The dark patterns of Network Solutions

Registering a domain name at Network Solutions can be tricky and pricey, and transferring a domain away from them is an unwarranted waiting game.

Network Solutions

I occasionally stumble upon a domain name I want that’s already registered and isn’t being used. If I can’t establish communication with the registrant, I will typically backorder it via SnapNames. When the domain I’ve backordered expires, SnapNames will attempt to acquire it. If they do acquire it, and I’m the only person that backordered it, it’s mine. If more than one person has backordered it, SnapNames will auction the domain, awarding it to the highest bidder.

SnapNames works and I’ve successfully bought six domains using their backorder service. There’s just one catch. Acquired domains are managed through Network Solutions, and transferring a domain away from them takes a significant amount of time and patience. The transfer process is so lengthy compared to other registrars I’ve used, I decided to document the experience.

To streamline documenting the domain name transfer process, I registered difficulttotransfer.com at Network Solutions. What I experienced was a registration process that was full of dark patterns.

What it’s like registering a domain from Network Solutions

The first page in Network Solutions’ checkout process is a domain privacy upsell, something that is typically included for free by most reputable registrars. Network Solutions asked me to pay $2/mo ($24/year) to obfuscate my contact details from whois records.

Network Solutions Private Registration upsell
Network Solutions charges for domain privacy, which is typically included for free by most reputable registrars

I declined the upsell and the next page presented me with different packages to choose from. Based on the package titles, it appeared like the first option was for a domain name only (what I wanted), and the second and third options were for a domain with hosting. It also looked like the Domain Only package only costs $20/year for a domain.

Network Solutions website packages
Choosing the Domain Only package is not what it seems and is the start of dark patterns by Network Solutions

If you were attempting to only register a domain and to do it as quickly as possible like I was, you might have missed a couple key points:

  1. The Domain Only package title is deceiving. There isn’t a domain only package to choose from. No matter what you choose, you’re signing up for a hosting package.
  2. The price for the domain is $20/year if you register it for three years, but they switch it to $25/year if you only register it for one year. That makes the price of a .com domain $10-$13 more than most registrars, and $16 more than the wholesale price provided by Cloudflare. And you still don’t get any extra features like domain privacy.

I chose the Domain Only package and was then prompted on the next page to subscribe to Domain Protection for $9/mo (totaling $99/year the first year and $108/year for subsequent years). Apparently, the domain I was registering “needs to be protected from malicious attacks.” Their documentation states that they will scan my site and remove malware from it automatically.

Network Solutions trying to upsell on site protection
Network Solutions upsells on domain protection that is really website protection

Since I was only registering a domain, didn’t have a site yet, and I get all of the protection I need from Cloudflare’s Free plan, I chose No Thanks and continued to the next page. It did concern me, though, that someone registering a domain name for the first time might think they need to pay $9/mo for their “domain protection” services when in reality, they likely don’t.

As I stated previously, the Domain Only package is not a domain-only package. No matter what package you choose, they still add hosting to the checkout. They also make the hosting package look like it’s free, but it isn’t. It’s only free for the first month. If you don’t cancel the hosting trial before the end of the first billing month, they will automatically start charging you $5.69/mo (totaling $62.59/year for the first year and $68.28/year for subsequent years).

Network Solutions adds two extra registration years and hosting automatically
Network Solutions automatically adds hosting and two additional registration years

Also, changing the registration years can be jarring if you didn’t read the fine print on the packages page. When you change the registration length from three years to one year, the price changes to $25/year for a .com domain. The fine print on the checkout page also states that “after the promotional period, the domain will renew at then-current rate to the payment method on file. The current renewal rate for a .COM domain renewal is $37.99 per year.” That means if you choose to register for one year, they will charge you at least $37.99 to renew the following year. Keep in mind that the maximum most registrars charge for a .com domain is $16/year, which is a $24 difference in price.

After removing the hosting package and switching the domain registration period to one year, I clicked the Secure Checkout button. Instead of going to a payment details page, I was presented with a message that said I could prevent ranking lower in Google if I buy an SSL certificate.

