Until 1998, buying domain names was a complete free-for-all. Like the internet itself, domain purchase and ownership was unregulated.
This led to some thoroughly disreputable practices like domain squatting, where an investor would buy up domains containing company names, and then advertise them at massive profits.
The creation of global domain name regulator ICANN in 1998 effectively ended such sharp practices, creating an international database of domain ownership and regulation.
Today, purchasing a domain name is a more civilised affair, with a global WHOIS database of ownership (including proxies for privacy-conscious domain purchasers).
But what if you’re attempting to purchase a domain name already in use? Have you missed the boat, or are there potential workarounds?
Why a domain name already in use isn’t the end of the story
Imagine you’ve just registered a new business called Spot the Dog with Companies House, manufacturing and marketing patterned dog coats.
The obvious website address for your new endeavour would be spotthedog.co.uk.
In reality, that domain name isn’t currently active – and we’ll explain why we used the phrase ‘currently active’ in due course. But let’s imagine it is.
You might assume that since this domain name is already in use, you’ll have to choose an address featuring a different representation of your brand name.
However, domain names are bought and owned for all sorts of reasons, so that’s not necessarily the case.
Let’s consider a few scenarios where spotthedog.co.uk could still be acquired.
The business that owned the domain no longer needs it
Companies rebrand all the time, as they expand or get taken over. Websites bearing their former name might redirect to a new domain for a while, before slowly sliding into irrelevance.
It’s worth investigating whether the website currently hosted at the address you want to own is active. Has it been updated in the last couple of years?
If not, send the company an email (always the best method of making such an enquiry), asking if they’d be interested in selling the domain.
Providing the site goes offline for a few weeks, search engines will erase it from their records and you’ll be starting with a clean SEO slate, other than historic backlinks to the old content.
The domain is being advertised for sale
Many domain names are purchased but not currently active – a process known as being parked.
They might have been acquired for a rebranding or expansion that never happened, to prevent a competitor acquiring them, or as an investment.
There may be a specific price quoted to acquire the domain, but often the limited volume of demand means companies will simply invite offers on a parked domain.
In the meantime, they might sell advertising or weblinks on the homepage to generate revenue. This damages the site’s credibility, until it’s taken down and search engines forget about it.
The company has other addresses
If a Dalmatian breeder in America wanted to drive lots of traffic to their main website, they might register lots of other web domains to redirect traffic to their primary online location.
In this situation, losing a UK domain may not inconvenience them much. Indeed, a generous offer for a little-visited domain could be a welcome income boost.
There are over 1,500 types of top level domain, and some TLDs are more valuable or sought after than others.
If all else fails…
If you genuinely can’t acquire the domain name you’d like, there are still a few options.
You could deliberately misspell or contract your preferred domain name to find a variant that’s not in use – though in Spot The Dog’s case, we’d avoid an acronym.
You could choose a different TLD. Providing it’s completely different to the one/s already in use, nobody will complain – don’t register .co as a substitute for co.uk.
If your business is new, it may even be worth rebranding to ensure your website (and by extension email) addresses dovetail with your brand name.