What to do if the domain name you want is taken

Passing domain

If you’re doing a domain search and the domain name you want comes up as unavailable, it most likely means that someone already owns it and:

  • is using it for a website
  • is planning to use it on a site that’s not launched yet
  • is only using the domain for email addresses (e.g. [email protected])
  • is keeping it because the name is similar to a domain he/she is actively using and the domain is being redirected to their site
  • has an idea for the future and registered the domain in advance
  • is just fond of the name
  • wants to prevent other entities from using his/her name or brand

Ugh, right? Trying to get “the perfect domain” can be really frustrating, or, at the very least, really expensive. There are currently 137,510,404 domains registered with .com alone, and as of 2016, we’re looking at 326.4 million domain names in total. Maybe you’ll find a diamond in the rough, but it’s getting harder and harder every day.

What’s a person to do? Well, here are your options.

  1. The easy way: Pivot
  2. The hard way: Buy it from the current owner
  3. The patient way: Wait for it to expire
  4. The way that involves lawyers

The easy way: Pivot

The great thing about “new” is that you’re not fighting with anything that’s already been established. Assuming your new brand is actually new, and you’ve created a list of sorts with naming options (which you should always do), just move down to your second-favorite option.

In almost every case, this is your best choice. It avoids naming confusion, is infinitely cheaper than trying to buy the domain on the secondary market, and reduces the amount you’ll have to compromise to land on something you’re happy with. But, alas, it’s not the only way.

Can I just register the same name with a different domain extension?

Sure, if “theperfectdomain.com” is already registered, you could always just register the same domain name with a different extension, e.g. “theperfectdomain.info”. The biggest potential problem with using alternative extensions is that people could forget your domain, and by default go to the .com domain instead.

Slowly but surely though, people are embracing top-level domains (TLDs) other than .com. (In case you’re wondering, the TLD is the part of the domain after the dot, e.g. the “com” in theperfectdomain.com) And with hundreds of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) hitting the market, ranging from city names (e.g. .london and .berlin) to hobbies and professions (e.g. .photography and .accountants) to surnames (e.g. .kim or .wang), it’s becoming more normal by the day.

However, it will take time for people to get used to this new world where anything is .possible. (Note: .possible is not actually one of the new gTLDs, though it should be.) Just be aware of the hopefully short-term drawbacks to using a TLD other than .com. Here’s a nugget from Christopher Steiner at FoundersClub about .com usage in Y Combinator (one of the largest venture capital firms in San Francisco):

But everybody knew, even then, that a company needed a dot-com domain. That wasn’t debatable. But it seems a subject that is up for discussion now, judging by data. Promising startups still end up with dot-com domains more often than not, but the margin at which they do is decreasing.

ycombinator .com trending downward

The percentage of Y Combinator companies with dot-com domains has been following a downward trend since the the winter class of 2014, when dot-com domains comprised 80% of the class. Before that point, almost all classes were well into the 90-percentiles for dot-com names, with seven classes at 100%.

The last three classes at YC have been: 79.4%, 75.3% and 68.0% dot-com domains.

This is assuming you’re not trying to name yourself Apple, going with something like apple.online. It’s always good to check the WIPO Global Brand Database to make sure you’re not trying to infringe on the space of an already established brand.

Couldn’t I just get a username on a big web platform?

Having your own domain name, even if it’s not perfect, is a far better option than building your online presence on top of another service’s URL, e.g. yourshop.shopify.com or facebook.com/yourcompany. This practice of building your brand, service, or web presence on another organization’s platform is an example of “sharecropping”, and can be problematic for a number of reasons.

