Domain Registrars which Developers Recommend

👋 Hi, this is Gergely with a bonus, free issue of the Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter. In every issue, I cover topics related to Big Tech and startups through the lens of engineering managers and senior engineers. In this article, we cover one out of four topics from today’s subscriber-only The Scoop issue. To get full issues twice a week, subscribe here.

Google Domains is the third most popular domain registrar globally, in terms of the number of domains currently registered. With 10 million registrations, it sits as the fourth largest aggregate “domains holder”: behind GoDaddy (80M,) NameCheap (16M,) Tucows (11M.)

With Google Domains to be discontinued — as we covered this in detail last week — all 10 million domains will move to a new registrar. Current Google Domains customers who do nothing will be migrated to Squarespace and onboard to its interface. They’ll need to familiarize themselves with Squarespace’s domain management capabilities. However, domain names are easily transferable, and domain registrars I’ve talked with already say they’re seeing a large spike in transfers from Google Domains. Read more about how Squarespace announced buying of Google Domains, and who the immediate winner of this move could be.

We are likely at the start of “a great domain transfer,” with what may easily be millions of Google Domains customers initiating a domain transfer. So I figured that now is a good time to collate registrars which software engineers recommend. This list is useful, not just for Google Domains customers who don’t want to wait to be passed to Squarespace. Anyone planning on registering a domain may find this list beneficial.

As a note, I’ve nothing against Squarespace. It’s been a domain registrar since 2020, and already manages 1 million domain names. Unlike most domain registrars that sell domain names very close to wholesale cost – and make a profit on other services they sell, like hosting, DDos protection, and so on, Squarespace sells domains at a higher margin. A .com domain registration costs $20/year at Squarespace, compared to $12/year with Google Domains, and $9-10 at registrars that sell closer to wholesale .com prices.

Also, longtime readers might find Squarespace familiar, as it was Squarespace principal software Tanya Reilly who wrote the book The Staff Engineer’s Path, from which I previously shared an excerpt and is a book I recommend. If you ask me, it’s a pretty great indicator for Squarespace’s engineering culture to have someone like Tanya work there!

I asked on Twitter “what domain registrars would you recommend / do you use”, and more than 250 techies replied. I suspect most respondents use these registrars for side projects, and some use them at work. The results are very interesting. For context, let’s first look at the global market share of domain registrars, highlighting those which respondents mentioned, later:

The global market share of domain registrars, based on the total number of domain names managed. Only GoDaddy has double digit market share. Source: Domain Name Stat
The global market share of domain registrars, based on the total number of domain names managed. Only GoDaddy has double digit market share. Source: Domain Name Stat

Let’s now zoom in closer, at registrars which emerge in the survey results:

Comparing the relative market share of larger registrars to each other in the group, which puts the next chart in context. Data source: Domain Name Stat
Comparing the relative market share of larger registrars to each other in the group, which puts the next chart in context. Data source: Domain Name Stat

Domain providers which software engineers and other techies recommended in responses to my tweet:

“What domain registrars would you recommend / do you use?” How 251 techies responded. Question asked on Twitter
“What domain registrars would you recommend / do you use?” How 251 techies responded. Question asked on Twitter

Three domain providers stand out: Cloudflare, Namecheap and Porkbun. Let’s go into more detail on these three standout recommendations, and then cover the rest. I’ll share quotes from engineers on why they recommend a provider, and I also reached out to Cloudflare and Porkbun providers to ask if they’re seeing an influx of traffic since Google Domains’ sale was made public.

In-line with my ethics statement, I have not been paid to mention any of these providers, nor do I hold stock in any of them or any of their competitors.

Cloudflare

Cloudflare earned the most mentions, and also comments which most people seemed to agree with. A few comments which represent what many engineers said:

  • “Email routing out of the box, for free. Easy redirect rules. Protection for HTTPS endpoints.”
  • “After moving my domains to CloudFlare, I discovered their DNS is much more than a DNS.”
  • “You pay what they pay — no markups or hidden fees. You also get free WHOIS protection, DNSSEC, and 2FA. Plus, you can use Cloudflare’s network and features to boost your site.”

The biggest complaint about Cloudflare was that it doesn’t yet support several more specialized top-level domains. I asked Cloudflare what they are doing about this, and the company confirmed they’re adding support to .dev and .app by mid July 2023 – those being two highly requested ones.

Due to the volume of mentions, I also played around a bit with the interface by registering a domain to try things out. The clean interface reminded me of Google Domains, but Cloudflare comes with extras off the bat, such as domain proxying included with all domains, that can protect against DDos attacks.

Cloudflare's domain management interface. This interface reminded me somewhat of the one I've come to like at Google Domains.
Cloudflare's domain management interface. This interface reminded me somewhat of the one I've come to like at Google Domains.

