The web is a life thing – ever-changing, ever-changing. This goes beyond website content; entire domains can expire and be taken over, allowing corners of the internet to become much like your hometown: Wait, wasn’t there a Dairy Queen here?
For example, if TechCrunch forgets to pay its domain registrar, TechCrunch.com will eventually expire (June 10, to be exact). At this point, an enterprising human could take over the domain and do nefarious things with it. Now, if TechCrunch.com was suddenly red instead of green and selling penis enhancement pills instead of hanging out with good news and horrible puns in equal measure, you’d probably know something was up. But black-hat SEO scammers are more subtle than that.
When they grab a domain, they often point the web domain to a new IP address, resurrect 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 warns the domain. Once Google determines – sometimes incorrectly – that the change in IP address under the domain was only part of a move from one host to another, the theory is that the domain will start climbing again in the ranking. This is when the new domain owner can start their sneaky business: updating links to send traffic to new places for example, or keeping traffic as is and adding affiliate links to make money from its visitors. At the end of the scam spectrum, they may use the good name and reputation of the originating company to scam or trick users.
Since inventing PageRank in 1996, Google has relied in part on the transferability of trust to determine what makes a good website. A site that has many high-trust websites linked to can, in general, be trusted. The links on this page can, in turn, also be used as a trust measure. Massively simplified, it boils down to this: the more links a page has from high-quality sites, the more reliable it is and the better it ranks in search engines.
You don’t have to dig deep to find examples of domains that at first glance seem legit, but have been sneakily moved to another purpose.
While bad actors can take advantage of this fact, it’s also something that happens on the internet – sites jump from one host to another all the time for perfectly legitimate reasons. As Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan pointed out when I spoke to him about expired domains last week, TechCrunch itself has had a few ownership changes over the years, from AOL to Oath, to Verizon Media, to Yahoo, which itself was bought by Apollo Global Management last year. Whenever this happens, the new lords of the company may want to move things to new servers or new technologies, which means the IP addresses will change.
“If you were to buy a site, even TechCrunch; 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 which it was working. [Google] can understand if domain names change ownership,” Sullivan said, pointing out that it’s also possible for content to change without the underlying architecture or network topography changing. “The site might rebrand, but just because it rebranded doesn’t mean the core functions of what it was doing had 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 industry. (By the way, I pasted a rel="no tracking" on these three links in the HTML code of this article. They don’t get TechCrunch’s sweet, sugary link juice on my watch; as Google notes in its developer documentation; “Use the no following value when… you prefer that Google does not associate your site with… the linked page. “)
“Get expired domains that naturally gained (nearly impossible to get) authoritative backlinks since they were genuine businesses,” Odys advertises on its site, adding that they “have aged and come out of the period of the one mile sandbox, [and] already have organic, referral and direct inbound type traffic.
These domains are listed for anything from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. Seeing sites disappear from the “for sale” list and then appearing on the internet shows that some of these domains end up being ethically questionable at best and scams at worst.
It’s pretty easy to figure out why so-called “Black Hat SEOs” are willing to go to great lengths: create a domain from scratch, fill it with high-quality content, wait for people to access it, and do it all. in the book takes for-flippin’-never. Find a shortcut that saves you months or even years on the process and adds the opportunity to make a quick buck? There will always be people who are willing to do this kind of thing.
“Google named inbound links as one of its top three ranking factors,” explained Patrick Stox, product advisor at Ahrefs. “Content will be most important, but your relevant links will provide a strength metric for them.”
What do spammers do
Spammers buy a domain that has recently expired and use a search engine optimization (SEO) tool like Ahrefs to assess the value of the site; it checks the number of links to the site and the value of those links. A link from TechCrunch or the BBC or WhiteHouse.gov would be very valuable, for example. A link from a random blog post on Medium.com is probably less so.
Once they’ve found and purchased a domain, they’ll use something like the WayBack Machine to copy an older version of the site, paste it onto a server somewhere, and – voila! — the site is back. Obviously that’s both trademark and copyright infringement, but if you’re in the spam or scam market, that’s probably the least of your crimes against human decency, no matter what. matter the letter of the law.
Over time – sometimes weeks, sometimes months – Google unsandboxes the domain and is effectively tricked into accepting the domain as the original. The traffic will start to pick up, and the black-hat SEO wizards are ready for the next phase of their plan: selling stuff or tricking people. There are comprehensive guides on what to do next to use these domains, including checking for trademarks and redirecting either the full domain or specific pages on the domain using a so-called 301 redirect (“permanently moved”).
“When a site abandons the Internet [Google is] will just drop all signals from the links. This usually happens anyway when a page expires. Where it gets more complicated will be whether any of these signals will return for a new owner. I do not think so [Google has] never really answered that in a very clear way,” Stox explained. “But if the same site with the same type of content – or very similar content – comes back, more than likely the links will start counting again. If you were a tech site and suddenly you’re a food blog, all of the previous items will probably be ignored.
As with all things SEO, however, not everything is cut and dried; it turns out that negative signals continue on expired domains, so it stands to reason that positive signals do too.
“It’s interesting because sometimes the penalties will always carry over, regardless of what the new site is all about,” Stox said. “So some things can still be taken into account. There is a giant list of Google penalties – such as backlink spam, content spam, paid links, etc. They can continue to the new site, and sometimes the people will buy an expired domain and put it up a new site.. Nothing is ranked, and on closer inspection they will find a penalty set in Google Search Console.
Sullivan assured us that the search engine giant knew what was going on and was in control.
“It’s not fair to say that all purchased sites are spam and therefore should be treated as spam,” Sullivan said, pointing out that the company’s robust spam filters are there to protect Researchers. “WWhen real spam happens, we have a ton of anti-spam systems in place. There are millions and millions, even hundreds of millions of [pages and sites] that we constantly keep out of the top search results. A metaphor I like to use to make people understand how hard we work on spam is this: if you go to your spam folder, you’re like, “Wow, I haven’t seen all those e- emails”. These are things that existed but didn’t show up because your system said, “No, that’s not really relevant to you.” This is spam.’ This is what happens on research all the time. If we hadn’t implemented 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 in place to catch it.
There’s no doubt that Google does a lot to defend us against spam, and yet there’s a thriving industry for high-value expired domains that are available, whether for honest corner-cutting attempts or more nefarious acts. .
A thriving industry
You don’t have to dig very deep to find examples of domains that, on the face of it, seem legit, but have been sneakily moved to another purpose. Here are a few that I have encountered.
An example is the Paid Leave Project, which used to live on paidleaveproject.org, but moved its site to USpaidleave.org at some point. Unfortunately, someone in the organization didn’t renew and/or redirect the old domain, and the site that worked hard to make sure workers in the United States could get paid family leave is now, hey well…helping families grow in a number of ways:
Another tragic story is Genome Mag, which ran from 2013 to 2016, expired, and then came back online as a different magazine over which the original owner had no control.