With this sharecropping setup, the platform you’re hosted on:

  • controls how your presence can look or function (e.g. templates and tiered feature offerings depending on how much you pay).
  • can change services or raise rates, leaving you little recourse, since not accepting/paying could mean losing your site.
  • can control how much exposure you get. There’ve been lots of articles about issues with brands on Facebook getting ever-lessening exposure of their content to their fans if they don’t pay for advertising.
  • can limit your access to analytics, making it hard to know how large your audience is, what they’re doing on your site, or where they’re engaging when they’re there.
  • can simply take your site offline without much notice, explanation or recourse if you are deemed to have violated terms of service or other issues. It can take a lot of time and frustration to get these issues sorted out, and all the while your site is unavailable to anyone.

You can always switch domains later, but it’s a good idea to start with a web address you control while you build up your search engine visibility.

The hard way: Buy it from the current owner

If you go to your favorite WHOIS lookup site, you can enter the domain you want and get the publicly available details of who owns the domain. Be aware that not all WHOIS lookups are official and present accurate information. Also be aware that sometimes registries (like for ccTLDs such as .io) have their own WHOIS lookups, which may provide different or additional details.

Ideally you want the registrant contact email address, as the registrant is the domain’s legal owner. gTLDs have four registrant contacts: registrant/owner, admin, technical, and billing. These can all be the same person/organization, or four different ones. Some ccTLDs, like .uk, only have two contacts.

Registrant email address considerations

Unfortunately, just finding an email address for the registrant doesn’t guarantee contact. Particularly if someone has owned a domain for a long time, they may not use the email address anymore that they provided for registration. Lots of things can change: leaving school, getting hacked, and changing addresses, or simply upgrading the email hosting you use.

Also, many email clients have stringent spam filtering, and emails from addresses that they’ve never received email from before may not be allowed through automatically. There are lots of articles out there outlining other spam filter triggers. Here’s a good example. These are good things to be aware of for how you craft your email to the owner of the domain you want.

Some people also use WHOIS privacy services, either provided by their registrar (more information about ours) or by a third-party service. Sometimes it’s obvious when one of these services is in place. For example, for customers using our new WHOIS privacy service, information for WhoisTrustee will be shown instead of a person or organization’s contact information.

There will be email addresses shown for the contacts when a WHOIS privacy service is in place, but there’s a chance that the registrant cannot receive email sent to them. (For example, if the underlying email address is outdated or the forwarding filters out certain messages.)

Registrant is unreachable

For whatever the reason, it is quite possible the registrant’s contact information is not available for the domain you want. Obviously, this presents a problem. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily a solveable one.

From time to time people who can’t get contact information for a domain they want contact us to ask us for that information, or to ask us to contact the domain owner for them. We can’t speak for other registrars, but our policy is not to do this. We take customers’ privacy very seriously. Additionally, we are not in the brokerage business.

It is possible that unless the domain is allowed to expire and is released, you may have no way of acquiring it. In these cases we recommend having some viable alternatives. And make sure you’ve secured a domain name before printing signs, business cards, etc. (You’d be surprised how often people don’t do this…)

Domain brokerage

If you are interested in having a third party try to contact a domain’s owner for you, we recommend Sedo or DomainAgents.

What brokerage services will do is contact the domain owner (if they can), then make an offer for the domain for you, handle negotiations, and finalize the agreement to purchase and transfer the domain. In addition to whatever price you pay for the domain, you will also pay a fee to the broker.

You’ve contacted the domain owner… now what?

That’s up to you, really. First, you need to see if the person is interested in parting with the domain. It’s a good idea, when you’re looking up the WHOIS details, to check the date on which the domain was registered. If someone has had the domain for a decade, there may be pretty good odds that they’re not interested in getting rid of it.

That said, it’s possible the person registered the domain hoping to sell it, but the right buyer just hadn’t come along until you did. And, as we’ve previously mentioned, just because there is no website up for the domain doesn’t mean it’s not in use or not wanted. There are a lot of ways to use domains that don’t involve publicly accessible websites. (And even if the domain isn’t being used for anything, no, we (nor any other registrar) can’t just take it for you.)