Are domain providers seeing an influx from Google Domains customers? I asked Cloudflare and Porkbun directly.

At Cloudflare, Dane Knect, SVP Emerging Technology and Incubation, said many customers come hoping to avoid the “bait and switch” approach of some providers:

“We have seen a massive increase in inbound business from Google Domains customers. When we first embarked on offering a Registrar service to our customers, two phrases kept coming up when we asked customers what they thought about their current registar “upsell” and “bait & switch.” While you can initially buy a domain at a discounted price, upon renewal, customers were always surprised by the new sticker price.”

Cloudflare sells domains “at cost,” so the company effectively loses money on every single purchase. As a customer, you want to know how your provider makes money, and how it will stay in business. On this, Dane said:

“We took a similar approach with Registrar as we did with SSL back in 2014 — we decided it was crazy that people should have to pay to be encrypted online. In 2014, we became one of the first services to say that you should get encryption at no extra cost, even on our free plan.

We saw the same thing happening with domain registration — there’s a cost to operating a TLD, and we pass that onto our customers. But all we’re really doing is pinging an API, and there's a minimal cost to us, so we see no reason for our customers to pay more than wholesale. The promise we made to our customers when we announced Registrar in 2018 was never to charge a markup beyond our costs, and we plan to stick to that promise.”

Namecheap

Namecheap was another standout mention. A few quotes by engineers recommending it:

  • “It has an outdated, 2000s-era UI, but to me, that's a positive sign. It indicates that their core business is robust enough that they don't need to invent unnecessary new features arbitrarily.”
  • “My reason is simple - it is their bread and butter and also so much trusted in the Hacker News community.”
  • “Been with Namecheap for around 5 years. Love it.“

Lots of devs referred to having used Namecheap without issues for years. In what’s a nice sign, the CEO of the company is active on Twitter and responds to customer complaints and comments.

Namecheap is an example of a company that’s launching a new product called Spaceship to sell domains below wholesale cost, by coupling the domain with shared hosting and email packages. This kind of bundling will only become more common. Just be aware of where the subsidy for the domain comes from!

Porkbun

Porkbun is the most unlikely domain provider on this list. I mean, look at the site:

Porkbun’s website. The company describes itself as “Porkbun is an amazingly awesome ICANN accredited domain name registrar based out of the Pacific Northwest. We're different, we're easy, and we're affordable. Use us, you won't be sorry. If you don't use us, we'll be sad, but we'll still love you.”
Porkbun’s website. The company describes itself as “Porkbun is an amazingly awesome ICANN accredited domain name registrar based out of the Pacific Northwest. We're different, we're easy, and we're affordable. Use us, you won't be sorry. If you don't use us, we'll be sad, but we'll still love you.”

Also, look at these graphics:

Porkbun created a unique piglet for each type of domain they support. And boy, are there a lot of little piggies! Source: Porkbun’s “Awesomeness” page
Porkbun created a unique piglet for each type of domain they support. And boy, are there a lot of little piggies! Source: Porkbun’s “Awesomeness” page

Okay, so why do devs like using Porkbun? Here’s what they said:

  • “They are just very good and affordable 🐷Plus all settings at 1 place 👐 And bulk options!”
  • “I only buy domains from them, and don't use any other services. But it's insanely cheap. They have English-native support and don't outsource it. Very dorky and fun vibe, which is not usual.”
  • "Cheeky brand, name fits well. A page from the Mailchimp product led playbook.”

Porkbun is seeing a 50x increase in transfers from Google Domains. I learned of this statistic after reaching out to Porkbun to ask about how business is going since the announcement of the sale to Squarespace. The company told me this is how much more domain transfers they see coming from Google Domains, versus a year ago. Quite the jump!

I asked the company why they think they’re getting so much business, especially from developers? They said:

“We were the first registrar to offer free SSL certificates via Let’s Encrypt, our overall value is second to none. We were the first to launch our AI Search Generator tool amid the race to incorporate AI into domain name search in response to industry needs and customer feedback.

Plus, you can’t discount the importance of being friendly, fun, and approachable. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, I mean our logo is a pig’s butt.”

Porkbun sells domain names on the cheaper side. While this is good for customers’ wallets, it raises the question of how sustainable the business is. I asked Porkbun how confident customers can be that they won’t go out of business. The company shared a few interesting points:

  • Porkbun was originally launched to run a new TLD registry, and the company owned  .wiki, .ink, .design, .gay, and .tattoo. But post-launch, Porkbun found that larger registrars like GoDaddy did not market these domains the way Porkbun would have liked to, so they launched their own!
  • The unit custom domains brought in the most revenue, initially. From Porkbun: “Since the registry was already making $33 on a .design registration, we asked ourselves how much Porkbun needs to make. Our markup on standard domains remains the same: $1 or less.”
  • And thanks to low margins, Porkbun is mindful of not competing on the same services. As they write: “There are some places where you could point to our lean nature impacting the product: we don’t (yet) have 24/7 support, we are intentional about expanding to other ccTLDs [country code top-level domains] and geographies, and that we have relied on word-of-mouth growth and marketing for much of our history.”

