How can I buy a domain name that is already in use?

Until 1998, buying domain names was a free game. Like the Internet itself, buying and owning domains was unregulated.

This has led to utterly unsavory practices like domain squatting, where an investor would buy domains containing company names and then advertise them with huge profits.

The creation of the global domain name regulator ICANN in 1998 effectively put an end to these acerbic practices, creating an international database of domain ownership and regulation.

Buying a domain name is a more civilized affair today, with a global WHOIS database of ownership (including proxies for privacy-conscious domain buyers).

But what if you try to buy a domain name that’s already in use? Did you miss the mark or are there any potential workarounds?

Why a domain name already in use is not the end of the story

Imagine you have 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 business would be spotthedog.co.uk.

In fact, this domain name is not currently active – and we’ll explain why we used the phrase “currently active” in due course. But let’s imagine so.

You might assume that since this domain name is already in use, you would need to choose an address with 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.

Consider a few scenarios where spotthedog.co.uk could still be acquired.

The company that owned the domain no longer needs it

Businesses rebrand all the time as they grow or are taken over. Websites with their old name may be redirected to a new domain for a while, before slowly descending into irrelevance.

It is worth checking if the website currently hosted at the address you want to own is active. Has it been updated in the last two years?

If not, email the company (always the best way to make such a request), asking if they would be interested in selling the domain.

Provided the site is offline for a few weeks, search engines will wipe it off their records and you’ll start with a clean SEO slate, other than historical backlinks to old content.

The domain is advertised for sale

Many domain names are purchased but not currently active – a process known as parking.

They may have been acquired for a rebranding or expansion that never happened, to prevent a competitor from acquiring them, or as an investment.

There may be a specific price listed for acquiring the domain, but often the limited volume of demand means businesses will simply invite bids on a parked domain.

In the meantime, they can sell advertisement or web links on the homepage to generate revenue. This damages the credibility of the site, until it is taken down and search engines forget about it.

The company has other addresses

If a Dalmatian breeder in America wanted to drive a lot of traffic to their main website, they could register many other web domains to redirect traffic to their main online location.

In this situation, the loss of a domain in the UK may not bother them much. Indeed, a generous offer for an under-visited domain could be a welcome revenue boost.

There are over 1,500 types of top-level domains, and some TLDs are more valuable or sought after than others.

If all else fails…

If you really can’t get the domain name you want, there are still a few options.

You might deliberately misspell or contract your preferred domain name to find a variant that isn’t being used – although in the case of Spot The Dog, we’d avoid an acronym.

You can choose another TLD. Provided it’s completely different from the one(s) already in use, no one will complain – don’t register .co as a replacement for co.uk.

If your business is new, it may even be worth rebranding to ensure that your website addresses (and by extension your email address) match your brand name.

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