Domain Horror Stories

“Darkness falls across the land

The expiry date is close at hand

Your domains may look that they are all good

But have you looked underneath the hood?

And who so-ever shall be found

Without the rights to register abound

Must stand and face the enforcement team

Who will end their illegal get rich scheme.”

OK, so I am not quite Vincent Price, nor is this blog a guaranteed Thriller but Halloween is as a good time as any to remind ourselves of some of the lessons in managing domain names.  All of these tales are real examples of what can and has happened to some of the biggest brands in the world.  All of them have the potential to damage reputations and revenues.  All of them could be avoided.

Domains are critical digital assets for organisations.  The value of them increases over time, especially those used for branding purposes.  But sometimes things go wrong.  The risk of cyber- and typo-squatting is a real threat to every organisation but in many cases, the greatest problems are the result of something happening, or not, much closer to home, as our seven deadly sins of domain registrations below show.

Always proofread the domain name before you register or publicise it

Our brains are amazing, yet it is reported that we only use about 10% of them.  As we grow older, our brains learn to take a shortcut when we read text.  This is called Typoglycemia and is defined by academics as a neologism for a purported discovery about the cognitive processes involved in reading text.  In other words, our brains often see and comprehend words that aren’t there.  Our brains take the first letter and the last letter, then fill in the gaps.  Want an example?  Try reading this line from the first verse of Thriller.

“Udner the moonlgiht, you see a sihgt that alomst stops your haert”

Despite fifty percent of the words being misspelt, our brain translates them, so the line reads correctly.  It is this principle that underpins the strategy of a typo-squatter.  But it is also a common reason why domain names are registered incorrectly.  In addition to this, when words are pushed together they can take on a new, and in sometimes case unfortunate, meaning.  There are plenty of examples of genuine companies registering domain names that take on a whole different meaning when the words are conjoined.

Always research who else owns matching TLDs

You are about to launch a new brand or a marketing campaign and have a fantastic name for it.  The good news is that a matching domain name is available and you jump to register it.  Job done.  Or is it?  Have you checked who also owns the same keyword in other, equally popular, TLDs?  What would the impact on your brand be if potential customers end up in the wrong place?  The domain name relating to one of the most famous and iconic buildings in the world, The White House, was often mistakenly typed into browsers as a .com rather than the .gov it uses by Internet users, leading them to a website that featured adult content.  Not really the image the President of the United States wanted to present.

It isn’t just about understanding what domain names have been registered but also what relevant TLDs haven’t been registered.  Securing those is just as important to prevent third parties from registering and using them to divert traffic (and revenue) or damage your reputation.  It is especially important in geographies where the brand has a presence or where dispute resolution processes to challenge third-party registrations are not always straightforward.

Don’t publish your URL before you have registered a domain name

This may seem like a no-brainer but you will be amazed how many campaigns or new brands have got to the point of launch before someone has actually checked if the name is available to register.  A check on the status of a domain takes seconds but could save time, embarrassment and above all cost if it turns out it has already been registered.  In many instances where the only option is to try to negotiate the acquisition of an already registered domain name, costs could be in the tens of thousands, especially if the new brand or campaign has already been promoted.

Ensuring that there is a clear brand or campaign launch strategy is one way to avoid this, working with domain experts such as Com Laude to create a landscape report and understand what names are available and which could potentially be acquired and at what cost.  What isn’t recommended is that a brand holder or organisation attempts to negotiate any domain acquisition with the existing registrant themselves as that will undoubtedly lead to a long, and potentially expensive, negotiation where the registrant has the upper hand.

Don’t let a third party register a domain name on your behalf

It may seem like a good idea at the time to allow a third party, such as a marketing or branding agency to register domain names on your behalf, but commercial relationships end all the time and if you do go your separate ways, amicably or not, you could lose control of a critical domain name.  Imagine a situation where an organisation paid to maintain or host a website, and the associated domain names, fall out over payment of invoices or service levels.  They have full control over the domain names and could, very easily, do significant damage to the revenue and reputation of an organisation.

In addition to not having administrative or technical rights over the domain name, there is a risk of its not being renewed on expiry as a third party may not use auto-renew functionality and before you know it, the domain could end up in the hands of a party who is less than willing to play ball.

All domain names that are registered on behalf of an organisation should be transferred into that organisation’s control as soon as possible so that there is visibility of them, they use the same technical infrastructure (such as enterprise DNS) and any communication from the registrar or registry is handled appropriately.

Don’t let your critical domain names expire

It may seem such a simple statement but it is amazing how many big (think global brands big) organisations have suffered outages and worse by not ensuring their critical domain names are renewed.  In most instances the situation is quickly spotted – major websites are monitored by internal IT teams and so if a URL or domain name isn’t resolving then it is a quick diagnostic check to determine why.  A firm may lose revenue if it is an e-commerce website but may suffer more in terms of its reputation as media outlets are quick to jump on these types of stories.

The real danger comes if someone doesn’t spot that the domain name has not been renewed and it passes through the domain name lifecycle and is released to be registered again.  Numerous websites monitor and publish lists of domain names that are about to “drop,” and some include the number of inbound links and natural search traffic.  One US firm failed to spot a domain name of a subsidiary had lapsed back in 2020, only to see it eventually sold via an auction website for over $125,000.

Examples over the last decade of major companies who have allowed their core domain names to lapse include a major Indian Travel company, one of the largest banks in the United States of America, one of the biggest sporting brands in the world and one of the industry leaders in marketing automation software.

Be careful who you share your plans with

A lot of corporate activity takes place in confidential spaces with information on a need to know basis.  Whether it is a merger, an acquisition, a sale of a business, a rebrand or a new product release, it is often wise to hold the cards close to the collective chests of as few people as possible, especially if the organisation is listed on a stock exchange where such information could cause movements in share price.

It is therefore vital that any information that is being shared publicly or with a wider group only happens once the relevant domain names have been registered.  Some industry experts will look for domain registration patterns and publish stories about them, hunting for any details to create speculation.  A global music artist registering domain names for a new album or a tour, a football club registering domain names related to a new sponsor or a film studio registering domain names relating to the next Hollywood blockbuster.

It is important to take the necessary steps to ensure the identity of any such projects are hidden from view for as long as possible, otherwise, an organisation may have their hand forced or end up having to pay dearly to acquire domain names from opportunists.  Using anonymous or proxy registrations, registering without DNS delegation where possible, or even spreading the registrations over a period of time, rather than all in one block are options to avoid unnecessarily putting yourself in the spotlight.

Always understand the restrictions

Whilst many TLDs allow for unrestricted use (within moral and legal boundaries), some have specific registration criteria and usage requirements.  It is therefore always worth checking what those are before a new domain name is activated and promoted.  It is normally ccTLDs that have these restrictions and they may not always be apparent upon registration.  Examples of such criteria include having a geographical presence within a certain region, being a specific type of entity (such as not for profit, a charity or a service provider) or only publishing content related to a specific subject.  One high profile example of this was the use of the domain name for the official campaign website for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union which would cease to function after the UK left as the registrant was no longer based in the EU.

Thankfully, all seven of our domain name horror stories can be easily avoided.  The Com Laude client-shaped domain approach ensures that organisations are present and protected online and have a rightsized portfolio to meet the opportunities and threats that the digital future may bring.  Our team of domain name experts will guide clients through the trickery and sorcery of domain registrations and brand launches, ensuring that no ghosts or gremlins are lurking in the portfolio that could lead to horror stories of their own.