Have you just let your domain expire?

You want your own domain, it’s cheap isn’t it? One extreme case I got hired to help out with had purchased over 20 domains for a brand new initiative. It had sunk a lot of money into the new initiative, so maybe they thought this domain acquisition spree was an incidental cost and protected their brand new identity. I suggested that they do not use them, at all, because it would be utterly confusing and over time simply add unnecessary costs for no benefit. But, here is some freshly baked advice.

Many businesses and projects invest in multiple cheap domains, perhaps without thinking things through. How long is the project/business for, and importantly, what happens after the project/business is wound up? A typical case has a project up and running for a few years, but a marketing campaign or one off event could be for as little as a few months. Once the initiative is over the project manager moves on and in a year or 2 the domain expires. No one really notices, as no one is actively paying attention. The domain is lost and the website usually at this point stops working. At Our Locality it can be reverted easily to its placeholder domain so www.mybeautifulsite.com could be reverted in a second to https://ourlocality.org/mybeautifulsite/.

Nobody cares anymore, until an unsuspecting individual finds a reference to the expired website (I did recently, hence this article) in an official document or a report. The link is on an authoritative website and trusted, like a Local Council or the project sponsor/donor/funder or perhaps even a newspaper article, that covered your story at the time. However, the unsuspecting user discovers that there is a completely different website at the other end! It clearly has nothing whatsoever to do with the original project, but turns out to be a shopping website, perhaps selling high value fashion or sneakers, so you click around curious.

The first time I saw this, I couldn’t quite figure it out. Why would someone buy expired domains to promote completely unrelated wares? Could it be that the community project had a bit of traction and loads of people linked to it? Well, yes, it seems that is a starting point for some projects of greater longevity. Private blog networks are run by black hat SEO people (these are the bad guys) who depend on link quality hoping to get found by unwary users, a careless click and they get paid.

Some of these websites don’t sell anything at all, but are fake e-commerce portals, with high value consumer goods for sale at ridiculously competitive prices. Whether or not they deliver anything I don’t know, but they can easily harvest credit card information from unsuspecting punters drawn in by the cheap prices. It takes literally minutes to crank up a clone website on that expired domain. A few configurations later the new owner can grab a free SSL certificate for greater authenticity and the trap is laid. Repeat 10s or 100s or 1000s of times, from the safety of your bedroom. Thankfully we’ve not heard of anyone who has come to harm, but it is just a matter of time, the internet is not and never was a safe place.

[Edit 16:48 Sunday 14 June 2020]  As well as domains, old instagram and twitter accounts are also sought after, especially if they’ve got a bit of a track record and can be used by bad actors to propagate misinformation or just add spurious credibility to  an account which is up to no good. [Edit 16:48 Sunday 14 June 2020]

Our recommendations:

1. Don’t buy more domains than you need – 1 (yes one) will normally do

Unless you plan to go global in one great big step, it is a waste of time and money. You don’t need the .this version and the .that version – just pick the one that first your sector and localises it. Avoid premium (aka exotic) domains, at a discount – it’ll cost you dear in later years.

2. Don’t let your domain expire

There’s a bit of control freakery in all of us, but if you really trust your web host let them handle the domain side, make sure they set the domain to auto-renew. I would recommend that you buy a domain for 5 or even 10 years, something which may not be available on all platforms or for the exotic ones. Even if it is a short term project, this minimises the risk of “reputation damage” to your organisation from the confusion that could arise if you lost it.

3. Don’t buy another domain just because you need to create a new website

This is a common scenario, the old website links to the new website. No harm done, surely? In time, however, the new website owner forgets or fails to pay for the old domain and you can only hope the SEO hawks pounce on it first before the fake e-commerce scammers do. It is easy to transfer the old domain to your new provider or link the DNS to your new website. If you need to move hosts, you should be able to create your site in a staging environment or a temporary placeholder locator.

4. Always ask before you buy or say goodbye

Ask OurLocality to reroute your domain properly to your new domain/website. Ask for the domain to be transferred into your ownership if you are leaving us. Don’t forget to say goodbye.

We can probably help you with a lot more than websites and domains, including other arcane internet things, like email, cloud services, and so on.

By @ourlocality

Publishing Locally in East Lothian since 2010