Nerding Out on Expired Domains, Link Equity and SEO

On Monday, Danny Sullivan published a great post on expired domains (link). More specifically, his post discusses the link equity benefits from acquiring expired domains. For example, I have a website about topic X. I noticed that another website about topic X recently went offline. It’s down. It won’t load. Oh look, the domain is available for purchase. Wow! Really? That domain has 12,000+ inbound links, and it’s a PR4. Could I purchase that domain and redirect all of its URLs to my site? Would that help boost my PR and my rankings? Or would it set off an alarm at Google? I mean, all of the sudden a domain expires, is subsequently purchased and then redirected to another domain – that’s gotta trip some sort of wire in Google’s algorithm, right?

Danny goes through several scenarios, and he even quotes Matt Cutts a few times. The article is very informative, and I’m glad he wrote it. No one has posted about this practice for a long time, so it was great to see something on the topics of expired domain acquisition and link equity. You should read the post, but the quick summary is that there are certain instances where the link credit would remain or pass to new domains. But for the most part, if you are buying expired domains and then 301 redirecting them, don’t expect any significant boost in link credit.

As I was reading this article, I could not help but remember my recent experiences and how they do not really align with some of the points in this article. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not disagreeing with Matt Cutts and Danny Sullivan. They are like the Moses and King David of SEO (I mean, they were there in the beginning, and they are probably the two most trusted sources in the SEO industry). I’m only saying that my observations don’t exactly line up with what they said in the post. I believe there are times when purchasing expired domains can be extremely useful, and there are times when I have noticed that link credit does pass from an expired domain. Here’s some of the strategies I have used in the (recent) past with good results:

