For a minute or two in September 2015, an MBA student in Massachusetts by the name of Sanmay Ved was the proud owner of perhaps the most recognisable URL in the world – google.com.
Sanmay had been browsing Google’s domain registration service when he discovered the search engine’s own domain available for purchase. He hit the ‘buy’ button and charged the US$12 fee to his credit card. To his surprise the transaction went through.
Somewhat predictably, the system quickly rectified the error, refunding the US$12 fee and transferring the registration back to Google. The company offered Sanmay a reward for identifying the bug, but like a champ he asked them to give it to charity instead.
There are those who do what Sanmay not by accident but to make a living. Known as ‘domainers’, these online entrepreneurs are always on the lookout for good quality domains that might generate advertising revenue or have a high resale value. Some might earn the owner beer money. A rare few will sell for six or even seven figures. The barrier to entry is low – the change from the back of your couch is enough to register a domain – and the advertising turnover might only be 10 or 20 bucks a month, but many domainers build up expansive portfolios that can bring in big dollars over time.
The most successful domainers pay close attention to buzzwords, emerging technological innovations and other trends so that they can grab related domains before they become household terms.
David Lye, founder of domain trading company Netfleet, first got into domaining in the early 2000s and recently brokered the sale of accommodation.com for AU$286,000.
“Back then nobody had really heard of it,” he says. “A few years later, a cloud computing company approached me and bought it for AU$8000.” Not a bad return for an investment that cost AU$25.
Some of his more prosaic successes are the ones that best illustrate the scope of what can happen in domaining.
“I registered purplecarrot.com.au and .net.au, as well as the plurals, after seeing a story on Today To-night,” he says. “Most of my colleagues rolled their eyes at me but I sold them two years later for AU$3500. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
If you’re considering taking up domaining, here are a few things to keep in mind:
There’s a difference between cybersquatting vs. domaining.
“Cybersquatting is when you register a domain name which is related to an existing brand so you can take advantage of that brand,” says David. “That is not legitimate in my personal point of view and it’s not what domaining is all about.”
Examples of cybersquatting include registering secondary domains that a brand might have missed (such as the .net when they already have the .com), or misspellings of brand names in an attempt to grab traffic when users make a typo. Domainers, on the other hand, are investors who focus on words and phrases – even random three- and four-letter acronyms – that can’t be trademarked because they are too generic.
There are rules – and you need to follow them.
In Australia, the rules are strict and monitored by regulatory body uDA and they specifically outline exactly what you can and can’t do.
“The whole idea for .au domain names is that they do what they say,” explains Jo Lim, auDA’s chief operations and policy officer. “So shoes.com.au should contain content that is predominantly about shoes. The second rule is that you can’t register domain names that are the same as an existing entity, brand, or personal name. Domainers who deal only in generic domain names are generally okay. It’s domainers who start to dabble in picking up well-known brand names who can find themselves in some trouble.”
There are also specific words that are off-limits.
“We have a reserve list policy that says words and phrases restricted under Commonwealth legislation can’t be used as domain names without authority from the relevant minister,” says Jo. “That includes words like Commonwealth, ANZAC, Olympic and Red Cross.”
You’ll need to add content to your site.
Until 2008, the reselling of Australian domain names was not allowed. Even now, auDA does not allow domainers to purchase domains specifically for resale. That’s why, if you’re interested in dipping your toe in the domaining pool, it’s a good idea to add content – whether it’s just simple advertising or developing a fully-fledged site – to any domains you own.
“Enforcement is complaints-based,” says Jo. “Really you do need to have some kind of content on there otherwise if we receive a complaint it’s not easy for us to see that you haven’t registered it for the sole purpose of resale.”
It’s a real, booming industry you can learn from.
Budding domainers should hit up domainer.com.au and whizzbangsblog.com to start learning the tricks of the trade. There is a huge domaining community both in Australia and globally, which has a strong willingness to share information. There are even a number of domaining conferences throughout the year.
“It’s a bit like a high school reunion mixed into a business convention,” says James Wester, a veteran domainer who bought his first domain in 1998. “The community as a whole is mostly supportive of one another.”
Timing is everything.
“It takes the willingness to pay attention and to not procrastinate when considering an investment, whether it’s $20 or $20,000,” he says. “The best returns on investment I’ve had on domains were all based on something I read, or saw on TV or heard on the radio, and I acted on it. I have registered some really crap domains that deserved to be draped in crime-scene tape and some that were very, very good.”