All you can do is contact the owner and hope they receive the message and reply. If they don’t reply, or they say no, there’s not much you can do. If they are interested, then you have a chance. And typically, if someone is interested in selling a domain, they’ll make it quite easy to contact them.

How much is the domain I want worth?

That depends on a lot of factors. There is no service you can check to see what a given domain should be worth. Any site that claims to tell you what your domain name or social media account is worth is just using some arbitrary calculation. They are just for fun and have no legal use or bearing on actual domain value or prices.

Any domain is worth what a buyer is willing to pay for it (assuming the owner is interested in selling at all). Note that some domain owners have pretty grandiose ideas about what their domain is worth, or think they can get rich quick off some desperate buyer.

There are many things that can influence the cost of a domain name. Some examples:

  1. the word(s) in the name are simple, clear and common, including standard spellings
  2. the word(s) is a recognizable person, company, product, etc. (i.e. don’t expect to get “coke.com”)
  3. the domain is already in use (as noted, there’s a website, email addresses, etc.)
  4. the domain name is related to something that may become important in the future, e.g. an event, new product, etc.
  5. how badly the owner can tell that you want it
  6. how badly the owner needs or wants the money
  7. how much you appear to be willing or able to pay for it (e.g. there’s a good chance that the price may be higher if a company wants a domain than if just an individual person does)
  8. the legal status of the domain (e.g. is it a registered trademark)
  9. the state of the industry or economy (e.g. during a tech bubble, like many things, domain name prices may become inflated).

We’ve come to an agreement… now what?

Congratulations! You’ve managed to contact the domain owner, they were interested in selling, and now you’ve made a deal. How do you actually get the domain? Well, it depends. For gTLDs (e.g. .com) the transfer process is standardized. There’s information on the requirements here.

For ccTLDs there can be a lot of variance in what’s required to transfer, so if you have trouble figuring it out or getting started, let us know. We’re happy to help.

If the domain owner is an iwantmyname customer and so are you, you can do what’s called an internal transfer or move.. (Provided the domain is old enough, etc.)

If you want to transfer the domain from the owner’s account at another registrar to your account with iwantmyname, then the owner would unlock the domain, get the transfer auth code, remove any privacy services, and one of you (whomever has the auth code) would initiate the transfer at our website. (That is for gTLDs. As noted, the process may differ somewhat for ccTLDs.) More information on transferring TO iwantmyname here.

If the owner is an iwantmyname customer and you want to transfer the domain to your account at another registrar, then the owner would unlock the domain, get the transfer auth code, remove any privacy services, and one of you (whomever has the auth code) would initiate the transfer at the new registrar’s website. More information on transferring FROM iwantmyname here.

Depending on the domain type and registrars involved, transfers can be immediate, or take up to 5 days to complete.

Of course, be sure that all payments and other arrangements have been made before initiating the transfer. Once a domain has been transferred, it’s likely no longer yours or accessible, and you have no way of getting it back or withholding it to demand payment if you get shafted.

Anything else?

To be the legal owner of a domain, your name and/or organization’s name needs to be in the registrant/owner contact details. This information may not automatically change when a domain is transferred. Be sure to check.

At iwantmyname, you can update the registrant contacts for many types of domains in your dashboard, under edit contacts. If you’re unable to do that, there may be an issue, or we may need to make the update for you, so let us know. If your domain is registered elsewhere, you’ll need to contact that registrar for help updating the details if needed.

Be aware that changing the registrant contact details is often called an owner change. For some types of domains, this change is considered by registries to be similar to a domain registration, so there may be a fee involved. Some registries also require identification and paperwork to be included. (We can help clarify this as well.)

The patient way: Wait for it to expire

If you’re not comfortable contacting the domain owner directly, or you tried and didn’t get a response, you can attempt to procure the domain when it expires.

This is anything but a guaranteed strategy, however. Most registrars remind their customers early and often prior to domains expiring. Many registrars also auto-renew domains by default as long as the customer’s payment details are accurate and up to date. (iwantmyname does both of these things for their customers.)

