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How to check a domain’s history before buying it

You have your eyes on a great domain name for your company. Someone else owns it, but you’re negotiating a purchase price and it’s within reach.

Before you agree to a deal, you’ll want to do some due diligence on the domain name. You need to make sure it’s a clean domain name that won’t negatively impact your future business.

Think of it like buying a house or a car. You want to inspect it to ensure there aren’t any major problems. Is there previous flood damage? Insurance claims? Were repairs done correctly? The same concept applies to domain names. A domain name’s history can negatively impact your future use of the domain name. 

using a magnifying glass over a domain' history

Problematic history

People run into two main problems when building a website on an existing domain name.

One problem is when a domain name is connected to “black hat” search engine optimization. This can include trying to manipulate search engines by buying backlinks and other schemes that result in low-quality backlinks. If a previous owner engaged in black hat tactics, Google might have penalized the domain in search rankings.

Another problem is if the domain name was previously used for something unsavory. Perhaps the domain was used for an adult site or casino that you don’t want to be associated with your business. Even though that usage is in the past, it can impact your use. Websites might still link to the domain name for this prior use, sending visitors to your new website who are expecting something completely different. The domain name might also be on filtering blocklists. Once a domain is on a blocklist, such as one that blocks adult content, it can take a long time for it to be removed.

Doing an inspection

Think of checking a domain’s history like doing a house inspection. You need to look at its history to make sure you’re buying something that won’t be a problem in the future. It takes a bit of work, but there are tools to help understand a domain’s history.

Internet Archive

The Internet Archive is a non-profit library of books, moves, software, websites, and more. One of its most popular features is the Wayback Machine, which lets users search the history of over 500 billion web pages. Simply insert a domain name to see historical captures of the web page. For example, enter Namecheap.com to view copies of this website dating back to 2000.

Here’s one of the Wayback Machines’ captures of Namecheap.com in December 2004:

Namecheap home page in 2004

Talk about retro!

The Wayback Machine is a fantastic resource to see exactly how a domain name was used throughout time. Scroll through the site captures from the Wayback Machine to make sure the domain name was used in non-controversial ways.

DomainIQ

DomainIQ offers several tools to understand any domain name’s history and health. Some of the tools are behind a paywall, but it might be worth registering before spending money on an expensive domain name.

Type in a domain name and DomainIQ searches its history. Among the data it provides:

  • Whois history – Domain names have so-called Whois records that show the domain’s owner. Whois history provides a snapshot of this record at different points in history. Use the Whois history to find out who owned the domain over time. This can also be used to check the “title history” of the domain — essentially, make sure that it doesn’t have odd records that indicate that it might be stolen. Multiple owners or domain registrar transfers over a short period of time might indicate theft. At a minimum, it’s a red flag that you should investigate.
  • Hosting history – This feature lets you see the IP address where the domain pointed throughout its history. It also grabs historical screenshots, although they aren’t as robust as those of the Wayback Machine.
  • Flags – DomainIQ flags domains that have been subject to a prior cybersquatting dispute under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy, have been flagged as adult, and potential trademark domains. A domain shouldn’t be thrown out just because it has a flag, but you’ll want to investigate the details.

SEMRush

SEMRush is a suite of search engine optimization tools. You can use SEMRush to view a domain name’s backlink profile to find spammy or off-topic links that might indicate black hat SEO. These practices can lead to Google lowering a domain’s ranking in search engine results pages or blacklisting it altogether.

The backlink audit is one of SEMRush’s free services. It evaluates all of the backlinks pointing to a domain name and separates them into three toxicity levels: toxic domains, potentially toxic. domains, and non-toxic domains: 

backlink audit

Review the ratio of toxic domains to non-toxic domains. Also, look at the toxic domain links to see what they are and if they could be problematic.

It’s usual for even good sites to have toxic backlinks, so don’t avoid a domain name just because it has some bad backlinks. Use the audit as a guide to ensure you aren’t buying a domain with lots of spammy inbound links.

Google 

Since you’re concerned about how Google views a domain, Google itself is also a valuable resource to check before buying a domain name.

First, search for a domain like this: 

Site:example.com

This will show you all of the pages on the domain name that are indexed on Google. If the domain points to a web page of any kind (including a parked page) it should show up in the results. The exception is if the parked page is using code to tell Google not to index it, but that’s rare. You need to investigate if you get zero results when doing this search.

Next, search for the domain name in quotes like this:

“Example.com”

This will pull up references to the domain name, potentially including news stories about the website that used to be on the domain name. A positive news story with a link to the domain is a good thing, but watch out for stories about scams, lawsuits, etc.

Be a safe domain buyer

You can’t guarantee that an existing domain you’re buying is completely safe. Just like you can’t be 100% sure that there’s nothing wrong with the house you’re buying. But these tools will help you discover issues that should be investigated further.

Also, ask the domain name owner what they know about the domain’s history. How long have they owned it? Did they buy it from someone else? How did they use the domain?

It’s also worth pointing out that the historical usage of a domain name can actually be helpful to you. If a previous owner created a site for the same topic you will be using the domain for, any quality backlinks they generated could give you a leg up when you start your site.

One thing’s for sure: doing appropriate due diligence is important to feel comfortable spending a lot of money on your new domain.

And if you’re in the market to purchase a previously-registered domain, be sure to check out Namecheap’s wide range of domains available on our Marketplace.

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Andrew Allemann avatar

Andrew Allemann

Andrew is the founder and editor of Domain Name Wire, a publication that has been covering domain names since 2005. He has personally written over 10,000 posts covering domain name sales, policy, and strategies for domain name owners. Andrew has been quoted in stories about domain names in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times and Fortune. More articles written by Andrew.

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