Eugene Driscoll is a journalist and horror movie-buff turned blogger that runs the Hollywood Chainsaw Blogger site. He made a very common mistake in that he let his domain name, which forwarded on to his blog, expire.
Whether intentionally or accidentally, many webmasters lose their domains. While some are purchased by other webmasters wanting to set up a new site, it is seemingly more common for them to be purchased by domain speculators who turn them into garbage domains with lots of advertising hoping to profit from residual traffic and/or resell it at a higher price.
However, Driscoll’s case was a bit unique. The purchaser of the domain, a Russian using a host in Germany, wasn’t content on merely getting the domain itself and also copied all of Discoll’s site, including all the content and the template, and set up a mirrored version of the blog at the domain.
At first glance, the two sites appeared to be the one and the same but the new domain version had made slight alterations to the layout, such as removing the blogroll and changing the content in the sidebars, mostly to remove unwanted links. The site had also inserted advertising not present in Driscoll’s site, turning it into a for-profit venture.
Though Driscoll’s story has a happy ending, I was able to secure closure of the site via my new DMCA takedown service (though the EDEC was used in this case), it serves as a warning to bloggers and webmasters everywhere, be careful to not let your domains expire as they can be used against you.
The Importance of Domains
Many new blogging services like Tumblr, Posterous and WordPress.com make it easy to integrate a domain into your site even though they really aren’t necessary. Many of these bloggers buy domains for their sites for convenience but get most of their traffic directly to their their username from other users of the service.
This may make it tempting to let those domains lapse when renewal time comes as the lack of traffic and use can make them a bad deal. However, where it might not have a great deal of value to you, it could be very valuable to someone else.
Not only do domains have residual traffic, but they also have residual links. The links that went to the domain don’t disappear and that means both the people who click them and the search engines that see them will continue to visit them. This gives the domain weight.
When most spammers get a hold of such previously used domains, they just upload garbage content and ads in hopes of riding that residual traffic. However, as Driscoll’s case shows, some are getting much more aggressive and are swiping the domain for the purpose of creating a duplicate site.
This is considerably more dangerous than regular spam blogging as the domain was previously associated with the site, is a TLD and has inbound links. This means that search engines, very likely, will give it higher ranking than the source, trusting it over the original.
Though this case is fairly unusual in my experience, most cases of expired domains being bought involve garbage content or wholly different sites, it is easy to see how this problem could grow to be more common.
But even if it doesn’t the fact at least a few spammers are trying it is a clear sign that webmasters need to be extra careful with their domains, even if they aren’t actively relying on them.
The obvious solution to this problem is to keep up on your domains but this can be difficult even for very careful webmasters. Contact information often gets old, especially when one owns many domains, and reminders to renew often don’t make it to their destination.
The best thing you can do is use one registrar for all of your domain purchases, if possible, and be sure to whitelist your registerar’s domain in your spam filters. This makes it so that you only have one set of contact information to maintain and you know all correspondence from them will not be sent to your spam folder.
If you have to let a domain expire and have some time to plan for it, point the domain away from your sites before it goes belly up and try to get those linking to it to change to the new URL. This will make the domain a less appealing target for spammers. However, if you have enough time to do that, you would likely be better off selling the domain yourself, and setting the terms of the sale while reaping some profit.
But even with every precaution taken, this is a very difficult mistake to avoid and one that many, many bloggers make (including myself at least twice). What’s changed is that, where once it was a fairly minor mistake, especially if the domain wasn’t in active use, now spammers are using it as an opportunity to try and completely replace the original site, using their own domain.
That should give most webmasters at least a brief pause to think and perhaps work on a new domain strategy.
Sadly, there is no easy way around this one, we will all just have to be more careful with our domains moving forward. This case indicates that at least some spammers are getting more aggressive about buying expired domains and building them into replacement sites for the original.
If you use your domain as your primary URL, you probably don’t need me or anyone else telling you how important it is to hold on to it. However, if you use it as a secondary URL, such as many people on blogging network sites, the danger is less clear.
In the end, if you purchase a domain and connect it with your site, you need to protect it and make a commitment to it. In the wrong hands it could be a very powerful and dangerous tool to replace you and eradicate the position you’ve worked so hard for.
The days in which one can let domains come and go without consequence may very well be coming to an end.
So be careful with your domains and, if you do let one expire, watch it carefully to see what is done with it so you can respond if needed.
Special Thanks: This story was retold with the permission of Driscoll, thank you for letting me share the case to help warn others.