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Help! I've Lost My Domain Name!

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Lee Hodgson

Lee Hodgson

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Lee Hodgson where domain name registration is made easy. Industry knowledge, and personal advice come together to help you secure the best possible home on the Web.

Lee Hodgson has written 18 articles for DomainInformer.
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Imagine this: you wake up one morning to find your web site has disappeared, your e-mail has stopped working and a person you've never heard of is listed as the owner of your domain name. Such a Kafkaesque loss of digital identity is actually surprisingly common. The main cause is not the well publicised "domain hijacking", but something much more mundane. Simply that for one reason or another, the domain was not renewed at the end of the expiration period. When this happens, the sponsoring registrar issues a delete command to the registry and the name is quickly available for any party to register.

If the domain is for personal use then no big deal. You learn from the experience and register a new name instead. But what if the name was an integral part of your business strategy? Losing it could cause untold damage to your business.

Success Increases Risk

So what exactly are the chances of other parties attempting to register your name if it ever did get deleted? Don't be naive in believing your name is only worth something to you. This is truly not the case. Perversely, the chances of the name being valuable to other parties, domain speculators in particular, increase in proportion to how successful you have been in building up your online business.

To understand the reasoning behind this statement, you have to get inside the mind of a typical domain speculator. A year or two ago, most speculators simply registered "virgin" domain names, in the hope of selling them on to site developers. In other words, they were gambling on the value of the name itself. As it turned out, most speculators were awful at inventing good domain names, and many lost their shirts employing this methodology. Hurrah you say! When the dot com bubble burst, however, speculators came up with a new strategy: re-registering "used" domain names. In particular re-registering used domains with "built-in" traffic - i.e. domains having incoming links from other web sites, search engines and directories.

For these types of names, speculators are not the slightest bit interested in the actual value of the name itself - it could be for all they care. If a name produces traffic, an averagely intelligent reptile could make money from it. Just put up a one-page pay-per-click (PPC) search engine, or any decent (or indecent) affiliate program, and the revenues will come in.

So given that domain speculators are now looking for domain names with traffic rather than branding value, you can see that any web site that has been successful and has built up tens or hundreds of incoming links is a prime candidate for domain speculators should the name ever get deleted.

How To Get Your Name Back

Now you know why a speculator might re-register your domain name, let's move on to the crux of the matter: just how do you go about getting your name back should the nightmare come true and your name is deleted. The first thing to get out of your mind is the notion that this is still "your" domain name. Whilst you will undoubtedly feel the name is still yours, the harsh truth is that your rights expired along with the domain name. Most people will naturally contact their domain registrar first, assuming somehow the registrar will be able to "sort it out" for them. But every registrar will give you the same response. If you didn't pay the renewal fee and the name got deleted, there is nothing they can do, and they certainly don't have any way of getting the name back for you.

Given that reality, what other methods can be used to get your name back? You could try suing the new registrant, but this is often a hugely complicated, time-consuming and costly affair, especially since the new registrant is as likely to reside in Korea as California. The two more practical methods are detailed below, these are: (a) ICANN Arbitration and (b) Domain Purchase.

Method A: ICANN Arbitration

If you have a trademark on the name in question, you have a chance of getting it back through ICANN's "Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy" or UDRP for short. This arbitration mechanism has proved an effective way of gaining control of domains for many trademark holders. But success is by no means certain. In order to successfully win a UDRP case, you need to convince the arbiter(s) of ALL of the following three elements:

  • The domain name must be identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which you have rights.
  • The current registrant must have no rights or legitimate interests in the disputed domain name.
  • The domain name must be being used in bad faith.

The fact that the current registrant has re-registered "your" domain is not relevant to this process. And in fact, most cases brought by trademark holders that do fail will fail on point (3) - showing the domain is being used in bad faith. In effect, this means demonstrating that the registrant has offered to sell the name - either by e-mailing you to offer the name, or by putting up a "For Sale" web site etc. Registering the name without using it is not normally seen as "bad faith" by most arbitration panels.

