It’s been a while since I’ve taken the blogger’s right to vent on some topic in the news, but this one hit my inbox early (I was 4th to digg it) and has been annoying me all morning.

According to slashdot, Domain Name News, and a thread seemingly originating at Domainstate, Network Solutions (NSI) has been locking up domains that people search for on their site, thus forcing those people to purchase that domain from NSI and not from any other registrar for up to five days.  Some writers call this practice Front Running, but it’s not clear (a) that this is in fact what NSI is doing, or (b) that this is actually the right word for it anyway.

I don’t know what’s worse – sketchy business practices, or the whiny consumers who don’t think before they click.

Let’s start with Network Solutions.  They’ve put up a search box on their site called “find a domain” that does more than just tell you if a domain is available.  It reserves that domain for a while.  They don’t tell you this anywhere that I can see.  Seems to me that if a search box will have an effect on a possible transaction, you should tell people about that.  Looks like they’re trying to get back some of the old monopoly they used to have.

NSI’s PR team have been working to turn the tide, but their response doesn’t seem to be hitting the issue head-on.  In fact, it sounds a little weasly, and that’s the last thing crisis PR should be.  In part…

This protection measure provides our customers the opportunity to register domains they have previously searched without the fear that the name will be already taken through Front Running.

So, this is for your own good, and to prevent other even more evil actors from swiping your searched domains.  Hmm.

As an interlude, let me say that as a marketeer, I think NSI is not just allowed, but obligated by good business sense, to use the data collected from the search box on their own web site.  But, they are also obligated to provide some disclosure about how they are going to use the data collected.  Virtually all decent web sites have privacy policies or terms of use somewhere.  Yes, I know, nobody reads that stuff – myself included – but they should.

OK, now the other side of stupid.  The people who feel cheated or abused by NSI’s action.  I understand (see above) but… 

(1) Why would you search for available domains on NSI if you intended to purchase them at some other registrar?  Doesn’t the other registrar have a search tool, too?  As many have pointed out, NSI is the most expensive registrar out there, and there are lots of tools for checking domain availability that are not associated with any registrar at all.

(b) Are you really surprised that NSI – or any other commercial web site – would use any information you choose to give them to their advantage? Are you shocked and horrified that Amazon and Google are mining your data like there’s no tomorrow?

(iii) Even though we all know there’s near zero cost to running a WHOIS query, don’t you feel a little bit like you’ve gone to dealer A for an extensive test drive, knowing full well you intend to buy from dealer B? 

So… what should be done?

For one thing, the not-so-invisible hand will slap NSI upside the head.  They will suffer and they will have to come clean on this.  Additionally, the coverage will make it a little clearer to the internet-using public that they should be a little more careful about clicking around.  Caveat surfor, if you will.

What should have been done?  If we could travel back in time to the meeting at NSI where this idea was discussed,  we would probably either advise against the tactic completely, or at least advocate for fuller disclosure of the new process.

If you ask me, that plan doesn’t go too far enough.  What NSI should have done is they should have gone out with this as a feature.  Next to the “find a domain” box would be a tick box or callout or something proclaiming, “hold a domain free for five days” or something.  It could be a differentiator – briefly – in the otherwise commodity world of domain registration.  I’ll wager that a touch of guilt made them hide it, when a little vision and imagination could have made something of it.

As Johnny Cash used to sing,

Well you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s done in the dark will be brought to the light