Network Solutions upsells SSL certificates
After removing hosting, Network Solutions still upsells an SSL certificate with the threat of lower rankings in Google

There were a few things that concerned me with this page:

  1. I’m registering a domain and have already removed the hosting option, so I shouldn’t be presented with this option. Similar to the domain protection service offered earlier, if I were registering a domain for the first time, I might think I need this when I don’t.
  2. Almost every reputable hosting provider like WP Engine and Pair include SSL for free. It’s usually provided automatically via Let’s Encrypt. And if you use Cloudflare, they also provide SSL for free via their Free plan. Whereas Network Solutions is trying to charge me $8/mo (totaling $89.88/year for the first year and $95.88 for subsequent years) for an SSL certificate I don’t even need.
  3. The page states, “Google recently changed its SEO rankings standards and now places secure domains higher in its search results.” I’m not sure what they mean by recent since the change was made in 2014. Regardless, it’s not that strong of a signal and there are significantly more important things that affect how a site ranks in Google.

To skip buying the SSL certificate that I don’t need, I have to click a button that says Continue Unsecured to move on.

The next page is yet another upsell page. For the low price of $0.83/mo, I can pay to protect myself from allowing my domain to expire for up to a year. If I break down the offer, it equals $9.96/year, which is more than the wholesale price of a .com domain for a year. If I added that upsell, it would bring the price of the domain to $35/year (and a minimum of $48/year after the first year when the domain renewal price increases to $38/year).

Network Solutions upsells domain expiration protection
Network Solutions upsells Domain Expiration Protection without mentioning that they have a 35-day grace period

Additionally, Network Solutions provides a 35-day grace period, making this option unnecessary for the vast majority of registrants. However, one thing it does protect you from is their $40 reinstatement fee.

After clicking the No Thanks, Continue button, I was finally presented with the payment page. The amazing thing about all of the upsells is that even without a hosting plan if I had accepted their other offers, at a minimum I would be paying well over $200 a year for a .com domain with services that would be absolutely useless to me.

Network Solutions payment page
Network Solutions domain registration payment page

I clicked on the Place your Order button, and the confirmation page had one more upsell to pitch me. They presented a valuable registered domain they thought I would be interested in and stated they would negotiate to get the domain for me for $10. Having decades of experience buying and selling domains, this offer, along with knowing how unlikely they were to succeed, made it completely unrealistic to me. I suspected this offer primarily existed as a way to charge money to backorder a domain, which is free to do at their sister company, SnapNames. It was a hard pass from me.

Network Solutions upsells on purchasing an already registered domain
The order confirmation page had an upsell for paying Network Solutions $10 to negotiate the purchase of an unobtainable domain as a way to use their backorder service, which is typically free

What it’s like registering domains from other registrars

Registering a domain at Cloudflare

To set a baseline for fully comprehending the disparity between Network Solutions’ domain registration and transfer process, I also registered and transferred easytotransfer.com from Cloudflare.

Cloudflare’s registrar service has at-cost pricing, which means there’s no markup. The wholesale cost for a .com domain from Cloudflare is around $9, while popular full-featured registrars like Namecheap and Gandi add $4-$7 to the price, maxing out at $13-$16 per year. Also, features like domain privacy are typically included in the annual domain price.

Here’s what it was like registering easytotransfer.com from Cloudflare. The first page confirmed the price of the domain.

Cloudflare domain registration summary page
Cloudflare domain registration overview page

The second page had me enter and confirm my contact and payment details.

Cloudflare domain registration contact details page
Contact Details page for registering a domain on Cloudflare

And the third page confirmed that the domain was successfully registered.

Cloudflare domain registration confirmation page
Cloudflare domain registration confirmation page

That was it! There weren’t any endless upsells or sudden changes in price. Additionally, the registration came with domain privacy and all of the other amazing features that come with Cloudflare’s Free plan, including SSL, CDN, DNS, DDoS protection, and more.

Registering a domain at Gandi

You might be saying, “Sure Jon, but Cloudflare isn’t a fair example. They’re providing wholesale pricing. I think a better example would be an older and larger registrar that marks up the domain price, and also offers services like hosting, email, and SSL certificates, just like Network Solutions does.” Fine, I will indulge you while simultaneously nullifying your point.

Gandi is one of the first domain registrars approved by ICANN. They offer over 750 top-level domains and provide similar services to Network Solutions. Let’s see what’s it’s like when I register alsoeasytoregister.com from them.

When I checked out, I was asked to verify my contact details.

Contact Details page in Gandi
Contact Details page on Gandi’s domain registration checkout

The next page displayed the cost of the domain. Unlike Network Solutions, Gandi didn’t automatically add a hosting plan, change the registration to three years, or increase the price if I only register it for one year. They also presented upfront pricing, which won’t increase by at least 40% after the initial registration period, like Networks Solutions does.

Gandi Shopping Cart
Shopping Cart page for registering a domain on Gandi

The next page had me select the payment method.

