Small Business Websites That Work newsletter, August 2003 (updated December 2003)
Look after your domain name
Look after your domain name, and it'll look after you. Owning your own domain name grants you independence from your host and ensures that visitors can find you again later wherever your site is hosted. Your domain name is your brand, your address and often your biggest asset.
When the internet first took off commercially, there were disputes arising from people buying domain names similar to popular company names and trying to resell them to the companies concerned at a huge mark-up. The days of headline-grabbing cybersquatting are probably over, but there are still a few businesses perpetrating what I'd consider scams. They might consider them smart marketing. You decide.
A company with a name that sounds like it's something official to do with the internet contacts you. "Hello, I see your domain is due for renewal soon. Please send us a cheque," they'll say.
It might be true that your domain is due for renewal, but this is public information and these companies are exploiting it for heavy-handed marketing techniques. They're effectively poaching business from your existing domain registrar (usually your website design team or your website hosts) by making it look like they're just asking you to continue an ongoing business relationship.
What's really going on is a new company is contacting you, offering to re-register your domain names, and charging you a fee for this.
One US company has been particularly active in issuing letters throughout the UK that look very much like invoices until you read the tiny print. These are often settled by companies by default because they think they have to.
I've also had phone calls from registrars asking to reregister the domain when they didn't register it in the first place.
You're free to register your domain with whoever you want, but it's probably not a great indicator of the service you can expect if your registrar secures your business by misleading you.
Another scam is where a registration company calls up and says that somebody else is about to register a domain similar - but never identical - to a trademark you hold. The company says it's a courtesy call to see whether you'd like to buy the domain name, otherwise they'll sell it to the other party.
The trick here, of course, is that there isn't another customer. The registrar is cold-calling you and offering to register a domain name you don't need and scaring you by suggesting someone else will get it if you don't. I took such a call two months ago. The domain names that the registrar was on the brink of registering urgently for another customer still haven't been registered. Probably because that customer didn't exist.
The problem is that you can't possibly register all the domains that might be similar to your own. There are too many permutations, and registrars like this will always invent another.
Don't register domains defensively when approached like this. If a problem does actually arise, remember you can use laws governing copyright, trademarks, passing off and defamation to defend your interests. There is a disputes resolution process governing .com domains, but it can be expensive to pursue.
Sometimes registrars will offer to reserve a domain with a new extension for you before it's released. The problem here is that lots of registrars could be preregistering the same domain and they'll all just race to be first to secure it when the domains are launched. You've got no guarantee that you'll get your domain and usually don't even have a clear idea of when the extension might be launched and your domain might be available. I've received spam offering to sell me domain extensions that were never approved.
Plan ahead by all means, but don't waste time and money by trying to register domains that have no launch date.
Look out too for companies that offer to register domains for longer than ten years. If a company says it can register a domain for 50 years, for example, what they mean is that they'll take your money now and they'll re-register it for you every few years when the official registration period expires (if they're still around, that is). You should expect to have to re-register domains every 2-5 years depending on the domain extension.
Top tips for protecting your domain name
When approached by a strange company asking to register your domain, you're usually better off sticking with your existing hosts or website design team. You'll probably get a better price and you'll certainly have greater confidence that your domain is being looked after by someone you trust.
To avoid getting scammed, make a note of when your domain names are due for renewal and be suspicious of invoices arriving too early. Poachers typically contact you well in advance.
Shortly before your domain expires, talk to your website designers or website hosts to make sure they're on top of your domain renewals and it doesn't get forgotten. If you don't re-register a domain name, somebody else can snap it up. You'll not only lose all the traffic you've built up, but your credibility could take a serious hit if your customers go to what they assume is still your website to find disturbing content there.