Google Domains to shut down

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Google Domains was a breath of fresh air when launched in 2015. It stood out from domain registrar competitors with a simple and clean interface, transparent pricing – $12/year for popular domains – and its handy integration with Google Workspace and Google Sites. It’s the domain provider I chose to host, and I’ve been a happy customer for years. Other developers also appreciated its clean interface, straightforward pricing, and trusted Google’s brand.

As such, Google Domains became a popular domain registrar. Since mid-2020, it’s been the #3 most-used domain registrar, globally:

The popularity of domain providers, based on monthly domains registered. Data source: Domain Name Stat
The popularity of domain providers, based on monthly domains registered. Data source: Domain Name Stat

Google Domains was in beta from 2015 to 2022, which is Google’s way of marking in-development services not yet ready for “prime time” due to potential bugs. Google doesn’t take lightly a service exiting “Beta,” as when the company announces this exit, customers know they can count on the service being around – and stable – for a long time. For example, Gmail exited beta 5 years after its inception, in order to attract more use of the service by business.

Google Domains exited Beta in March 2022, 7 years after launch. This move was taken to mean Google was committed to it, and that businesses could rely on it. The exit boosted adoption of domains: it took Domains 7 years to hit 7 million domains, then growth surged after General Availability. As of this month, Google Domains held 10M registered domains: Google Domains adding 3M more domains in just one year.

Now out of the blue, Google Domains is shutting down and Squarespace is buying all customer accounts, barely a year after the product exited beta.

A week ago, on Thursday 15 June, I had to check I was reading correctly when Squarespace published a press release, suggesting it had acquired Google Domains. The press release:

“Squarespace announced today it has entered into a definitive asset purchase agreement with Google, whereby Squarespace will acquire the assets associated with the Google Domains business, which will be winding down following a transition period. This purchase includes approximately 10 million domains hosted on Google Domains spread across millions of customers.”

So what’s being sold, exactly? Google published a help center article making this very clear:

“On June 15, 2023, Google entered into a definitive agreement with Squarespace, where they intend to purchase all domain registrations and related customer accounts from Google Domains.”

A week later, Google has still issued no press release. However, on, 16 June 2023, Google VP Matt Madrigal emailed Google employees and shared more details on what exactly is happening:

“No transfer of technology is included as part of this agreement. Also, Domains employees will not move to Squarespace as part of this agreement but will continue to work with us during the transition period.

This means that this will have an impact on our colleagues in the Domains team. We anticipate that people on this team will remain on this team till the transition is complete - we anticipate this to take 9 months. After the transition is complete, we will provide time and support to our Domains employees to find a new role and project.”

So, Google Domains and Google Cloud Domains are shutting down, possibly in about 9 months’ time. Squarespace has bought the 10M domain registrations and customer accounts, will migrate them over with the help of the current Google Domains team, then Google Domains will be disbanded.

Obviously, there are plenty of questions.

Does this count as selling personal information to a third party?

In 2019, Sundar Pichai wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times, where he recorded a powerful commitment (emphasis mine)

“To make privacy real, we give you clear, meaningful choices around your data. All while staying true to two unequivocal policies: that Google will never sell any personal information to third parties; and that you get to decide how your information is used.”

Google has been true to this promise, and it’s logical that it has. Personal information is very valuable in targeting ads, and advertising is Google’s main business. Of course the company would not sell personal information; instead, it would collect it, keep it secure, and use it to target ads via Google’s infrastructure.

Is Google breaking Sundar’s promise with this deal? Let’s take another look at what’s being traded:

“...[Squarespace] intends to purchase all domain registrations and related customer accounts from Google Domains.”

Phrasing this differently, but with the same meaning:

“Google intends to sell all domain registrations and related customer accounts of Google Domains to Squarespace.”

Note that this is not a merger or acquisition, but a pure sale of assets: a set of domain registrations and customer accounts. These accounts contain personal details like names, phone numbers, addresses, and payment information like credit cards. That payment information will also be transferred:

“Your encrypted billing data will, where applicable, be securely migrated to Squarespace and their PCI-compliant payment processor(s).“

To me, this sounds the sale of personal information to third parties by Google, breaking one of the company’s two “unequivocal” policies.

However, John in the comments makes a very good point on why this would not constitute as selling customer data. As he writes:

“Based on my experience in many privacy roles covering US, EU, UK and other countries, the sale of a company will likely be covered in Google's privacy notice and is not considered a sale of personal data considering customer's personal data will immediately be covered by the purchasing company's privacy notice.

The "we will never sell your personal information" point is related to selling individual customer's data where Google would act as a data broker. A data broker will sell personal data to anyone who will pay with no privacy restrictions on who purchases the data. In this Google - Squarespace scenario, Google will inform customers and make sure that Squarespace's privacy notice is appropriate, which it is actually. More protective than Google's in some ways.

You may have a point that this should be considered a sale, however I think you would have a challenge getting a privacy regulator to add this to the definition of sale as it would be an impediment on selling assets or mergers and acquisitions.”