Gandi Payment page
Payment method page for registering domains on Gandi

And that was it. The domain was registered. It was a similar experience to registering a domain on Cloudflare. The only difference is that they charged me slightly more than Cloudflare.

The spam in between registering and transferring

Before I show you how difficult it was to transfer a domain away from Network Solutions, I want to highlight the spam I received from them as I waited during ICANN’s mandatory 60-day waiting period (a requirement for newly registered domains).

The first email message I received from Network Solutions was an attempt to get me to purchase their domain privacy service. The message showed how they would continue revealing my personal contact details unless I paid them money. I unsubscribed.

KEEP YOUR PRIVATE INFORMATION OUT THE WRONG HANDS
Marketing email from Network Solutions promoting their paid domain privacy feature

I then received a spam message from a third-party service that stated they saw that I had just registered difficulttotransfer.com. There’s no way to know if they got my email address because Network Solutions sold it to them or if it’s because they wouldn’t provide me with domain privacy unless I paid them. Regardless, I’ve never received third-party spam after registering a domain from Cloudflare or Gandi.

Spam message from Five Tier
Spam email message from Five Tier

9-days later, Network Solutions sent me another upsell message. Since I already unsubscribed, I consider any marketing messages thereafter as spam. This message attempted to upsell me again on their domain privacy feature with a headline in all caps that said, “WARNING: YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION IS IN DANGER.” I unsubscribed

WARNING: YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION IS IN DANGER.
Spam from Network Solutions promoting their paid domain privacy feature

21-days later, Network Solutions spammed me again. Ironically, the headline in this message, in all caps, said, “KEEP SPAMMERS AWAY FROM YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION.” I unsubscribed

KEEP SPAMMERS AWAY FROM YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION
Spam from Network Solutions promoting their paid domain privacy feature

30-days later, yet again, they spammed me. This headline in all caps said, “DON’T PUT YOUR PRIVACY AT RISK. PROTECT IT NOW.” I unsubscribed

DON'T PUT YOUR PRIVACY AT RISK. PROTECT IT NOW.
Spam from Network Solutions promoting their paid domain privacy feature

It was remarkable to me to watch Network Solutions completely disregard to the FTC’s CAN-SPAM Act, let alone the irony of what they were trying to make me pay for and why.

Transferring difficulttotransfer.com from Network Solutions to Gandi

After the mandatory 60-day waiting period passed, I was ready to transfer difficulttotransfer.com from Network Solutions to Gandi. The first step for transferring the domain was to unlock it. After navigating to the domain management section, I scrolled down the page until I saw the Transfer Lock option. I then clicked on the Turn Off link.

Details for difficulttotransfer.com domain
Domain name details on Network Solutions

I was presented with the option to “Leave Domain Transfer Lock off.” I selected that option and clicked the Save button.

Domain transfer lock form
Network Solutions form for changing the lock status of a domain

The page refreshed but kept the “Leave Domain Transfer Lock on” selected. No matter how many times I selected the off option and clicked Save, it refreshed and said it was still locked.

I gave up and returned to the main domain details page and scrolled down to see the status. The status was set to Off, so the form worked, but its confirmation result was broken.

The next step was to get the auth code. I clicked on Authorization Code link and was presented with a page that said “Stop!” and offered me a special one-day-only discounted renewal fee.

Network Solutions offers renewal discount if you don't transfer domain
Network Solutions asks you to stop the transfer and offers a lower renewal price for the domain

I ignored the offer and clicked on the Continue Transfer button and was taken to a page that said “Warning!” It warned me that by transferring my domain away from Network Solutions I risked exposing my public information. This was the same information they had already exposed because I refused to pay them for a service that most registrars provide for free. I ignored the warning, but to continue, I had to click a checkbox acknowledging how risky my transfer request was.

Network Solutions warning about transferring a domain
Network Solutions requires an acknowledgment of agreement to their warning

The next page still didn’t give me the auth code. Instead, I had to fill out a survey before I could proceed. The survey questions included:

  1. What company are you transferring your domain to?
  2. What is the primary reason you have decided to transfer your domain?
  3. Did you purchase your domain at auction?
  4. Do you still have other domain names at NetworkSolutions.com?
Network Solutions domain transfer survey
Network Solutions requires a survey about the transfer before you can proceed

I reluctantly filled out the survey and clicked the Save button. The next page said my request had been received, but it didn’t give me the auth code! Every registrar I’ve ever used provides the auth code immediately, but Network Solutions said I would get my auth code in 3 days.

