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Shooting an Elephant: Bad for GoDaddy, Sure -- but Not That Bad [Update]

At what point does shock move from attention-getting marketing to simple bad taste? CEO Bob Parsons may have found the answer in posting a video of himself shooting an elephant. Many in media, the blogosphere, and social networks have blasted him, with plenty of folks on Twitter swearing to take their business away from the company.

Parsons says that the criticism comes from only a small number of people and that his business won't feel a thing. And at least for now, he may be right, thanks to brand consistency, consumer indifference, and GoDaddy's high rate of denying domain name transfers to other companies.

GoDaddy: The Maxim of Web hosting
The company has developed a rakish lad brand. That's due to the marketing combination of low-brow humor and Hooters-inspired well-endowed models wearing tight company tank tops. Last year, the Super Bowl banned one of the company's planned spots for the event. (Disclosure, CBS, parent of owner of BNET, was the broadcaster.) If anything, the Great White Hunter image -- icky evocations of ugly colonialism aside -- further supports the corporate brand.

Will people walk away? Remember that even as many criticized GoDaddy's women-as-objects marketing campaigns, the company grew to become the world's largest Internet domain registrar by number of domains registered, with a nearly 32 percent market share. Clearly whatever reservations some folks had about the company weren't enough to seriously slow its business.

And even those who do try to take their business elsewhere might find it difficult then they expect. A BNET analysis of data from ICANN, the organization that governs domain registrations, shows that GoDaddy has an unusually high rate of refusing requests to transfer domains to another registrar, at least for .com domains: over 20 percent, or between 6 and 7 times as large as the average for registrars.

You can check out, but you can never leave
Out of the roughly 900 existing .com registrars, fewer than 10 have transfer denial rates comparable to GoDaddy's, and they process only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of transfer requests that GoDaddy handles monthly.

According to ICANN policies, domain name owners have a right to transfer domains between registrars. There are 9 conditions under which a registrar can refuse:

  1. Evidence of fraud
  2. UDRP action
  3. Court order by a court of competent jurisdiction
  4. Reasonable dispute over the identity of the Registered Name Holder or Administrative Contact
  5. No payment for previous registration period (including credit card charge-backs) if the domain name is past its expiration date or for previous or current registration periods if the domain name has not yet expired. In all such cases, however, the domain name must be put into "Registrar Hold" status by the Registrar of Record prior to the denial of transfer.
  6. Express written objection to the transfer from the Transfer Contact. (e.g. - email, fax, paper document or other processes by which the Transfer Contact has expressly and voluntarily objected through opt-in means)
  7. A domain name was already in "lock status" provided that the Registrar provides a readily accessible and reasonable means for the Registered Name Holder to remove the lock status.
  8. The transfer was requested within 60 days of the creation date as shown in the registry Whois record for the domain name.
  9. A domain name is within 60 days (or a lesser period to be determined) after being transferred (apart from being transferred back to the original Registrar in cases where both Registrars so agree and/or where a decision in the dispute resolution process so directs). "Transferred" shall only mean that an inter-registrar transfer has occurred in accordance with the procedures of this policy.
BNET contacted GoDaddy and ICANN, both of which replied to say that they have to formulate a reply. We'll have an update when they come in. But, clearly, there are thousands of people each month who expect to transfer their domains to other companies who find themselves unable to. Maybe none of those who decide to bail over the elephant video will have a problem, but that seems statistically unlikely.

[Update: According to a leading Zimbabwe conservationist, Parsons doesn't know what he's talking about when he claims that killing the elephant was justified, that there are many, and that the death of a bull elephant doesn't affect an elephant family. Basically, wrong on all counts.]

[Update 2: I spoke with GoDaddy's domain disputes manager, Laurie Anderson. She said that she couldn't confirm or deny the 20 percent denial rate and that there are "lots of reasons why a transfer fails," often because customers make mistakes that cause the transfer not to go through. She also said that GoDaddy has a 60-day lock on transfers if the registrant's first or last name or the company name changes, as a way to help prevent domain hijacking. Customers are supposed to get notification as they are about to change any of that data that a domain transfer won't be possible for 60 days.

All that said, it still doesn't really explain why GoDaddy's rates are so much higher than virtually every other registrar, at least in the popular .com domains.]


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