As winter approaches, two big and demanding entities are vying for my attention: The garden and my 20-member-strong domain collection. In moments of weakness, I indulged an interest for lawns, shrubbery, and deciduous trees that need to be tended. I knew plants could be demanding, but I didn't realize how similar domains are to undergrowth. They're so easy to collect, but every year, the little chores involved seem to multiply.
You know you need to renew your domains annually (or every few years, if you plan ahead), but who knew going in all the vagaries of that process: that e-mail from domain registrars is a prime target for spam filters? That the prime administrator of the dot-com domain space, ICANN, demands that you review and correct your contact information annually? And that because you acquire domains piecemeal, just keeping track of renewal dates would be so complicated?
The abiding truth about maintaining domain collections is that they expire--not right on the anniversary of the day you registered them; you have about a month in which the things are in limbo.
The abiding truth about maintaining domain collections is that they expire--not right on the anniversary of the day you registered them; you have about a month in which the things are in limbo. But 40 days after you fail to pay your renewal, it'll be in the domain pool again, waiting for someone else to snap it up. If you pay year by year, the anniversary rolls around regularly. Many people are happy to register their domains for years in advance. Heck, Network Solutions even touts a 100-year domain registration period (for those with a thousand bucks to spare). That's an extreme case of long-term registration, of course, but most multiyear terms seem too long to me. I've lost domains because the e-mail address of the administrative contact changed, and who can predict the e-mail address of your domain's best administrative contact in the year 2105? Well, I've picked up a few tricks for keeping track of my collection, which became unwieldy very quickly more than six years ago and remains so to this day.
If you were buttoned-down when you registered your domains, you'll have an Excel spreadsheet or something like it, with expiration dates plugged into it. You'll have hit the Data menu's Sort function and set your domains in order of expiration. You'll have fired up Outlook and set an annual recurring reminder to pay your domain bill. But of course, you weren't that buttoned-down to begin with. In fact, if you're a registrar gadfly with a dot-com at one registrar, a dot-info at another, and a couple of dot-orgs somewhere else, you probably don't even know where each of your domains is registered.
It's time to wrangle these domains into order. The first and best raw tool for getting yourself oriented is the Whois database.
It's time to wrangle these domains into order. The first and best raw tool for getting yourself oriented is the Whois database. Each registrar has one, which makes looking up some domains a tad tricky, but some sites, such as Betterwhois.com, provide a single search form for every registrar's Whois database. Pump in the domain name you're looking for, and you'll get a readout of the owner's contact information, the registrar responsible for the site, and the all-important dates.
Having this raw information isn't the end of the story, however. You need to keep track of things, and how you do that depends on your own personal organization tricks. Scribble down each domain in a diary or a DayTimer if that's your thing. Make an Excel sheet (and include columns for each domain's registrar, with your different user IDs and passwords for each). Or make a renewal appointment a month before each expiration date in Outlook.
If you're not a great Microsoft Office jockey, there are a few dedicated programs suitable to the task. I've downloaded and given the Windows programs Name Stalker and Watch My Domains a spin. In both of these, you type in domains you own (or want to own), and they go out to the Whois database to get all the raw details. And you can export the data you find into a format you can use. I found Watch My Domains a great front end for compiling information for my Excel spreadsheet (and besides, with the initials WMD, it's great fun to have on the desktop). For raw tracking of expiration dates, the Windows/Mac program Name Stalker sorts things out better, with columns of domains that are in the danger zone, about to expire. True, Name Stalker is plug ugly under Windows, with tiny fonts and a confusing-looking interface, but it's free to use, unlike WMD, which comes in several skews that can set you back $50 or more.
For almost a decade, I've been relying on the Whois records from third-party sources such as Betterwhois.com or programs such as WMD and Name Stalker to keep my records in order. But recently, I've begun to see a strange notice appearing next to expiration dates that casts a shadow of doubt. It reads:
NOTICE: The expiration date displayed in this record is the date the registrar's sponsorship of the domain name registration in the registry is currently set to expire. This date does not necessarily reflect the expiration date of the domain name registrant's agreement with the sponsoring registrar. Users may consult the sponsoring registrar's Whois database to view the registrar's reported date of expiration for this registration.
Checking out whois.godaddy.com, whois.directnic.com, or whatever registrar's data lookup site didn't cast any light on the situation. But when I nearly lost a domain I had registered at Dotster last week, it all became clear. Some domain registrars have begun renewing domain registrations before their customers ask for it. Their motives aren't ugly; this is not a case of domain napping. Registrars are just fronting the money to retain control of the domain so that their slow-to-act customers don't kvetch when they turn up 39 days after the domain expires with payment in hand, expecting to renew and not being able to. Of course, an increasing number of registrars are also in the domain resale business, and they're not above making back their renewal fee if the original owner lets the registration slide.
So you do need to be vigilant if you're not sure whether you've paid to renew. If you have any niggling doubt, forget about Whois, WMD, and your Excel spreadsheet. Search your e-mail in-box for renewal notices. Be sure to include your junk e-mailbox for spam-filtered messages. Heck, log on at the registrar's site and check out the My Domains section to make sure. Because a domain is a terrible thing to lose and a difficult thing to regain once lost.
Have Matt Lake's senses expired along with his domains? Should he use those Excel spreadsheets to calculate a better opinion? Let him have it in the TalkBack section below.