  • Launching a new website? Wanna get indexed quickly? I wanted to get one of my websites indexed quickly. I found one expired domain with a DMOZ entry, and I found another expired domain with a Yahoo Directory entry. These domains were related to the topic of my new domain. I redirected them at the same time. Whether or not DMOZ or the Yahoo Directory are important or relevant any longer, my new site was indexed within a few days.¬† Simple and sweet. I can’t argue with science.
  • Building PR and Link Equity for New/Existing Sites. There I was. I had that site for a while, and I wasn’t really paying attention to it. I decided to see if I could increase its traffic and PR from redirecting a few more expired domains. I found a page on the web that had a list of links to sites that were relevant to my site. Wouldn’t you know it? Some of those links were to domains that had expired. After a little bit of research into those dead links and some speedy domain purchases, I had 15 domains at my disposal. I redirected them over time, not all at once. After a couple of PR updates in 2008, I noticed that my site had increased its PR. And believe me, it wasn’t because a ton of other people had linked to my site. The only thing that changed was the fact that I had redirected 15 domains. I saw an increase in traffic from referring domains because the domains that I purchased had links all over the place. And I noticed an upswing in search engine rankings, which lead to increased traffic from organic search.
  • Driving More Traffic from other Google TLDs. Guess what? I bought an expired .es domain and redirected it to a .com site hosted in the USA. I really just wanted the link juice, but I got something more than that: top rankings on Google.es for some important keywords. I guess it makes sense. Have you ever noticed that some of Google’s European properties give you more search options? For example, on google.es you will definitely notice that under the search bar there are options to search the web, search only pages in spanish, or search only pages in Spain. Crazy, huh? I have worked on a few European-based sites, so I have seen these before. I just never thought about them in the context of redirecting expired domains. I guess we learn something every day.
  • Driving More Traffic from Local Search. One of the domains I redirected was the expired domain of a company based in a certain city in America (yeah, I have to be ambiguous about that one ūüôā ). A couple weeks after I redirected the domain, I noticed that I was ranking for long-tail search terms that contained the city where that company was located. It turns out that the company had several listings in local search databases, online phonebooks and directories, etc… If you want exposure in new cities or if you just want more exposure in the city that you’re in, check into an expired domain for a local company that no longer exists. The economy sucks right now. Lots of people are going out of business. Contact some companies and see if you can buy their domain. Don’t be stupid about it. Don’t redirect a bunch of domains all at once. Just try one and see what happens. Maybe it will work for you like it did for me. Then again, maybe it won’t.
  • Don’t Alter the Whois Data! Domain Privacy? Shah, right. Google is a domain registrar and an accreditted member of ICANN (proof). You think your domains are private because you paid some extra money for domain privacy. Well guess what. Google knows it’s you! Don’t pretend that you are getting away with anything here. If at all possible, purchase domains through Escrow and leave the Whois data unaltered. Updating the Whois data is a dead give-away that the domain changed hands. When domains change hands, you can count on the existing link juice to be crushed. Mostly. As Danny points out, Google admits to having systems that do stuff. I assume these systems must do stuff like keep track of businesses acquiring other businesses, businesses merging, and any other instance where a domain might change hands. Hell, Google probably has systems monitoring other Google systems. They’ve thought of everything, haven’t they? If not, people like Dave Naylor, Jeremy Shoemaker and Greg Boser are forcing them to.
  • Servers, DNS, IPs, Oh My. You know how you just bought 50 domains because of this post? Well, before you point them all to the same server, using the same DNS numbers, you need to think about something else: how odd will it look to Google if you buy 50 domains and then point them all to the same server and then have them all redirect to the same site? It’s a dead giveaway. Some registrars are offering a 301 redirect from the registrar, so it’s not as easy to catch the fact that one person just bought and redirected 50 domains to their own site. Or you may look into virtual IPs, so that not all of your domains are sitting on the same IP address. Or you may try to grab a few hosting accounts from various hosts and split up your domains. This makes it seem like there is a true game of cat-and-mouse going on, but there really isn’t. No matter what, Google will catch you. It’s only a matter of time. Just be smart about it. Or at least as smart as possible.
  • Just Buy an Existing Website. Is there a website for sale in your vertical? Why not just buy it and add links to the site (where appropriate)? I mean, buying domains and purchasing links will cost as much money in the long run. Why not buy a website that is already trusted by the search engines and actually getting traffic from organic search? Maybe you could optimize it and add some links. Maybe both of your sites will rank high. And then you’ll have 2 sites in the SERPs. It’s not a bad approach to take, and it’s certainly more white hat than redirecting expired domains.
  • You must remember: The key is to do your research on old domains. Make sure they weren’t up to no good. Make sure they were not blacklisted. Make sure they’ve got a healthy number of inbound links. Only redirect domains that previously contained content related to your site. Also, even though everyone says that toolbar PR is outdated and not important, look for domains that have a PR of 1 or higher. It can’t hurt to have a PR (no matter how worthless/overrated/outdated many SEOs will tell you PR is these days).

There. I hope that helps you in your gray hat endeavours. Now, go forth and prosper. I mean, uh, go forth and find expired domains and then redirect them. Jeez. SEOs are nerdy.

Toys “R” Us Redirects Toys.com to Toysrus.com

Toys "R" Us Store Front (circa 1970)
Toys "R" Us Store Front (circa 1970)

The other day I saw a DomainNameWire post about Toys “R” Us redirecting its newly acquired domain, toys.com, and that toys.com had been “de-indexed” by Google. For those of you who have not heard the story, Toys “R” Us bought the Parent Company (eToys.com, BabyUniverse.com, ePregnancy.com) for ~$2 million. Then a couple of weeks later, Toys “R” Us paid $5.1 million for the toys.com domain, and now they are redirecting the entire toys.com domain and all of its¬†URLs to the toysrus.com homepage. That’s right. Every toys.com URL is now pointing to the toysrus.com homepage. Was this a good move? Why did Toys “R” Us take this path with the toys.com domain? What are the SEO impacts of redirecting an entire site? Depending on your perspective, the answers to those questions can vary significantly. Let’s investigate some of the possible reasons behind this move (and maybe even some of the opportunities they¬†missed by taking that route).

