Before You Buy a Domain: How to Do Your SEO Due Diligence

Bill's SEO Corner

Note from Morgan: I am very pleased to welcome Bill Hartzer as a new contributing writer for MorganLinton.com. Bill is an SEO guru and a fellow domain geek who will be writing for MorganLinton.com on a regular basis and sharing some of his SEO wisdom with all of you. I feel incredibly lucky to have Bill onboard, he’s one of the best and I look forward to learning from him alongside all of you! Now onto Bill’s first post…

Generally speaking, I personally buy domain names for two separate reasons. One, as an investment. I buy the domain name because it’s a great name, and I hope to resell it to someone else for a profit at some point. In this first case, I generally don’t intend to develop the domain at all. The other reason I buy a domain name is that I intend to develop it–put content on it and create a great website on it. In that case, I normally do my “SEO Due Diligence” in order to make absolutely sure that there aren’t going to be any problems with marketing the site in the future. If you’re thinking about buying a domain name and using it for any sort of website, this here is how to do SEO due diligence to make sure the domain’s past won’t be an issue in the future.

Before I get into the specifics of how to do SEO due diligence on a domain name, let’s look at recent real-world example of a great domain name–but how the domain’s past eventually hurt a business. Founded in 1929, the Newark Nut Company sells bulk nuts and dried fruits, and in 1999 they moved the company’s focus of selling nuts and fruits via mail order to the web. They established NutsOnline.com and eventually ran a very successful site. All on the Nutsonline.com domain name. As a recent NY Times article explains (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/26/business/smallbusiness/newark-nut-company-buys-a-perfect-domain-name-yet-sales-suffer.html):

While shifting focus to the Internet increased revenue, Mr. Braverman feared that the company’s Web address was holding it back. This suspicion was confirmed for him in 2006, when NutsOnline supplied Jordan almonds to the “Ultimate Wedding Guide” episode of Rachael Ray’s television show. At the end of the show, Ms. Ray mistakenly thanked “Nuts.com” for supplying the almonds.

Oops! Rachael Ray mentioned the site as “Nuts.com” and not “NutsOnline.com”.

In 2009, Jeffrey Braverman, the original founder’s grandson, tracked down the owner of Nuts.com and negotiated–and eventually bought the domain name. He hired an SEO guy and “cleaned out extraneous and duplicate pages and set up redirects to send NutsOnline visitors to the corresponding pages on Nuts.” He even used Google Webmaster Tools to help him show Google that the site was moving to a new location. He then flipped the switch and the traffic took a huge dive. Not for a short period of time, but for a long period of time. Turns out that Jeffrey Braverman didn’t do his SEO due diligence on the domain. Here’s where it gets very interesting:

Matt Cutts weighed in on the Nuts.com case later (http://boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/01/debating-the-right-way-to-change-a-domain-name-and-brand-a-nut-retailer/):

“Matt Cutts, chief of Google’s Webspam team, said in an interview that, because Google’s algorithms have to adjust to a new address, sites should expect a temporary drop in traffic immediately after a move, maybe 5 percent. According to Mr. Cutts, Mr. Braverman missed three opportunities to minimize his traffic loss. First, Nuts.com had been a parked or content-free site before the sale, meaning, Mr. Cutts said, that NutsOnline basically moved into what was an abandoned building for the last 10 years. To prepare users (and Google) for the site’s new purpose, Mr. Cutts said, Mr. Braverman should have put up a banner or a simplified site on Nuts.com to announce its new identity several months before moving…
Second, NutsOnline should have moved a small part of the site (a subdirectory or subdomain) to the new address for a month or so before the move to test for problems…
And, third, because Nuts.com had previously gotten much of its traffic from Britain (because of the similarity of its name to that of a British men’s magazine), Mr. Braverman’s team should have done more to set the geographic location of the site…”

So, according to Matt, the best way to move your site to a new domain is to:

  • prepare users, and Google, for the site’s new purpose. Don’t park the domain, but put up actual content explaining the new location.
  • only move part of the site, a subdirectory or subdomain to the new address.
  • set the geo location of the domain (specific to the nuts.com case, because it was the name of a British men’s magazine).

There are several things that I personally do before I buy a domain, especially if I’m going to develop a site on it. By doing all of these different things, you may uncover the site’s past and it’s current state. After each task, I’ve included some notes about it and why you would want to do that task. All are important, and not necessarily listed in any particular order. In this example, I’m using the domain name “dallasluxuryapartments.net”.

  • Search for the domain name in Google like this: https://www.google.com/search?safe=off&site=&source=hp&q=dallasluxuryapartments.net – as you can see, the domain name is listed. If the domain name is in the Google index, and shows up, that’s good. Look at the search results. Are there any red flags? Any weird search results that may indicate the site was up and running and had content on it–and has links from other websites? Other websites may rank for the domain name. If they’re on topic (apartment related) then that’s fine. If not, there may be an issue. You’ll want on-topic links in the future, so any off-topic links you’ll need to get rid of later on. Might take a lot of time to clean up links if you are going to do any SEO later on.
  • Search for the domain name in quotes in Google. Again, looking for any off-topic websites linking or mentioning this domain name.
  • Search for the site in Archive.org. Take a look and see if the domain previously had content on it and what type of content was on it. If it was a live website, then the content should be on the same topic as the keywords in the domain–or what you plan on using it for. If it was a parked domain, then you may need to immediately put your own content on it for at least a month or two in order to get it back into Google’s “good graces” so to speak. Google doesn’t like parked domains and think they are spam. So, put content on it right away (anything, even a blank page with a banner ad–something).
  • Check the whois history. Domain Tools can give you that data. See how many people have owned it, if it has changed hands a lot or just a few times. I would prefer to have a domain that didn’t change hands a lot–and was never owned by a “domainer”, especially if I was going to develop the site.
  • Check the backlinks on the domain. Here’s something that is very critical. Go to MajesticSEO.com and check the links. Look at the historical data and see what types of links were there, who is current linking, and how they are linking (what anchor text they’re using to link to the site). Hopefully the links aren’t from “bad websites”, low quality sites like article websites or article directories, or even off-topic websites. For more due diligence, even go to LinkResearchTools.com and run one of their “link detox” reports on the domain name. You’ll have to pay for that data, but you’ll know if the site has toxic (bad) links pointing to the domain name or not.

In the case of DallasLuxuryApartments.net, I wouldn’t buy that domain name and develop it. The previous owner had built a lot of low quality “article type” of links to the website and those will either have to get removed (difficult) or you’ll have to end up “disavowing” those links with both Google and Bing.com in order to get rid of them. The site may have some difficulty ranking well for “Dallas Luxury Apartments” based on this history. In this case, I would rather start fresh with a domain name that has no history whatsoever than have to deal with low quality links pointing to a domain name.

If you’re going to buy a domain and develop it, you absolutely owe it to yourself to do your SEO due diligence on the domain. Check the history, check the backlinks, and see who owned it previously. The reputation of a domain name can help or hurt a website when it comes to SEO and it’s potential for ranking well in organic search in the future.

Bill Hartzer

Bill Hartzer is a search engine optimization consultant that specialized in highly technical SEO Audits and link audits of websites. Bill is a frequent speaker and expert discussion panel participant at various search engine marketing and internet marketing conferences and events such as the Search Engine Strategies and PubCon Conferences, and was the Keynote Speaker at a recent DBRFunFest.com domain conference. Follow him on Twitter or on Google+.

Bill Hartzer

Bill Hartzer