If you are interested in following this course of action, take a look at the full text of the UDRP - to file a dispute, legal counsel is not required, though it is recommended. Filing a dispute will typically cost $1000+, and can be done through several services, such as WIPO, or eResolution. Also bear in mind that many of the most professional domain speculators will have more experience of the UDRP than you, and will try and use this to their advantage.

Method B: Domain Purchase

If you don't think you can win a UDRP case, then purchasing the name from the new registrant, however unpalatable that may sound, is the other option worth pursuing. Before you contact them, consider the following:

What is the name worth to you? How much money will you lose if you don't have the name? How much money can you make with the name? Will your business fold without the name? Once you answer these questions and probably several more, you will have a good idea just how much money the name is worth to you.

What is the name worth to the speculator? As explained above, there are two components to a used name's value - the branding value and the traffic value. The branding value is hard to calculate - though domain appraisal companies will give you a fair idea. The traffic value is somewhat easier to calculate. By estimating the traffic (which shouldn't be difficult because this was your traffic a few weeks ago) you should be able to make a guess at how much money the speculator is making by putting up a PPC search engine or affiliate program. As a rough example, a domain that gets 100 visitor per day can expect to generate about 10 click throughs in that time - and each click through might earn then $0.03 to $0.10, so they might earn $0.30 to $1.00 per day, that's $100 to $365 per year.

What is the psychology of the negotiation? Having estimated the value of the domain to you and the speculator, it is true in nearly all cases the speculator is hoping to sell it to YOU i.e. the original site owner. Sure he might earn $200 a year or so from an affiliate program or more if the name has some branding value, but what he really wants is to make a quick high-value cash sale by selling back to the original owner. So in his mind, you are the ONLY potential customer. So what it boils down to is a classic game of brinkmanship. If the sale happens, both parties gain. If it doesn't, both parties lose. Bearing that in mind, here are a few tips to help you succeed in the negotiations:

  • Avoid conveying any sense of "desperation" to get the name back. If you do, the speculator will take you for every penny you can afford. So don't rush to reply to e-mails, and most importantly, always give the sense that you are prepared to walk away from the deal if pushed too far.
  • Most speculators will "try it on" to start - they may ask for 10 times what they are willing to accept eventually. Be calm and patient in the knowledge that you can get the name for much less than the speculator says he is looking for.
  • Stay polite and be professional. Even though you may have overwhelming negative feelings about the speculator, they will feel what they are doing is legitimate. If you start insulting them, chances are they will walk away and you will lose the name forever. This is particularly true of speculators from Eastern countries who will not tolerate direct conflict in business situations.
  • Remember at all times - the speculator has as much to gain from making the deal as you do.
  • Consider employing an experience negotiator / domain broker.

Having read all this, it should be noted the best way to avoid this nightmare is to take proper care of your domain names in the first place and not let them expire at all. Keep a list of the names you own, which registrar they are registered with, and most importantly, what the renewal date is. Renew them at least a couple of months in advance, and consider renewing them for a period of at least two years. Why risk your whole future over a few bucks? If you have more than thirty names or so, consider using a domain management program such as Watch My Domains Pro. For more tips on domain renewals read this article.

Additionally think about protecting your domain name using a protective service from SnapNames called Snap-Back. This service alerts owners of any changes to their name, whether hijacking, vandalism, redirection, expiration, or deletion -- and if it's deletion, attempt to re-register the name.

Update: An innovative service called Move Announcer has been brought to our attention. This service would be useful in the event that you really couldn't get your name back and are forced to use a different name for your web site. What it does is notify all sites that link to your old site about the change of web address, thus reducing the impact of the domain name loss.

DomainGuru offer a well-respected brokering service which will help you purchase a domain name for the best price possible. We also have a corporate domain management service for companies wishing to consolidate their domain portfolio.

Article provided exclusively by DomainGuru. No reprints are allowed unless expressly stated in writing.

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