfer your domains to another TAG when you need to renew and then transfer back to your TAG. You'd have more control (except when renewing) but you'd still be paying a middle man.

I am currently a Nominet Registrar (self-managed) and a Nominet Member. Although the fees for being so are high, I decided I wanted as much control as I could afford over my domain names.

For the vast majority of registrants there is no real need to cut out the registrar, at least when it comes to domain names.

My Registrar Offers X Too!

As I have stated, registrars are relays between registrants and registries. If it isn't something the registry offers, it is likely something your registrar is trying to upsell you.

Never Trust An Offer…

Some registrars are even sneaky about this. They might advertise a domain registration as "Go from I think I can to I know I can. Get a free domain with a website from Godaddy. Starting at £1.00/mo. Annual plan required."

Admittedly this is slightly less sneaky than their offer when I started writing this in January:

"What will you do with your Domain + Website + Email starting at £1/mo". That is a Godaddy package, and it does say underneath that "^ First year only. Annual purchase required." So, how much will it cost?

In the case of a .com, it will be £1/month for the first year, and then £9.82/month (current price). Oh, and you only get one e-mail address for that. And that doesn't include taxes. And you don't pay monthly.

That means it will be, for a UK individual, £14.40 for the first year, and £141.41 for the second year and each subsequent year. I'm not even sure if that includes the $0.11/year ICANN fee.

Most registrars also enable auto-renew for everything. That means near the end of the first year you will have £141.41 taken from your card for a package you no longer want/need because you forgot to turn off auto-renew.

That is why I am not including non-registrar stuff under the term registrar. In the case of that package, Godaddy would be your registrar, DNS provider, Webhost, and Mail provider. I will be covering these different types of service providers later in this series of articles.

So, how much would Godaddy's current £1.00/month offer really cost you? If you're like me, you're expecting a price somewhere between £12.00 a year and £141.41 a year. Let's have a look.

Upon clicking the Get Started button in the offer, you will see "Get a free domain with a website from GoDaddy starting at £1.00/month" with the small print giving "Annual plan required."

You then have two options:

  1. "Build an advanced site" for "As low as £2.99/month"
  2. "Website hosting for developers" for "As low as £2.99/month"

Choosing the first option, you then find out what £1.00/month means:

  • £2.99/month, "On sale - Save 40%", £4.99/month when you renew4
  • Prices exclude 20% VAT where applicable

When you look for what 4 means, it is in the "Disclaimers":

Annual discounts available on new purchases only.

Products will automatically renew until cancelled. You may turn off the auto-renewal feature by visiting your GoDaddy account.

4 Special introductory pricing valid for the initial purchase term only. Product renewal pricing subject to change.

If you click a little down arrow, you see what you're paying for:

  • 1 website
  • 10GB SSD storage
  • 25,000 monthly visitors
  • SFTP access
  • Free domain with annual plan

OK, that is a pretty bad deal. Let's click on the Configure button…

Here you can purchase the amazing upselling add-ons:

  • For £1.99/mo (£23.88 annual purchase required) you can have your site scanned every day for malware.
  • For the low cost of £4.09/mo (£48.99 annual purchase required) you can get a "standard SSL Certificate".

Since malware scanning is something Google does for free, and a domain-validated TLS certificate is something we can get for free from Let's Encrypt, let's ignore those "offers". At least I hope we can use Let's Encrypt—"1 website" and "SFTP access" doesn't sound like we're buying an overpriced cheap VPS.

We now have a "Basic" package that will cost £107.64 for 36 months, and "Office 365 Email" that will cost £0.00 for 12 months, bringing us to a grand (sub-)total of £107.64.

Let's not forget the small print:

Subtotal does not include applicable taxes.

Term lengths adjustable prior to checkout.

Click Continue.

Good news! You get a free domain with this order.

Well, I thought it was £1.00/month, but OK. Give me watfordjc.com.

Let's see what that asterisk means before clicking Select and Continue…

* Plus ICANN fee of £0.11 per domain per year. Sale pricing for new domain registrations only, not for renewals or transfers.

… Because Offers Are Probably Bogus

Godaddy checkout page has a few surprises. Copyright © 1999–2016 Godaddy Operating Company, LLC.

Now we're finally at the checkout page, let's have a look at what we have.

  • Basic Managed WordPress, 36 months, £2.99/mo (Save £72.00) = £107.64
  • Basic Managed WordPress, 36 months, £2.99/mo (Save £72.00) = £107.64
  • Office 365 Starter Email, £0.00/mo (1st year free, £3.99/mo when you renew4) = £0.00
  • watfordjc.com, £0.00/yr (Save £9.99, Plus ICANN fee of £0.11/yr) = £0.00
  • Subtotal = £215.28
  • Estimated Taxes and Fees = £43.17
  • Total = £258.45

Well, we don't want that wordpress package with e-mail, and we only want 12 months.

That brings the total for the first year down to £57.57.

Apparently Godaddy doesn't consider it misleading to add two Wordpress items to my order, doubling the price of what I thought I was paying a couple of pages ago.

In the second year Managed WordPress will cost £4.99/month, the domain will cost £9.99/year, the ICANN fee will be £0.11/year, totalling £69.98 in the second year.

I have no idea if these prices include or exclude VAT. To find out I'd need to click Proceed to Checkout and then create a Godaddy account.

And let us not forget that auto-renew is automatically enabled on all purchases. Forget to disable it and that £69.98 (possibly plus 20% VAT = £83.98; also subject to price changes) will be taken from your card, potentially without any advance warning.

Don't ask me how you get the advertised £1.00/month, I have no idea.

Only A Registrar

What happens if I remove the Wordpress package?

In that case I will get watfordjc.com for £7.99/yr* (Save £2.00, * Plus ICANN fee of £0.11/yr) = £8.10.

In the second year it would presumably be a renewal price of £9.99 plus £0.11 = £10.10.

Likewise, no idea if this is VAT inclusive or not.

Since I have no intention of having links to the US, I'm abandoning my basket.

Will You Be My Registrar?

At the moment, the answer is no. The reason is threefold:

  1. I currently have a self-managed Nominet TAG. That means all domains I manage need to be registered in my name. It also means I am only a registrar for the .uk TLD.
  2. I do not have an automated registrar system (although I am gradually programming one). That means any changes to your domain would need to go through me personally, and that could take a long time.
  3. I am concerned about taking payments. Not only am I unable to accept payment for services without it potentially risking me being deemed as "fit for work" (even if I act as a pure intermediary and just charge the wholesale price plus payment provider processing fees), but there is also the question of whether I would in effect be running a business and need to jump through all those hoops as well.

At some point in the next few years I am looking at becoming a Nominet Channel Partner TAG holder and possibly an Accredited TAG holder.

What I am currently thinking is offering .uk registrar services to friends and family further down the line. I can't see how that would be classed as running a business… it is essentially the same as offering to go to Tesco to buy some milk, or purchasing a DVD on Amazon.