What to Know When Buying Expired Domains for Traffic

Published by
Kenny Novak
on November 13, 2015
Written by ContentPowered.com

What happens to a website when it dies? Does it go to website heaven? Geocities did, with a Tumblr account dedicated to posting archived screenshots of individual pages so memory of the site will never truly die. Most sites, though, don’t get that luxury.

Geocities itself is actually an interesting example. Try to visit the URL today and you’re taken to Yahoo’s small business website hosting. This is, in a sense, the effect we’re looking to create with expired domain buying. The difference is that Yahoo already owned Geocities to begin with, so redirecting the domain to their web hosting portal isn’t unusual.

The concept of expired domain marketing isn’t new, exactly, but it’s not a technique that’s widely used. It’s not black hat itself, but it can be used and abused in a detrimental manner. There are some tips and tricks to doing it properly, though, and safely for your site. As usual, the trick is to keep relevance in mind.

I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start from the beginning, explain the mechanics of expired domain traffic, and how you can use it safely.

Domain Registration and Expiration

To run a website, you need a domain name. A domain name is a plain English set of characters that you can use in place of trying to remember a tricky IP address. If you’ve ever looked into the complexity that is modern IPv6 addresses, you’ll be thankful.

Whois Data

When you register a domain name, you’re essentially buying ownership of it for a set period of time, usually a year. Domain registrars are essentially middlemen between you and the ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN is the entity that assigns IP addresses to regions, like a city planner assigning geographic areas for different kinds of development. Name servers maintained by ICANN keep records of what domains are assigned to what IP addresses, and so forth.

As long as you run a site and own a domain, the domain points to the IP address of your site server. You could, technically, not have a domain name and require users to type in your IP address. No one does this because it’s a bad idea. Still, if your domain expires but your hosting still exists, your site can still be accessed, just not via the domain name.

Domains expire when the contract to own them ends. Typically, one of three things will happen.

  1. You re-register it so you continue to own it. You can do this in advance so there’s no lapse.
  2. The domain registrar parks the domain with ads while waiting to sell it to someone else.
  3. Someone else buys the domain and does what they want with it.

Two and three can happen in sequence, and they’re where your opportunity to make a profit through expired domain buying comes in.

Buying Expired Domains for Traffic

The concept behind expired domain buying is pretty simple. Wait for a domain to expire or find existing expired domains for sale. Identify if these domains suit your needs and have existing links and traffic. Buy them and leverage them to send that traffic and those links to your site, where they can benefit you. Strive to convert the traffic into readers and customers, filter the links for as much value as possible, and repeat the process with other domains.

When you find a domain you’re interested in and you think it might be up for sale soon, you have a few steps to take.

  1. Use Whois information to identify when the actual expiration date is. Sometimes a dead site can still have 5+ years of registration left.
  2. If the expiration is soon and it’s unlikely to be renewed, identify the domain registrar.
  3. Identify the auction partner of the registrar. Some companies handle it manually, while others work with a site like NameJet or SnapNames to sell expired domains.
  4. Determine the demand for the domain name. Some will be in competitive auctions and can go for $15,000, $20,000 or more. Others will have no demand and you can simply buy them for the usual $10 fee.
  5. If the domain goes to auction, determine a maximum price you’re willing to pay, and bid up to that point. Don’t get tempted to keep out-bidding, because you don’t want to go excessively over budget. You can read more details about domain auctions here.

Ideally, at the end of the process, you will have spent a reasonable amount of money for a domain with a decent amount of traffic, which you can then leverage for your own use. There are several ways of leveraging value from expired domains. I’ve listed the four most common below, and listed some of their pros and cons.

Exploring the Options: 301 Redirects

This is by far the easiest and least intensive option for leveraging existing traffic to an expired domain. It’s fast to do, easy to set up, and it just works. On the other hand, it isn’t always very effective, and it only works for a short time.

Domain Redirect Namecheap

Essentially, what you do is implement a hard 301 redirect from the old domain to the new domain. Any and all traffic coming in to the old domain will find itself on your domain. The 301 redirect is meant to pass both link value and traffic, but it’s unclear how much link value actually passes in this transition. You can read a detailed analysis of links here.

The pros of 301 redirects are pretty limited. It’s very easy to set up and it’s simple to get running. It’s also a guarantee that 100% of the traffic coming in makes it to your site.

On the other hand, there are a lot of cons. Links are unlikely to pass any value, just traffic. You might miss out on value from the miss-match between branded anchor text and your site. You also might suffer any lingering penalties from the old domain.

This is the best option if you’re putting as little time, money, and effort into domain buying as possible. Otherwise, if you have more to invest, or you paid for a more expensive domain, there are better options.

Exploring the Options: Microsite Filtering

Microsite Example

This option involves creating a website to sit on the expired domain you buy. It’s not a real website, though. It’s more like a specialized landing page, tertiary to your own site. It won’t have much content, it won’t have a blog, it won’t have any of the time consuming aspects of running a site. It just links to your main business, but it exists in a more robust form.

This method has some notable benefits over the 301 redirect strategy. For one thing, as an actual site, links from that site to your site will pass value. Links coming in to that site will also maintain more value. It also can rank in search as its own entity, giving you possibly two positions on the front page.

Additionally your microsite can be used for more experimental tests or silly attempts at marketing that your main brand might not want to touch for fear of losing value.

On the cons side, it’s a significant investment to make a microsite. You also can’t be too overly promotional of your main site, or you can be penalized for setting up a link farm, link pyramid, or other link scheme. You also don’t get link or traffic value to your main site directly, it has to pass through the microsite filter. If the microsite isn’t very good at sending traffic along, you aren’t getting anything out of it.

