How long should you buy your domain for?

Recently I was helping a client who needed to update their domain name, and we ran into a common issue: no one knew the password for their domain registrar’s account. This is an all-too-familiar scenario that’s easily avoided.

Let’s take a look at what’s at stake and some recommendations on handling your company’s domain names.

Domain names are cheap, but losing them is costly

We all know that registering a domain name costs almost nothing, and there is no shortage of companies offering registrar services (note: Tantramar Interactive Inc. is not one of them). It’s no harder to register a domain for 10 years than for 1, so why wouldn’t you save some time? Let’s look at the downside.

Losing control of a domain name can mean:

  • wasted time retrieving login information for your registrar account
  • losing access to your website
  • damage to your brand (the extent of which is determined by who takes control of your domain if you lose it)
  • losing search engine placement
  • losing access to email messages
  • instant obsolescence of anything tied to your domain name (especially printed material like ads, business cards, brochures, etc.).

The question, then, is why would registering a domain for 10 years mean losing control of it? The answer?

Identity is fluid

I’ve seen similar situations many times over the years, including…

  • government departments that had been renamed in cabinet shuffles (so that even requests on official letterhead didn’t satisfy the registrar; at least not before lawyers got involved);
  • registrants who’d long-since left organizations — sometimes not on the friendliest of terms, which made getting their co-operation delicate;
  • registrants who’d used personal email accounts that were abandoned or whose passwords were lost;
  • registrants who’d used email accounts tied to domains and/or internet service providers that had long-since changed or ceased operations (due to mergers/acquisitions, bankruptcy, re-branding, etc.)

Institutional memory is fragile

What made this situation particularly painful for my client is that…

  • the domain was purchased nearly 13 years ago for a 20 year period — a challenging length of time for any organization to keep track of login information.
  • In 20 years — or even 5 years — people change jobs (if not employers or even careers); they change names, they change software and computers, they retire, they die…
  • Even without any big changes, how many people can put their finger on an email message they got 5, 10, or 20 years ago? (How about a message someone else got that long ago? Are you even sure who got that message originally?)
  • the email account used to purchase the domain was defunct (its domain lapsed years ago; in this case, as a result of a merger), so a password-reset link from the registrar’s site won’t work.

 Advantages to buying long-term

  • you lock your domain name in, preventing competitors from getting it
  • you may get a volume discount on the per-year cost (although I vividly recall one prominent registrar *cough* Network Solutions *cough* offering domains at “$35/year or 10 years for only $350!”)
  • you’ll save a few minutes each year when you don’t have to renew

To me, these advantages are not compelling.

Advantages to buying short-term

  • you’ll remember who bought what domains from what registrar using what email account (and if you don’t, you’ll track it down more easily if it’s a year or 2 old than if it’s 5 or 10 years old)
  • you’ll be ideally positioned to take advantage of the downward-pressure on domain name pricing
  • you’ll be more likely to recognize renewal messages from your registrar, which keeps your domain safe from accidental expiry

Domain name registration recommendations

  • Register domains for 1 or 2 years at most — and stay on top of them
  • Have your trusted web hosting company register on your behalf — they should have procedures in place to manage renewals without relying on the registrar’s reminder emails — but make sure you’re listed as the Registrant and Administrative contact (your host can be Technical and/or Billing contact).
  • Use an email address tied to a position (e.g. marketing@yourcompany.net) rather than an individual (e.g. jsmith@yourcompany.net) as your contact.
  • Make sure that others in your organization know the login information associated with your domain name(s), or know how to retrieve it.
  • If registering yourself, go with a reputable and well-established registrar over cheap-cheap-cheap every time. Tantramar Interactive Inc. has used Vancouver, BC,-based Webnames.ca for years.
  • Deploy encrypted login-storage-and-retrieval software such as AgileBits’ 1Password for Mac/iOS, Android & Windows (this may not scale well to larger organizations with more complex policies, but for smaller firms or for individuals, I consider 1Password essential).