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Many people have had great success snapping up expired domains and using those sites for link building purposes. One of the main reasons for this was that it saved work, as you could grab a site that already had content and backlinks and at least a baseline established presence.
However, after the past year with all the Google changes that make link building trickier than ever, this process is no longer as easy and safe as it once was, but it can still be valuable if you think about what you're doing and don't just buy every domain that has your desired keyword in it then hastily 301 redirect it to your own site or trash the content with links to your main site, expecting miracles.
Affiliate marketers are also fond of expired domains to use for their work so while we won't go into detail on that, we will cover some topics that are relevant for that specific use.
How to Find Dropped/Expired/Expiring Domains?
Domain Tools is one of the main places that I check but there are many sites that list expired or about-to-expire domains that are up for grabs. Network Solutions has custom email alerts where you can put in a keyword and get an email when domains matching that are expiring so that's a nice option for those of you who like a more passive approach.
Snap Names is also good, as is Drop Day. You may find that there are certain sites that are best for your purposes (whether it's keeping an eye on ones you want or getting ones that just expired) so look around and figure out what best suits you.
Want a domain that's at least 9 years old and has a listing in DMOZ? Domain Tools is where I'd go for that, for example:
Of course if you come across a domain that you like and it's not set to expire any time soon, there's nothing wrong with emailing the owner and asking to buy it.
How to Vet Expired Domains
- Check to see what domains 301 redirect to them. I use Link Research Tools for this as you can run a backlink report on the domain in question and see the redirects. If you find a domain that has 50 spammy 301s pointing to it, it may be more trouble that it's worth. Preventing a 301 from coming through when you don't control the site that redirects is almost impossible. You can block this on the server level but that won't help you with your site receiving bad link karma from Google. In that case, you may have to disavow those domains.
- Check their backlinks using your link tool of choice. Is the profile full of nothing but spam that will take ages to clean up or will you have to spend time disavowing the links? If so, do you really want to bother with it? If you want to buy the domain to use for a 301 redirect and it's full of spammy links, at least wait until you've cleared that all up before you 301 it.
- Check to see if they were ever anything questionable using the Wayback Machine. If the site simply wasn't well done 2 years ago, that's not nearly as big of a problem as if you're going to be using the site for educating people about the dangers of lead and it used to be a site that sold Viagra.
- Check to see if the brand has a bad reputation. Do some digging upfront so you can save time disassociating yourself from something bad later. You know how sometimes you get a resume from a person and you ask an employee if they know this Susan who also used to work at the same place that your current employee worked years ago and your employee says "oh yes I remember her. She tried to burn the building down once"? Well, Susan might try to burn your building down, too.
- Check to see if they were part of a link network. See what other sites were owned by the same person and check them out too.
- Check to see if they have an existing audience. Is there an attached forum with active members, are there people generally commenting on posts and socializing them, etc.?
How Should You Use Expired Domains?
Many people 301 redirect these domains to their main sites or secondary sites in order to give them a boost. Others turn them into part of their legitimate online arsenal and use them as a proper standalone resource.
Some people add them to their existing blog network and interlink them. Some people keep them and use them to sell links. Some people keep them and try to resell them. Some people use them to try their hand at affiliate marketing.
However that's talking about how people use them, not about how they should use them, but how you should use them is up to you.
I once worked with an account where we used tons of microsites. They were standalone sites that each linked to the main brand site and we built links to them. It worked for a while (and still works for many people according to what I see in forums) but as far as I can tell, most of those microsites are no longer in Google's index or no longer contain live links to the brand site. That's because in that case, it stopped working and became more of a danger than anything else. They served no purpose at all other than to host a link to the brand site, and since they gained no authority, it just wasn't worth the trouble of keeping them up.
I've also dealt with someone who successfully bought expired domains and redirected them to subdomains on his main site in order to split it up into a few niche subdomains. He didn't overdo it, and each expired domain had a good history with content relevant to what the subdomain was, so it all worked very well.
As mentioned early on, affiliate marketers also use expired domains. One big benefit of this is that if you plan to just use PPC for affiliate marketing, you don't have to be as concerned about the backlink profile of the domain as you might not care that much about its organic rankings.
Some Good Signs of Expired Domains
Some of these probably depend upon the purpose you have in mind, but here are a few things I like to see on an expired or expiring domain but please keep in mind that these aren't discrete defining features of a quality domain; they are simply a couple of signs that the domain might be a good one to use:
- Authority links that will pass through some link benefits via a 301 redirect (if I'm going that route.)
- An existing audience of people who regularly contribute, comment, and socialize the site's content (if I'm going to use it as a standalone site.) If I'm looking to buy a forum, for example, I'd want to make sure that there are contributing members with something to offer already there. If I want a site that I will be maintaining and adding to and plan to build it out further, seeing that there's an audience of people reading the content, commenting on it, and socializing it would make me very happy.
- A decent (and legitimate) Toolbar PageRank (TBPR) that is in line with where I think it should be. If I see a site that is 7 months old and has a TBPR of 6, I'll obviously be suspicious, and if I found one that was 9 years old and was a TBPR 1, I would hestitate before using it, for example. I also have to admit that while I don't rely on TBPR as a defining metric of quality, I'd be crazy to pretend that it means nothing so it's definitely something I look at.
- A domain age of at least 2 years if I was going to do anything other than hold it and try to resell it.
- Internal pages that have TBPR. If there are 5000 pages and only the homepage has any TBPR, I'd be a bit suspicious about why no internal pages had anything.
A Few Red Flags of Expired Domains
- Suspicious TBPR as mentioned above.
- The domain isn't indexed in Google. Even if you look at a recently expired site and see it has a TBPR of 4 with good Majestic flow metrics, is 5 years old, and has been updated in some way until it expired (whether through new blog posts, comments, social shares, etc.), it's safe to ssume it's not indexed for a good reason and you probably want to stay away from it.
- Backlink profile is full of nothing but spam.
- All comments on the site's posts are spammy ones and trackbacks.
Bottom Line: Is Using Expired Domains a Good Idea?
As with almost anything in SEO right now, some tactics aren't really great ideas for the long-term but since they work for the short-term, people still use them. Some tactics that won't work in one niche will still work well in certain other niches and some sites seem to be able to weather just about any algorithmic change in Google.
That's why it's hard to say that you shouldn't do this, or you should do that, because every case is different, every webmaster/site owner has a different idea about risk, and a lot of people have made a lot of money off doing things that I personally wouldn't do.
I don't have time to keep up the blogging on my own site so I would never expect that I could keep it up on five sites, each devoted to a specific area of my industry, but with the right manpower and the right people, this can be a successful strategy for many.
If you plan to use them for affiliate marketing and you're going to use PPC for that, you don't have to worry about some of the things that you would have to be concerned with if you planned to rank well.
In the end, it depends on what you want to do, how much time and effort you have to put into doing well, and how much risk you can handle, just like everything else.
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