Auth Code request received
Network Solutions makes you wait an arbitrary three days to get the auth code, while most other registrars give it to you immediately

According to ICANN, there is no reasonable reason for Network Solutions to keep the auth code for three days. But, since Network Solutions stays within the five-day limit allowed by ICANN, submitting a registrar complaint isn’t an option.

After waiting an arbitrary and unreasonable three days to get the auth code, I received an email from Network Solutions with the code.

Auth Code from Network Solutions
Auth Code sent via email by Network Solutions

Having the auth code enabled me to initiate the domain transfer to Gandi. After I submitted the transfer, I received an email message from Network Solutions acknowledging the request. It stated that I had to wait four more days until they would allow the transfer to go through. Most other registrars provide the option to manually expedite the transfer process, but not Network Solutions.

Transfer confirmation email
A confirmation email from Network Solutions about the domain transfer with link to cancel the transfer

In addition to the arbitrary wait time, they sent another message that attempts to make a case for why I don’t need to transfer it. In both email messages, they make it easy to quickly cancel the transfer, but no way to manually speed up the transfer.

Transfer Confirmation Request email message
Additional transfer confirmation message from Network Solutions

One day after initiating the transfer, the domain privacy spam messages were back. Network Solutions sent me yet another email message trying to upsell me on buying their privacy feature. Even though it was futile, I unsubscribed yet again.

YOUR INFORMATION IS STILL EXPOSED. HIDE IT NOW BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE.
Another spam message from Network Solutions

Four days after making the transfer request I received an email notice from Network Solutions that the transfer successfully went through. Something that should have taken about 1 hour, needlessly took 7-8 days.

Transfer Successfully Completed
Email message from Network Solutions confirming the domain transfer was completed

Transferring easytotransfer.com from Cloudflare to Gandi

Unlike Network Solutions, Cloudflare made transferring easytotransfer.com easy and quick. I logged into Cloudflare and navigated to the domain’s configuration page. The page had a clear Transfer Out section with a button that said Unlock.

Domain configuration page
Domain configuration page on Cloudflare Registrar

I clicked on the Unlock button, read the help text, and then clicked on Confirm and Unlock.

Unlock confirmation
Unlock domain confirmation on Cloudflare Registrar

Cloudflare immediately provided the auth code. I copied it and then went to Gandi to initiate the domain transfer.

Auth Code from Cloudflare
Cloudflare provide the auth code for a domain instantly

The transfer process was straightforward, quick, and didn’t attempt to upsell or talk me out of transferring the domain.

Immediately after submitting the transfer request to Gandi, I received an email from Cloudflare. The message stated I could either wait five days or manually speed up the transfer.

Cloudflare will automatically release the domain to your new registrar five days after your request. Want to finish the transfer earlier? You can manually approve the request immediately in the Overview page of the Cloudflare dashboard for your domain.

Email message from Cloudflare after initiating a domain name transfer

I returned to the configuration page in Cloudflare and found a button that said Accept Transfer. I clicked on the button and was presented with the option to process the transfer immediately.

Accept Transfer
Cloudflare provides the option to manually accept a domain transfer

I clicked the Approve button and Cloudflare indicated that the domain had been transferred to Gandi.

Approve Release
Clicking Approve on Cloudflare immediately complete the transfer of a domain to a new registrar

The entire transfer process from Cloudflare to Gandi took less than 10 minutes, whereas Network Solutions took 7-8 days!

Why does this matter?

It concerns me that Network Solutions is a well-known brand and that they leverage that notability with dark patterns in their domain registration and transfer processes. Most of the people I know that have heard of Network Solutions but have never registered a domain could easily be tricked into paying well over $25 for a .com domain with features they don’t need and features that should already be included.

It should concern Network Solutions because review sites like Trustpilot and ConsumerAffairs are full of recent and detailed one-star reviews of how bad their service and support have become.

It should also concern the parent company that owns Network Solutions, Newfold Digital. On Newfold Digital’s Values page, it states:

Focus on the customer, always – Customer focus is deeply embedded in our mindset and behaviors, guiding us in all that we do. We exist because our customers trust us with their online needs, and we take their trust very seriously. We know that we all impact customers through our work. That knowledge inspires us to always act with integrity, listen to the customer’s voice and push for the highest professional standards to reliably meet their expectations.

Newfold Digital Values

From my experience, Network Solutions represents the antithesis of Newfold Digital’s stated values regarding customers.

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Jon is the founder of Coywolf and the EIC and the primary author reporting for Coywolf News. He is an industry veteran with over 25 years of digital marketing and internet technologies experience. Follow @henshaw