You may think the site you have planned is new, but there is a chance it could connect in some way to the domain name legacy of the sites that used to occupy that spot.

Domain Homes

The domain names are the homes of websites. Sometimes homes are occupied, sometimes they’re abandoned. Sometimes they are bulldozed into nothingness, and sometimes they never were to begin with, even if the land always did. When buying domain names, this increasing scale of inexistence represents lower and lower cost for the would-be buyer of that domain. So domains currently in use are the most expensive, while a domain that never housed a site will cost you $7.49 nowadays.

Here is a basic breakdown of a decreasing value of a domain depending on its historical conditions:

Most Valuable

  1. Owned, Online, Active, and Content-Rich
  2. Owned, Online, Active, and Content-Poor
  3. Owned, Online, Rarely Active, and Content-Rich
  4. Owned, Online, No Longer Active, but Content-Rich
  5. Owned, Online, Rarely Active, and Content-Poor
  6. Owned, Online, No Longer Active, and Content-Poor
  7. Was a Site There, Now Offline, and Content-Rich
  8. Was a Site There, Now Offline, and Content-Poor
  9. Never Was a Site There, But Domain Owned
  10. Never Was a Site There, Domain Never Owned

Least Valuable

Now other factors can affect the value of a domain, so that a great name somehow never bought can be overall worth more than a bad name someone built a small site on, but that won’t be because of its history.

The value associated with the levels is not necessarily a reflection of its potential (although it usually is), but more of a reflection of the likely perceived value by the current domain owner, since it largely represents how much time they’ve put into it.

Tangible Historical Value

If we think of domain names as literal homes, imagine an abandoned house. Yes, the life may be gone from it, but there may be some furniture, and at least some walls. Also, the wiring, plumbing, and even roads that lead you there are still drivable. The previous content and residual inbound links represent this infrastructure.

Ancient Content

If the content had value before, there’s a decent chance it still has value now. Not all content can stand the test of time, but intentionally-written, decently-written material has worth. In buying a domain, you may or may not have secured the rights to content that existed before, and you may or may not decide to act in accordance with your rights.

A certain fraction of the content will be available through Archive.org. SEO toolbars often offer one-click access to the site’s Archive.org presence, which is where this past content can be harvested if no prior arrangement had been made.

For example, let’s have a look at Accessible Arlington, the first in a series of domain lessons (failures) that are to come. This was a $5 closeout domain sale ($5 + a basic registration cost) found through TDNam, Godaddy’s auction marketplace. I took the Archive.org pages, put them back up as soon as I bought the domain, exactly as they were. I figured it’s a resource that is potentially helping people. If the person doesn’t want to pay to renew the domain to keep offering it, maybe I am willing.

But the fact is, I didn’t buy the domain for its content, although I was happy it was there and relatively complete (in Archive.org terms). I bought it for the residual link value it had.

Ancient Links

Links are the primary means by which Google and other search engines attribute value to a particular site. They represent a vote of trust and popularity, handy for search engines to know what to rank, especially without knowing everyone’s traffic. Link value represents Pagerank (PR), the currency of ranking value, and is shown in SEO toolbars as Toolbar Pagerank (TBPR).

But what happens if you take over ownership of a site? What happens to that link value?

In theory, it’s supposed to disappear, as you would be getting value for what you didn’t yourself earn. Or is it? What if you bought a site, intending to take over from someone else with an identical site. It would be like a store owner handing their keys to the new owner. In doing so, it’s not like the roads to it would be torn up; they are part of what was purchased.

Across numerous domains I’ve bought at different stages relative to the deaths of their last sites, I have noticed a small PR drop. But what does this mean?

It could mean that Google has dinged me for an amount represented in the drop, remembering that the PR scale is logarithmic. But we can’t rely on TBPR as the ultimate mark of a site’s ability to rank, either.

In fact, the link value attained by buying expired domains is meant to be cut completely by Google. If they did cut it off entirely, might they still give it a TBPR score? Is selling for $5 in a clouseout sale the same as expiring? If Google can tell it’s a case of passed on ownership, the value is supposed to remain, buy how do we know? What are the best practices?

Not only is there a lack of clear communication between Google and site owners about this, but there’s a potentially overt, potentially hidden, potentially non-existent discussion between a buyer and a seller relative to this. To have any sense of this and include it as a factor in your buying or selling, you have to check out a domain’s current TBPR, check its backlink profile and see if the PR is legitimate and useful (also verifying whether or not it’s fake PR), and know that in taking over the new domain, all of these links might never ever matter.

Lovely, isn’t it?

On Accessible Arlington, my PR score on the home page dropped to zero (hence my willingness to discuss it), but the fact is the value dropped when the link to it disappeared, not, apparently, because Google wanted to punish me.

At the end of the day, even if Google is not going to pass on ranking benefit, domains with pre-existing content and especially domains with pre-existing backlinks and in turn PR will fetch a much heftier price. This price could reflect actual value, or, if Google is true to what they say (and can manage it effectively) then it could be a whole layer of valuation for absolutely nothing.

Respecting Old Age

The age of a site is a factor in determine its authority and, to an extent, its search engine ranking potential. If I buy an expired domain, and it keeps its PR, is the age of the previous version of the site still to my benefit? Maybe.


Past links and authority could mean that a new domain might come with traffic already pouring in a little. Or, the traffic may be close at hand if it’s an exact match keyword domain and the bonus is around the corner. This benefit is likely to be small on an expired or for sale domain, but everything counts. And, if the site is currently running, the traffic value will be significant.

Yes, traffic is more a fact about the present than the past, but it’s still a consequence of the domain’s history.

The Bottom Line

Thieving or purchasing old content can jumpstart your web project. Related to this is the rest of the domain’s history, which may or may not count towards search engine rankings in the future.

Personally, in my case and in the cases of the people I know, the TBPR has stayed, and it seems like decent ranking ability has been passed along also. When I do buy, I accept the risks of the pre-existing value getting nullified. I try to put up a website that offers value to users so that what would otherwise be broken links actually point to decent websites (how dare I!), and know that even if pre-bought links do get devalued, that doesn’t mean that a person might see this old link, believe I am an authority, and also link to me, following the first site’s Google-devalued lead.

If you do decide to go down this road and buy a domain with established history, here are some summarizing tips to consider:

  • If you are buying a whole site, get it transferred and up and running as soon as possible.
  • The more usable content, the better.
  • Even if you are buying an expired domain, get some content on it as soon as possible, and try to make it unique and of value.
  • Start getting fresh links as soon as you can.
  • The longer it’s been expired for, the greater the risk of devalue (theoretically).
  • Try to have the niche of your site match the niche of the links coming in to obtain the best odds for the best value.
  • Expect at least a small drop, and accept that a complete drop is possible.
  • Don’t expect that lingering TBPR means lingering ranking potential. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sell it.
  • If the PR comes from one strong link, there is risk in it all disappearing if that link is ever removed. The more diversified the link portfolio creating the PR, the more secure you are.

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