And John closes with some good advice, on navigating this world where products and companies are bought and sold:

“At the end of the day, it would have been great if we hadn't build an entire economy of free apps where the cost is actually us, our personal data, but the cat is out of the bag years ago on this and it's an uphill fight. My advice to everyone is to use the browser on your phone and limit the apps you download, as most of them pull location data off your device at a minimum. And Apple's privacy ad campaign touts the strong privacy controls in iOS but they don't mention that the controls don't apply to Apple's use of your data.”

What about the second “unequivocal” policy, that users get to decide how their information is used? Well, based on the Google Domains Privacy Policy – which is also Google’s Privacy Policy – Google can do such transfer, as long as they give notice:

“If Google is involved in a merger, acquisition, or sale of assets, we’ll continue to ensure the confidentiality of your personal information and give affected users notice before personal information is transferred or becomes subject to a different privacy policy.”

And this is exactly what Google intends to do:

“Once the transaction between Google and Squarespace is approved you’ll receive more information about the transition of your domain name(s). Google Domains will work with Squarespace to make the transition as seamless as possible for you. This transition process will roll out gradually and is expected to take several months.”

So users will be notified that this information will be sold, and should have the opportunity to move to another domain registrar if they do not want their data to be passed on to Squarespace.

Until now, Google’s business relied on collecting personal data, and using it across its own, wide set of services and advertising products. So there was no incentive to sell customer data, and Google did not. This Google Domains shutdown and customer accounts sale is the first time the company is selling off a part of its business that also sells customer records.

I think this is an important milestone. Can Google customers assume it will not do a similar deprecation and sale with another service, by selling accounts to another third party? I see no assurance that it won’t. But at least we know that customers will need to be notified in advance.

Why is Google staying silent?

It’s been a week since Squarespace’s press announcement. In that time, Google has not issued its own press release to provide more context on what’s happening, nor notified Google Domains customers.

On one hand, it’s understandable Google would hold off on any communication until regulatory bodies approve this sale. Because if some regulators oppose it, then the deal could be off.

On the other hand, not issuing a press release for a week in today’s media environment is odd. Customers are learning Google Domains is likely to disappear, and they’ll be passed to a new provider. How much would you trust your vendor, going forward, if they don’t inform you in a timely manner that they intend to offload you? Don’t forget, many Google Domain customers are also Google Cloud customers, who have also not been given clarity.

I reached out to Google to ask if it will notify customers directly, and if so, when? The company avoided my question in a very short response, writing:

“For the latest information on Domains, please see here and customers can find details on this agreement and what they can expect in this help center article posted by Google.“

While Google is curiously silent, competitors are taking advantage of this communications blunder There is few things that make customers want to leave their vendor than learning about big news – like how they will be sold to another domain provider – not from their vendor. Here is some masterful marketing from Cloudflare, which they send out to Cloudflare customers:

Cloudflare is helpfully informing its customers that if they also have domains with Google Domains: well, that's going to be sold to Squarespace. This message is effective thanks to Google not having said anything to its customers.

I'd expect many more domain providers to follow suite: and why would they not? Customers deserve to be told what will happen with their domain. And there's a good chance that the customers who realize that Google failed to inform them will trust the domain provider that first notified them about this pretty major event.

The immediate winner of this deal is Squarespace. Valued at $4B, the website building and hosting company has got the keys to the world’s 3rd largest domain registrar, and will become the key Google Workspaces partner. Today, Squarespace has “only” 1 million domains registered, but by the time the deal closes this number will be closer to 10 million. Regulatory approval will still have to be granted, but I cannot foresee this deal not going through, as Google is becoming smaller and Squarespace is considered a smaller player in the domain registrar industry. Regulators tend to want to stop large players from becoming even more dominant by acquiring a small, but strategic, company.

This was one out of the five 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:

  1. Why is Google selling Domains? Only recently, Google announced Domains had exited beta status, 7 years after launch, and reinforced its commitment to the product. So why sell it, just a year after General Availability? I talked with Googlers for their opinion – and share my own take. Exclusive.
  2. The impact on Google Cloud. Google is not only selling its consumer Google Cloud business, but also retiring the Google Cloud product, “Google Cloud Domains.” How could such a move impact Google’s cloud ambitions, and will customers churn as a result? Exclusive.
  3. Google Nest’s untrustworthy status page. Google Nest had an outage across Europe, and yet its status page never indicated this, even as the company confirmed to customers an incident was ongoing. Why would a company like Google not utilize its status page to display the real status of the service? Analysis.
  4. Google’s upcoming Duet AI capabilities and pricing. Starting August, Google will roll out Google Workspace AI capabilities for general availability. I got my hands on pricing and other details which are currently known only by a select few customers. The lineup’s impressive, but it’s pretty pricey at an additional $30/month/seat. What will customers get for their money? Exclusive.

Read the full issue here.

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