Exploring the Options: Site Overhauls

This third method is the most time consuming of all of them, and it really gets away from the idea of benefiting your primary site with the value from an expired domain. It’s more like taking over the old site and bringing it back as a business you can monetize, and using that to diversify your own portfolio and potentially send some link and traffic value the way of your primary site.

Wayback Machine

The idea here is that you’re just revamping and running the site that disappeared. This has a few benefits, at least. For one thing, it has some established branding, audience, presence, and value. You don’t have to do all of the tedious new site development. You can get a lot of search value out of this, but there are plenty of problems as well.

For one thing, it takes a lot more work to run a site than it does a microsite or redirect. It really is an entire secondary business, with all that entails. You have to be careful to not mimic the expired site too closely or people will accuse you of content theft, and you can’t be too closely related with your main site for similar reasons.

Exploring the Options: Domain Parking

This option is a lot like the first, in that it’s low effort, but it also doesn’t get you a lot of long term value. Essentially, when a domain expires and the registrar is trying to sell it, they park it with a landing page for their service and some ads to make some money. You can implement a parking system on a domain you own as well, and make some money on the side.

The downside to this, of course, is that parked domains lose value quickly. Links die and will be removed, users stop visiting, and your value tapers off. It’s a time limit on your investment, more than anything. You also don’t get any links or value passed to your main site; the benefit is purely in monetary form via ad revenue.

On the plus side, it’s very easy and it earns you some money before it fades. If the return on investment is good enough, you can certainly profit by doing this method.

Keeping Your Site Safe Through Relevance

No matter what method you choose, there’s one thing you need to watch out for when you’re looking for a domain to buy. For any method other than the parking, what you want to do is find a site that is relevant to your business.

You know how, when it comes to links, a link from a high value site in your niche is great but a link from a high value site unrelated to your niche is awful? The same thing is at work here. If you’re buying up a poker site URL to redirect to your domain on cat grooming, those links are going to be valueless. In fact, they might even look like spam as far as Google is concerned, which can hurt your site more than the value of the expired domain could help.

Domain Qualities to Seek and Avoid

Google Penalty Example Analytics

In addition to relevance, there are qualities to avoid and qualities to seek out in any domain. I’ve made you a list so you don’t have to work them out for yourself.

  • Seek out older domains. The older a domain is, the more SEO value it has had time to accumulate. Something at least 3 years old is idea.
  • Seek out domains with high Mozrank metrics. Mozrank includes their domain authority and page authority metrics, which have largely replaced Google’s PageRank since they stopped updating it publicly.
  • Seek out domains with high metrics with other major SEO companies. Majestic SEO and SEMrush both have great metrics you can monitor, like trust flow and monthly traffic numbers.
  • Seek out domains with high quality backlinks and a minimum of spam links. If the site only has “value” due to black hat exploits, you don’t want it pointing at your legitimate site.
  • Avoid domains that brag about Alexa rankings. Alexa isn’t widely used these days outside of website flippers, and for good reason. It’s a very skewed metric.
  • Avoid domains that have existing Google penalties. You don’t want to pass the penalty on to your main site.
  • Avoid exact match keyword domains. These are largely devalued by Google and are difficult to successfully exploit.
  • Avoid excessively lengthy domains. 12 characters is generally enough for catchy branded domains.
  • Avoid domains that aren’t .coms. Unless the site that existed there was very relevant and very high profile, off-TLDs aren’t going to get you as much value as a solid .com.

Check Link Profiles for Expiring Domains

Ahrefs Link Profile Penalty checking

I wrote this in the list above, but it’s worth reiterating. Expired domains will be removed from search results very quickly, so the majority of the value from an expired domain comes from the residual links that aren’t removed. If those links are spam links, referring them to your site is just going to hurt you. If they’re unrelated but minorly valuable links, you should also stay away. Why? That’s a sign of a link pyramid, which is a black hat link scheme and can be penalized when it’s discovered. In fact, discovery might be why the previous site died.

What you’re looking for is a link profile with middling to high quality links in the majority. Something that shows the previous owner actually cared, even if they didn’t care enough to keep the site alive. That’s where the real value comes.

The better the link profile and the higher the traffic, the more you should consider one of the more time consuming methods of leveraging the expired domain. An expired domain with high value will cost you a lot, and it means you need to put more work into it to get the most out of it, or else you’ll lose out in the long run.

Be Wary of Bot Traffic Inflation

One thing you shouldn’t put too much stock in when you’re investigating expired domains is traffic numbers. Domain auctioneers will post the highest numbers they can record, even if they aren’t representative. This combines with the fact that there are a lot of web bots out there that scrape whois information and then go monitor domains that are near expiration in the hopes of catching them first. This inflates traffic numbers and makes a site look more valuable than it really is.

Don’t Forget to Measure ROI

Finally, you need to take costs and profits into account. You need to determine the costs in both money and time/energy. How much effort are you putting in to leveraging the expired domain? How much money did it cost to buy the domain? Compare these numbers to what sort of traffic you can anticipate getting out of the domain. How well can you monetize that traffic? Consider worst case scenarios here, so you have a pessimistic outlook to compare against a realistic and optimistic scenario.

Even if it seems like a good idea, avoid investing heavily in a domain that you can’t at least break even on within the first six to twelve months. The longer it takes to establish value, the less of a good investment the domain will be. If you’re taking so long to bring value to your site, all you did was over-pay for a domain and start from scratch.

Written by Kenny Novak

Kenny Novak

Kenny is an SEM and SEO professional. He uses blogging and content marketing as a launchpad for small businesses looking to grow their online presence.

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