Obviously, the main goal was brand association.
Toys “R” Us wants to be the brand most associated with toys. For many of us, they have always been the top dog in the toys industry. Toys “R” Us has always been the first company I think of when I think of toys. FAO Schwarz is also up there, but let’s be honest: they are no Toys “R” Us. I mean, Toys “R” Us has like 600 stores in the US and 97,000 employees (thanks Wikipedia). Also making my unofficial best toy stores list is KB Toys. Oops. I have to remove them from the list because they got bought and liquidated in December 2008. With the demise of KB Toys, a giant void opened up in the brick-and-mortar store vertical. In terms of massive stores that have nothing but toys, Toys “R” Us and FAO Schwarz are the only big toy retailers left (well at least on my toy store list). In the end, Toys “R” Us rules the brick-and-mortar toy store roost. [Note: My apologies if I’m leaving out any other toy stores.]

Another goal of the domain acquisition: “free” direct navigation traffic.
Now that brick-and-mortar toy stores are going the way of the buffalo (not the dodo), toy companies must focus a lot of attention to the interwebs and intranets advertising. I imagine that the Toys “R” Us execs were drooling at the possibility of getting the highly-coveted, 4-letter domain toys.com. This would enable them to capitalize on all the direct traffic navigation to toys.com. I don’t know how many people are directly navigating to toys.com every day, but obviously Toys “R” Us wanted to route that traffic to toysrus.com. For those of you who may not know, the direct navigation industry is nothing to sneeze at. I applaud Toys “R” Us for outbidding everyone else for the toys.com domain. It’s a very aggressive move from an industry leader. Toys “R” Us is the¬† most identifiable toy store brand and they own the generic keyword domain that is most associated with their brand. There are tons of companies who wish they could say the same. Now, what should they do with the toys.com domain? [Note: I’m still waiting to see who buys toy.com. It’s just being parked right now. What a shame.]

Toys “R” Us is obviously not a newcomer to the e-commerce game. The toysrus.com domain was registered in 1995, and they have had an online store since at least 1998. Furthermore, they have been running successful search marketing campaigns for years. As with any other company that’s been around for more than 50 years, Toys “R” Us has found out that the online world is full of aggressive, online-only e-commerce stores that know everything about utilizing all available channels and surviving online. Toys “R” Us is one of the few industry leaders that started early in the race to e-commerce websites, and they are a company that has succeeded in maintaining an online reputation that equals their top reputation in the brick-and-mortar world.

Awesome. But what about the redirects?
For the search term toys, Toys “R” Us is battling several well-knows toy brands and sites for the top spots in the organic rankings. Here are some of the other top 10 toy brands in the Google SERPs:

  • toysrus.com
  • etoys.com (owned by Toys “R” Us)
  • toys.com (owned by Toys “R” Us, no longer ranking)
  • lego.com
  • walmart.com
  • fisher-price.com
  • amazon.com
  • hasbro.com

There are certain times when the acquisition of a highly-coveted domain names like toys.com could really come in handy from the standpoint of expanding your exposure in the Google SERPs. Before the sale of toys.com to Toys “R” Us, toys.com was ranking #3 for the term toys in Google. Apparently, Toys “R” Us was not really concerned with (or maybe aware of) toys.com’s natural search rankings. After the purchase of eToys.com and Toys.com, Toys “R” Us owned 3 of the top 5 sites in the Google SERPs for the search term toys. For a generic search term like toys, having 3 of the top 5 sites is miraculous. But this scenario would not last long. At some point Toys “R” Us decided that it only needed to have 2 of the top 5 results.

Why did they redirect toys.com to toysrus.com?
Obviously I wasn’t in the room when Toys “R” Us decided to redirect the toys.com site to toysrus.com, but I would have loved to be a fly on the wall in that boardroom. I’m sure that a major point in the discussion was the increase in traffic and revenue to toysrus.com. If you redirect and entire site to toysrus.com, traffic and revenue will increase, and that will make everyone happy in the short run. The investment in a $5.1 million domain will have immediate returns. No questions about it. It’s a move that quickly impacts the bottom line. In today’s economy, who would argue against quick returns on a major investment?

