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Though I've been a web developer for a fair amount of time, I am going for the first time to buy a few domain names. I have looked into the domains I'm going to buy and know that they're available, and I've been looking into which sellers to use. After doing a lot of research, the main ones I'm considering are 1&1, Namecheap, and Gandi.

The problem is, when continuing to research, I'm not really sure what makes one domain seller distinct from another. I don't need much in the way of services--definitely not hosting, since I plan to use Heroku for that. I mainly only need the domain itself and DNS management, as well as possibly SSL certificates and WHOIS protection.

Question:

What makes one domain seller different from another? How can I go about evaluating which one is the best for me?

Note: This question is not which domain seller is the best, but rather, what criteria can I use to evaluate them and rank one over another. I'm trying to find out what makes one domain seller different from another, since they all seem to be pretty similar to me right now.

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Domain registrars are so similar that the differences come down to:

A. Price

Price is not necessarily an indicator of registrar quality; it could simply be an indicator of sales volume. It's not wise to assume that a more expensive domain registrar is a better one. It is worth comparing prices, though, especially for multi-year registrations, which can differ by $20 or more for a 10-year registration.

Some registrars also offer domain privacy protection as part of the registration fee. I have seen others charge between $3 and $20 per year per domain for the service.

B. Security

Bad security means your domains could be stolen from you. This is not as rare as you might think. (Example.) Some registrars have better security practises than others. Specifically:

  1. Does the registrar offer two-factor authentication to protect control panel accounts?
  2. Do they email you automatically whenever someone logs in to your domain control panel?
  3. How easy is it to socially engineer access to your account? (i.e. What does the person on the phone ask for when you say you've 'forgotten' your password? Do they reset it without confirming your identity? Is it possible to change the account's email address over the phone?)
  4. How long have they been in business, and are they financially stable?

Security can be hard to gauge because all registrars will tell you that your domains are safe with them, but it's worth evaluating using the above points.

C. Support

It's rare that you'll need support with your domains but, when you do, you want it to go as smoothly as possible. Specifically:

  1. What's the quoted support turnaround time for emails?
  2. Do they have a phone number?
  3. Do they have live chat support?
  4. Are they open 24 hours or during office hours only?
  5. Can you do simple things, such as requesting a domain transfer code, without contacting their support people? (From my experience, good registrars will let you generate a transfer code via your control panel; you should not have to ask for it.)

D. Ease of use

This comes down to control panel features.

  1. How easy is it to change your DNS settings (such as nameservers and records)?
  2. Can you set your domains to auto-renew?
  3. Will you get renewal reminders?
  4. What's the registrar's policy if you forget to renew? (Most have a grace period where you can still renew, but this period differs in time and you may have to pay extra to renew after the expiry date with some registrars.)

E. DNS server practises

Most registrars offer DNS hosting as part of their service. (DNS hosting is required so that machines can look up the IP address or hostname when someone visits your URL.)

  1. Does your registrar have their own DNS servers or are they outsourced?
  2. Do they own the infrastructure and have support people on site?
  3. What's their DNS server uptime for the past 30 days?

Again, finding this information can be hard as it's not generally published on a registrar's website, but it's worth exploring because DNS outages will make it look like your server's down. GoDaddy's DNS servers went down this year taking a small portion of the five million domains they host down, so uptime is important.

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Just to add... regarding price, watch that some registrars charge a lower amount for new registrations, but have higher renewal costs. Also, on the price/ease of use front, some registrars omit features from their automated control panel (if they have one) and impose charges if you later want to change nameservers, DNS, or transfer to another registrar - ideally this should not cost you anything extra. –  w3d Oct 14 '12 at 16:29
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