The number of domain names registered globally dropped by over 25 million in the first quarter, but only because Verisign has stopped tracking .tk and its free sister ccTLDs in its quarterly estimates.
The latest Domain Name Industry Brief says that 2021 ended with 341.7 million registrations across all TLDs, substantially fewer that the 367.3 million it reported at the end of the third quarter.
But this is only because Verisign has decided to no longer count the six Pacific and African ccTLDs managed by Freenom, notably .tk, which had contributed 24.7 million names to the Q3 tally.
The report says: “the .tk, .cf, .ga, .gq and .ml ccTLDs have been excluded from all applicable calculations, due to an unexplained change in estimates for the .tk zone size and lack of verification from the registry operator for these TLDs.”
It sounds rather like there’s been another weird fluctuation in .tk’s numbers that threw off the overall trend picture again, and Verisign’s basically said “to hell with it” and decided to exclude Freenom from its reports from now on.
This means the normalized numbers for Q4 2021 — ignoring Freenom in all applicable quarters — are 341.7 million, up 3.3 million or 1.0% sequentially and up 1.6 million or 0.5% year over year, the DNIB states.
The Freenom business model is to give domains away for free, mostly, in the first instance. It makes its money by retaining and monetizing domains that either expire or, frequently, which it suspends for abuse.
.tk domains never get deleted, in other words, so counting them alongside TLDs with the industry-standard business model could give a misleading impression of the global demand for domain names.
It’s not so much that counting spam domains is bad — every TLD has a spam problem to a greater or lesser extent — but the lack of deletions can create faulty assumptions.
It’s also never been clear how Verisign and its third-party researcher, ZookNic, acquires its data on Freenom TLDs. Its .tk figure would often remain static for quarters on end, suggesting the data was only sporadically available.
I also tracked .tk’s published numbers independently for many years, and the last figure I have, from March 2019, is 41.3 million. It’s never been clear to me why the Verisign/ZookNic number has always been so much lower.
Verisign has always flagged up any oddities caused by .tk in its DNIB, and every edition has contained a footnote describing Freenom’s unusual practices.
The latest DNIB (pdf) says that .com had 160 million names, up 1.2 million, and .net had 13.4 million, down about 100,000, compared to Q3.
ccTLDs overall had 127.4 million, up about 700,000, a 0.6% sequential increase.
The ccTLD number was down by 5.3 million, or 4.0%, compared to the end of 2020, but that was due to a 9.4 million-name deletion by China’s .cn, which I noted in the second quarter and which Verisign calls a “registry-implemented zone reduction”.
Ignoring China, ccTLD names were up 4.1 million or 3.8%, the DNIB says.
Verisign only breaks out the top 10 ccTLDs separately, so the removal of .tk means that Australia’s .au is now in the top 10 list in tenth place with 3.4 million at the end of Q4. It will likely move up the ranks in the first quarter due to the release of second-level names, which has sped up its growth rate.
France’s .fr, with 3.9 million names, has now entered the overall top 10 TLDs due to .tk’s removal.
New gTLDs grew by 1.2 million names or 5.1% sequentially, but were down by pretty much the same amount annually, ending 2021 with 24.7 million names.