Mastering your domains
It’s been described as ‘THE NEW REAL ESTATE’ – savvy interweb users across the globe are SNAPPING UP the best web DOMAINS and making bank. HERE’S HOW you can get a piece of the ACTION.
For a minute or two in September 2015, an MBA student in Massachusetts by the name of Sanmay Ved was the proud owner of perhaps the most recognisable URL in the world – google.com.
Sanmay had been browsing Google’s domain registration service when he discovered the search engine’s own domain available for purchase. Just to see what would happen, he hit the ‘buy’ button and charged the US$12 fee to his credit card. To his surprise the transaction went through.
Somewhat predictably, the system quickly rectified the error, refunding the US$12 fee and transferring the registration back to Google. The company offered Sanmay a reward for identifying the bug, but like a champ he asked them to give it to charity instead. He was happy to walk away with a cool story and some extra geek cred points. But plenty of other people all over the world go rummaging through available domain names every day, looking to strike gold.
Known as ‘domainers’, these online entrepreneurs are always on the lookout for good quality domains that might generate advertising revenue or have a high resale value. Some might earn the owner beer money. A rare few will sell for six or even seven figures. The barrier to entry is low – the change from the back of your couch is enough to register a domain – and the advertising turnover might only be 10 or 20 bucks a month, but many domainers build up expansive portfolios that can bring in big dollars over time.
The most successful domainers pay close attention to buzzwords, emerging technological innovations and other trends so that they can grab related domains before they become household terms. David Lye, founder of domain trading company Netfleet, registered cloudcomputing.com.au in 2007 after hearing it mentioned in tech circles.
“Back then nobody had really heard of it,” he says. “A few years later, a cloud computing company approached me and bought it for AU$8000.” Not a bad return for an investment that cost AU$25.
David first got into domaining in the early 2000s when he realised how much traffic he could route to the website of his other company, car buying service Private Fleet, by buying generic car-related domain names and pointing them at the site.
“If you got a nice, generic domain name, people would often type that straight into Google and arrive at our site,” he says. Eventually he thought, why limit this to cars? He started amassing .com.au and .net.au domains on all kinds of subjects, reaping advertising revenue from placing third-party keyword advertising on the site.
We’ve all had the experience of searching for information on the web only to hit a single page site covered with vaguely relevant advertising links. It’s annoying, but they exist because the owners do make some return off those links. But how is this different to cybersquatting?
Cybersquatting is when you register a domain name which is related to an existing brand so you can take advantage of that brand,” says David. “That is not legitimate in my personal point of view and it’s not what domaining is all about.”
Examples of cybersquatting include registering secondary domains that a brand might have missed (such as the .net when they already have the .com), or misspellings of brand names in an attempt to grab traffic when users make a typo. Domainers, on the other hand, are investors who focus on words and phrases – even random three- and four letter acronyms – that can’t be trademarked because they are too generic.
Cybersquatting is more common in the unregulated world of global domain names (those that end with .com, .net and so on), but in Australia the rules are stricter and monitored by regulatory body auDA. Jo Lim, auDA’s chief operations and policy officer, says there are some basic rules domainers need to follow to keep things above board.
“The whole idea for .au domain names is that they do what they say,” she says. “So shoes.com.au should contain content that is predominantly about shoes. The second rule is that you can’t register domain names that are the same as an existing entity, brand, or personal name. Domainers who deal only in generic domain names are generally okay. It’s domainers who start to dabble in picking up well-known brand names who can find themselves in some trouble.”
The organisation even keeps a list of words that are identified as off limits to anyone without the correct government authorisation.
“We have a reserve list policy that says words and phrases restricted under Commonwealth legislation can’t be used as domain names without authority from the relevant minister,” says Jo. “That includes words like Commonwealth, ANZAC, Olympic and Red Cross.”
Until 2008, the reselling of Australian domain names was not allowed. Even now, auDA does not allow domainers to purchase domains specifically for resale. That’s why, if you’re interested in dipping your toe in the domaining pool, it’s a good idea to add content – whether it’s just simple advertising or developing a fully-fledged site – to any domains you own.
“Enforcement is complaints based,” says Jo. “Really you do need to have some kind of content on there otherwise if we receive a complaint it’s not easy for us to see that you haven’t registered it for the sole purpose of resale.”
Besides getting to know the rules set out by auDA, budding domainers should hit up domainer.com.au and whizzbangsblog.com to start learning the tricks of the trade. There is a huge domaining community both in Australia and globally, which has a strong willingness to share information. There are even a number of domaining conferences throughout the year.
“It’s a bit like a high school reunion mixed into a business convention,” says James Wester, a veteran domainer who bought his first domain in 1998.
“The community as a whole is mostly supportive of one another.”
When thinking about what domains you might like to register, David suggests keeping an eye on the news, mining your own personal expertise for niches you might be able to specialise in, and using tools like Google Trends to see what people are talking about.
“We’ve got all sorts of customers at Netfleet,” he says. “There’s one domainer who only buys domains related to dentists and dental products.”
Finding out if a domain is available is as simple as plugging it into any domain registration service, but one avenue firsttimers often overlook is domains that are set to expire – about 1500 Australian domains expire daily. Everyday Netfleet lists some of these in a blind auction, ending at 2pm, and their software swoops in to try and register them faster than anybody else. The process is called drop catching and it can be a great way to find high-quality domains.
Timing is everything, according to James: “It takes the willingness to pay attention and to not procrastinate when considering an investment, whether it’s $20 or $20,000,” he says. “The best returns on investment I’ve had on domains were all based on something I read, or saw on TV or heard on the radio, and I acted on it. I have registered some really crap domains that deserved to be draped in crime-scene tape and some that were very, very good.”
He recently brokered the sale of accommodation.com for AU$286,000, but some of his more prosaic successes are the ones that best illustrate the scope of what can happen in domaining.
“I registered purplecarrot.com.au and .net.au, as well as the plurals, after seeing a story on Today Tonight,” he says. “Most of my colleagues rolled their eyes at me but I sold them two years later for AU$3500. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
WHAT TO DO WHEN SOMEONE ELSE HAS THE DOMAIN YOU WANT
That moment when you come up with the perfect business name only to find that the domain name is already taken? Here’s what you can do about it:
DO A WHOIS LOOKUP
This will tell you who owns the domain and possibly how to contact them. Australian domains can only be registered by ABN holders, so if the registrant is no longer operating as a business, auDA might be able to help you get the domain. Go to ausregistry.com.au/whois for more.
MAKE A COMPLAINT
If you believe the registrant is infringing on your legal rights as a trademark holder, you can submit a complaint to auDA. If they find in your favour they can organise for it to be transferred to you.
OFFER TO BUY IT
Netfleet is one of many auction platforms where domainers list domains for sale to the highest bidder. Domainers are also usually open to offers at any time. But be wary – some brokers are more legit than others and mysterious second bidders often come out of the woodwork.
THINK OF SOMETHING ELSE
If all else fails, get creative. You could settle for a .net, experiment with abbreviations or potentially think of a whole new name for your venture.