And Porkbun ended with an interesting tongue-in-cheek response by comparing themselves to Google Domains; except that Porkbun is still in business despite its much smaller size, and Google Domains is throwing in the towel, despite the backing of a tech giant:

“We’ll point out that both Porkbun and Google Domains launched in 2015. Google Domains grew to be something like the 4th largest registrar in the world, with much higher margins, and yet we’re the ones still committed to this work and our customers for the long run. We see ourselves in the industry and reinforce that we as a registrar are not going away anytime soon!”

Other registrars

Other providers which several developers recommended, in order of popularity:

  1. AWS Route 53: the obvious choice for those already on AWS.
  2. Gandi: a French provider, especially popular in Europe. AWS uses Gandi under the hood for many of its domains.
  3. iwantmyname: a provider supporting 400+ extensions, operating for 15 years
  4. GoDaddy: given its dominance of market share, I found it curious that relatively few engineers recommended this giant
  5. Hover. A survey respondent: “Been using it for many years. The controls are good, the knowledge base quite extensive, and the support quite helpful when I needed it.”
  6. Namesilo. A popular registrar, globally.
  7. DNSimple. A provider that’s been around since 2010.
  8. Name.com. Around since 2003.
  9. Dynadot. Founded in 2002.
  10. Vercel. The frontend cloud platform company is a popular choice for frontend infrastructure, and offers domain registrations without leaving the service.
  11. INWX: a German registrar
  12. Hetzner: a German cloud provider and registrar
  13. OVH Cloud: a French cloud provider and registrar
  14. Inonos: a German company, founded in 1988.

… and other, one-off, mentions. Clearly, many engineers have their own personal favorite registrars!

Some domain registrar giants are missing from – or surprisingly low down – on this list. GoDaddy is by far the most popular domain registrar, globally. But it  was mentioned surprisingly few times in recommendations from developers. Even more  surprisingly was that Tucows – the domain registrar with the third most domains globally – wasn’t mentioned even once.

Clearly, the target audience both for GoDaddy and Tucows is not the developer crowd. In contrast, Namecheap – the second most popular registrar globally – did remarkably well with the tech crowd, earning the second most mentions behind Cloudflare.

A “cheap domain registrar search site” which several devs recommended to use is TLD-List. This site compares real time prices across providers, ranking domains by affordability. This service is ideal for saving money; for example, when buying domains for a side project. I would caution against only shopping around for price when it’s for a production project, and features like email forwarding, proxying, DDos protection, CDN integration, and so on. Just as important will be reliability, customer support or additional domain tools. Do your research based on the capabilities you need!

Will the Google Domains shutdown make a sizable impact on the domains or cloud computing markets? I am sensing there’s a larger than usual domain transfer wave starting, from Google Domains to other registrars.

The thing is, domain registrations are a very low margin business. The top 3 registrars that developers seem to prefer make close to no money on the domains themselves. Both Cloudflare and Porkbun seem to treat domain names as a loss leader; they take a loss on this service and make it up by cross-selling other services to a subset of domain customers. I assume all other providers selling domains close to wholesale cost do the same.

Seen through this lens, encouraging domain transfers is a marketing activity. And encouraging developers to choose a given provider could be a long-term marketing/investment strategy. Developers who move their domains might not be big spenders today, but several of them could be future decision makers at their company, when it comes to selecting an infra provider, a CDN, security services, or hosting.


This was one out of the four topics covered in this week’s The Scoop. A lot of what I share in The Scoop is exclusive to this publication, meaning it’s not been covered in any other media outlet before and you’re the first to read about it.

The full The Scoop edition additionally covers:

  • Atlassian flattening its engineering organization. Last week, 480 engineering managers at Atlassian were told they are to become individual contributors (ICs.) This fits the trend of fewer managers – and middle managers – across tech. Will more companies to follow this approach? Analysis.
  • A bootstrapped and profitable company making cuts. Zapier is nearly fully bootstrapped: the company took just $1.3M in pre-seed funding, more than 10 years ago. But with more than 800 employees and a $5B valuation, the company has cut 10% of staff. This is interesting, because unlike most companies making cuts, Zapier faced no obvious pressure from investors to do so. So why did it do it? Analysis.
  • Amazon is delaying some MBA grads’ start dates. New grad MBA PMs due to start this summer at L6 levels have had their start dates pushed back 6 months. Could this move hurt Amazon’s employer brand? Exclusive.

Read the full The Scoop here.


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