On the other hand, I sincerely hope that someone brought up the nature of redirects to the upper management. I hope an SEO told them that Google, Yahoo, MSN and the other major search engines would follow the redirects, and then toys.com would no longer rank in the SERPs. Major search engines would begin to drop the pages that have been redirected via a 310 permanent redirect. The toys.com URLs would not be de-listed/de-indexed because of some sort of unethical SEO practices. Rather, the URLs would be dropped because of the standard definition of a 301 permanent redirect: 301 redirects tell the search engines that the page no longer exists and has been moved. Knowing that the URL has permanently moved to another active URL, the search engines will only keep the destination URL in their respective indices. The search engines are just following the directions that the webmaster set up with the 301 redirects. I hope someone told them all of that because it seems important to know that the 301 redirect solution would cause your brand to lose an awesome piece of real estate in the Google SERPs. That is a lot of free traffic to turn down.

Maybe one of the most influential arguments for redirecting the toys.com domain centered around the increase in domain authority that comes from redirecting one domain to another with the use of 301 redirects. We all know that link juice is the most important factor for today’s search engine algorithms. Imagine if we could take a domain like toys.com and redirect all of its URLs (and all of their inbound links) to toysrus.com. That would definitely have a major impact on the link authority of toysrus.com. That would be awesome. It would be a great move that would reinforce and solidify the toysrus.com domain to insure top rankings in the future. In a world where links are only getting more expensive, another major benefit of buying a domain is that you can capitalize on its link juice.

A linkdomain: check on Yahoo reveals that the toys.com domain only has 713 inbound links. Uh oh. That’s not very many links. Consider that toysrus.com has 357,260 inbound links. Yeah. The link juice from toys.com is measured in drops rather than in gallons. Anyways, given the nature of this new information, I’m not necessarily on board with the decision to redirect toys.com to toysrus.com.

Did they have to choose that option?
I am not completely disagreeing with the decision because I do know that there are other factors involved. Because the toys.com/etoys.com acquisition was very public knowledge, Google knows that Toys “R” Us owns all three websites. How likely is it that Google would list 3 sites from the same company in the top 5 results for a highly competitive search term? It’s not very likely at all. Well, unless you have a badass SEO. And unless the 3 sites are unique and have relatively-unique content. Toysrus.com and eToys.com have managed to maintain a unique focus. How could they then build out toys.com to be another toy-based site that can distinguish itself from the other 2 sites? Sounds impossible. Not really.

Maybe money became an issue. It’s a rough economy. Site development, marketing, advertising, hiring people, building a new site, asking for bailout money – all of these things cost money. With so much focus on the bottom line and with so many companies cutting budgets in 2009, perhaps this entire decision came down to money. At least I hope that’s what happened because I know of several SEOs that could have come up with a solid idea that could turn toys.com a site that drives a ton of traffic and money while offering a unique focus and maintaining a top 5 result in the Google SERPs. I mean, seriously. A shopping engine. A blog. A review site. Something. Anything is better than redirecting an entire site to one URL! I’m glad they mainly used 301 redirects (I have seen a lot of pages with 302 redirects still in Google’s index), but at least they could have matched up related product and category URLs from toys.com to toysrus.com. There are likely several achievable business models for the toys.com domain that could provide more visibility and profit for Toys “R” Us, but it’s obviously not in the cards right now.

What Now?
In the end, Toys “R” Us made an aggressive move that will drive brand recognition and brand association. They made a move that will deliver a lot of direct navigation traffic. They made a decision that will result in some link juice and link authority being transferred to toysrus.com. There’s probably some other stuff that they’ll get out of it, but this blog post is already too long. I don’t think it was a terrible decision. It’s not going to bankrupt the company. However, there are some huge opportunity costs. A top organic ranking is one. Organic search traffic is another. Revenue is another. Oh well. Good luck, Toys “R” Us. I wish you the best in 2009.