Buying a new domain can be stressful, especially when you don't know if there is any previous bad history with the domain and Google.
Many people purchase a domain only to discover it's been seemingly permanently banned by Google for using black hat SEO tactics, then have to jump through hoops to prove it's all cleaned up and do a reconsideration request. And it becomes even murkier when purchasing not only a domain name but also the site content as well.
In a new webmaster help video, Google's Matt Cutts details some things webmasters can do before purchasing a domain to prevent ranking problems later.
Start by doing a site search in Google for the name of the domain you're buying, he said.
"If there's no results at all for that domain, even if there's content on the domain, that's a pretty bad sign," he said. "If the domain is parked, well we try to take part domains out of the results anyway so that might not indicate anything. But if you try to do site: and see zero results, that's often a bad sign."
You can also do a site: search on the domain name in Bing as well, so you can get a better idea. Obviously if a site is showing up in Bing, but not Google, that's a major red flag. But you can also do a site: search in Bing and plug in typical spam keywords and see what shows up.
"Just search for the domain name, or the name of the domain minus the.com, or whatever the extension is on the end. Because you can often find a little bit about the reputation of the domain," Cutts said.
"So were people spamming without the domain name? Were they talking about it in a bad way like, 'This guy was sending me unsolicited email and leaving spam comments on my blog'? That's a really good way to sort of figure out what's going on for a site, or what it was like in the past," he said.
Again, do a thorough search on both Google and Bing, especially if you're looking for things like spam comments they might've left where those sites are now removed from the Google index.
Cutts said another good rule of thumb is to use the Internet Archive.
"So if you go to archive.org and you put in the domain name, the archive will show you what the previous versions of a site look like," he said. "And if the site looks like it was spamming, then that's definitely a reason to be a lot more cautious and maybe steer clear of buying that domain name because it probably means the previous owner might have dug the domain into a hole and you just have to do a lot of work even to get to level ground. So check with archive.org and see if you can find previous versions of the site, if it is auto-generated spam content that's a really bad sign, and may be reason to avoid that domain."
Some savvy domain sellers will disable access to archive.org by including it in the robots.txt, so in some cases it can be a red flag if a domain seller is blocking previous content from showing on the archive. However, some parked domain pages do this automatically as well.
"If you're talking about buying the domain from somebody who currently owns it, you might ask [to] see the analytics or Webmaster Tools console to check for new messages, or screenshots or something [to] see the traffic over time because if the traffic is going OK and dropped a lot or has gone really far down, that that might be a reason to avoid the domain as well," he said.
This type of request is definitely becoming more common, especially because of all the headaches it can take to have a successful reconsideration request, especially when you're in the dark about what exactly has been done to it in the past. Buying a domain without knowing the history can be pretty dicey, and is something else that Cutts suggests you consider before you go and try to get the site back in Google – just how much is domain worth to you, and what are the reasons for using it.
"If despite all of that you buy the domain and you find out there's really scuzzy stuff going on and it's got some issues the search engines, you can do a reconsideration request," Cutts said. "Before you do that I would consider ask yourself where you buy the domain name because you like the domain name or you buying it because of all the previous content or the links that were going to do something like that. If you're counting on those links carrying over, you might be disappointed because the links might not carry over."
He also suggests, when trying to start over cleanly (particularly for sites that had link spam in the past), disavowing all the links you can find point to the sites.
"And especially if the previous owner was spamming, you might consider just doing a disavow of all the links you can find on that domain name, to try to get a completely fresh start when you are ready to move forward with it," he said.
Bottom line: it's always "buyer beware" when you purchase a domain name and don't know all the details about the domain's history. But checking the archive, doing some searches in both Google and Bing, and asking the seller for specific analytics or Google Webmaster Tools data can help ensure that you're either starting with a clean domain, or you will at least have a better idea of what you're up against if there are problems.