The web is a living thing – ever evolving, ever changing. This goes beyond just the content on websites; Entire domains can expire and be inherited, making corners of the internet a bit like your hometown: wait, wasn’t there a Dairy Queen here?
For example, if Marketingwithanoy forgot to pay its domain registrar, Marketingwithanoy.com would eventually expire (on June 10, to be exact). At that point, an enterprising person could conquer the domain and do nefarious things with it. Now, if Marketingwithanoy.com was suddenly red instead of green and selling penis-enhancing pills instead of poking around with great news and terrible puns in equal measure, you’d probably find out something is up. But black-hat SEO tricks are more subtle than that.
When they seize a domain, they will often point the web domain to a new IP address, breathe new life into the site and restore it as close to the original as possible and leave it for a while. When the IP address changes, SEO experts claim that Google temporarily “punishes” the domain by dropping it in the rankings.
This is called “sandboxing” or “the sandbox period” and during this time Google notifies the domain. Once Google determines – sometimes incorrectly – that the IP address change under the domain was just part of a move from one web host to another, the theory is that the domain will rise again in the rankings. That’s when the new domain owner can start his sneaky business: updating links to drive traffic to new places for example, or leave the traffic as it is and add affiliate links to monetize its visitors. At the far end of the scam spectrum, they can use the original company’s good name and reputation to scam or mislead users.
Since the invention of PageRank in 1996, Google has relied in part on the transferability of trust to determine what makes a good website. A site linked to by many reliable websites can generally be trusted. Links from that page, in turn, can also be used as a measure of trust. Massively simplified it comes down to this: the more links a page has from high-quality sites, the more it is trusted and the better it ranks in the search engines.
You don’t have to dig deep to find examples of domains that look legit at first glance, but have been secretly moved to another purpose.
While malicious parties can take advantage of this, it’s also just something that happens on the Internet: sites move from one host to another all the time for perfectly legitimate reasons. As Google’s Search Liaison, Danny Sullivan, noted when I spoke to him about expired domains last week, Marketingwithanoy itself has gone through a few ownership changes over the years, from AOL to Oath, to Verizon Media, to Yahoo, which itself bought last year. by Apollo Global Management. Every time that happens, there’s a chance the new business leaders will want to move things to new servers or new technology, meaning the IP addresses will change.
“If you were to buy a site — even Marketingwithanoy; I think it was AOL that bought you guys – the domain registry would have changed, but the site itself didn’t change the nature of what it did, the content it presented or the way it worked. [Google] can understand whether domain names change hands,” said Sullivan, noting that it’s also possible to change content without shifting the underlying architecture or network topography. “The site could be renamed, but just because it renamed itself doesn’t mean the basic functions of what it did have changed.”
Buying and selling expired domains
You don’t have to look far to find places to buy expired domains. Serp.Domains, Odys, Spamzilla, and Juice Market are some of the most active in the business. (As a side note I have a rel="nofollow" on all three links in the HTML of this article. They don’t get Marketingwithanoy’s sweet, sweet link juice on my watch; as Google notes in the developer documentation; “Use the nofollow value when… you’d rather not have Google associate your site with… the linked page.”)
“Get expired domains that naturally (almost impossible) got authoritative backlinks because they were real businesses,” Odys advertises on his site, adding that they are “obsolete and a mile out of the sandbox period, [and] already have organic, referring and direct type-in traffic.”
These domains are for sale for anything from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. When you see the sites disappear from the “for sale” list and then appear on the internet, it turns out that some of these domains are ethically questionable at best and scams at worst.
It’s pretty easy to determine why so-called “black hat SEO” folks are willing to go to all the trouble: build a domain from scratch, populate it with quality content, wait for people to link to it, and do everything it takes through the book an eternity. Finding a shortcut that shaves months, if not years, off the process and adds the opportunity to make a quick buck? There will always be people who want to go for that kind of thing.
“Google has named inbound links as one of their top three ranking factors,” explains Patrick Stox, product advisor at Ahrefs. “Content will be the most important, but your relevant links will provide a strength metric for them.”
What the spammers are doing?
The spammers buy a domain that has recently expired and use a search engine optimization (SEO) tool like Ahrefs to measure how valuable the site is; it monitors how many links go to the site and how valuable those links are. For example, a link from Marketingwithanoy or the BBC or WhiteHouse.gov would be very valuable. A link from any blog post on Medium.com is probably less so.
Once they find and buy a domain, they use something like the WayBack Machine to copy an old version of the site, paste it somewhere on a server, and — voila! – the site is back. Obviously, that’s both trademark and copyright infringement, but being in the business of spamming or scamming is probably the least of your crimes against human decency, let alone the letter of the law.
Over time – sometimes weeks, sometimes months – Google removes the domain and is effectively tricked into accepting the domain as the original. Traffic will start to pick up, and black-hat SEO wizards are ready for the next phase of their plan: selling stuff or making fun of people. There are entire guides on what to do next to use these domains, including checking for trademarks registered and redirecting the entire domain or specific pages on the domain using what’s called a 301 (“permanently moved”) redirect .
“When a site disappears from the internet” [Google is] just going to drop all signals from the links. That usually happens anyway when a page expires. Where it will be more complicated is whether any of those signals come back for a new owner. I do not think so [Google has] I once really reacted to this in a very clear way’, explains Stox. “But if the same site with the same type of content – or very similar content – comes back, it’s more than likely that the links will start counting again. If you were a site about technology and you’re suddenly a food blog, then all the previous things will probably are ignored.”
However, as with all things in SEO, not everything is cut and dried; it turns out that negative signals continue on expired domains, so it’s obvious that positive signals do too.
“It’s interesting because sometimes sanctions still carry over regardless of the content of the new site,” Stox said. “So some things can still come into play. There is a massive list of Google sanctions – like backlink spam, content spam, paid links, etc. They can proceed to the new site and sometimes people buy… an expired domain and set up a new site. Nothing scores, and upon closer inspection they will find a penalty in Google Search Console.”
Sullivan assured us that the search engine giant knows what’s going on and has traction.
“It’s not just fair to say that all sites bought are spam and therefore should be treated as spam,” Sullivan said, pointing out that the company’s robust spam filters are there to protect searchers. “WWhen spam actually happens, we have a bunch of anti-spam systems in place. There are millions and millions, if not hundreds of millions [pages and sites] which we constantly keep out of the top search results. One metaphor I like to use to help people understand how much work we do on spam is this: if you go to your spam folder, you say, “Wow, I haven’t seen all these emails.” Those are things that existed but didn’t appear because your system said, ‘No, this isn’t really relevant to you. This is spam.’ That’s what happens all the time when searching. If we didn’t have robust spam filters, our search results would look like what you see in your spam folder. There is so much spam and our systems are ready to take it.”
There’s no doubt that Google does a lot to protect us from spam, and yet there is a thriving industry for high-quality expired domains available, whether it’s honest attempts to cut corners or more nefarious deeds.
A thriving industry
You don’t have to dig very deep to find examples of domains that look legit at first glance, but have been secretly moved to another purpose. Here are a few I came across.
An example is the Paid Leave Project, which used to live on paidleaveproject.org, but at one point moved its site to USpaidleave.org. Unfortunately, someone at the organization didn’t refresh and/or redirect the old domain, and the site that used to work hard to make sure employees in the US could get paid time off for their leave is now, well…helping families grow up. different ways:
Another tragic story is Genome Mag, which ran from 2013 to 2016, expired and then came back online as another magazine over which the original owner has no control.