Even if a domain’s ownership does expire, many registrars give their customers a grace period after expiration so they can still renew it, sometimes at a considerably increased cost. (This pricing is set by the registries, not registrars like iwantmyname.)

You could also try a domain monitoring service, which alerts you to status changes and expirations for your domains, or others that are of interest to you. Be aware though that this offering can be an upsell attempt by some registrars. (iwantmyname does not offer this service.)

Backordering services are also popular, and if you want a maximum chance of getting the domain if/when it expires, we recommend using all of them. Most of these services will only charge you if they manage to procure the domain, but some charge in advance. Here are a few popular options:

The way that involves lawyers

And now we’re to the final frontier — trying to get the domain you want if you think you have a valid claim on it. Grab yourself a coffee and read on.

What is domain squatting/cybersquatting?

In short, domain squatting (occasionally still called cybersquatting) is where people register domains that are closely related to a trademark or brand, with the intention of selling them off for (sometimes very large) profit. By doing this, squatters are gambling that the company or person targeted will just pay what the squatter wants to avoid expensive legal proceedings and the risk of being denied the rights to that domain name.

For example, a registrant might register “thisismycompany.ca” in hopes that the company, which is based in New Zealand, for example, would start doing a lot of business in Canada and want to buy that domain. Or if a company was launching a new product called SuperNamer, and a registrant who didn’t represent the company registered “supernamer.com” to try and make the company pay for that domain so they could launch their new product with the most recognizable domain name.

Domain squatting can also be done accidentally by someone with good intentions, e.g. a big fan of a particular celebrity, character or sports team. That person could register the domain, e.g. “batman.com” and set up a fan site dedicated to all things Batman, even though the site isn’t owned by DC Comics, who own the rights to the Batman character.

As noted, the person who set up the site might just be a huge Batman fan, but the person could also be hoping that DC will offer them a lot of money for the domain to avoid legal wrangling (though, in this case, the squatter wouldn’t have much of a case).

Legally, resolving domain squatting requires determining several things. Is the domain name part of someone’s trademark? Is the domain name part of a well-known brand, even if not trademarked? (Like a celebrity’s identity, e.g. it’s unlikely anyone’s going to assume “georgeclooney.com” is about anyone other than the actor.) Was the person who bought the domain acting in “good faith” (e.g. big fan) or “bad faith” (i.e. hoping to profit from identity assumptions or sale)?

Bad faith domain squatting is illegal, but can still be expensive to resolve through legal channels.

What is the difference between domain speculation and squatting?

There’s no single, definitive (i.e. legally binding) definition, but generally squatting implies “bad faith” intent on the part of the person or company that has registered the domain.

That means they have no interest in or intentions of creating a website for the domain or otherwise using it (like it becoming the main web presence for their business). That person just bought it to sell it for more than they paid for it (ideally much more).

Domain speculation, on the other hand, involves registering domains that might be useful or of interest, but which don’t block an existing trademark or brand. For example, instead of registering a variant of an existing company’s domain, a domain speculator would register something more general, like “weselldomains.com”, in hopes that some domain registrar might want it.

Speculators are often more open about the fact that the domains in their portfolio are for sale, as well. Whereas squatters might set up a basic page to make it marginally look like the domain is in use, or create a parking page (a temporary page, usually used to as a placeholder until a real site is ready) full of ads to try to get click traffic for extra revenue until they can sell the domain.

Some squatters own many domains, though some will only target a few, since the more domains you own that haven’t sold yet, the more money you’ve invested without return. Speculators often own a large portfolio of domains, targeting various industries with a selection of relevant terms.

Domain squatting, if a person’s or company’s actions are deemed to be that, is illegal. Some countries have specific laws against squatting that are more specific than standard trademark law. However, since the internet is a global entity, issues of jurisdiction can arise.

What do I do if someone has registered a domain with my trademark?

You will need to follow the instructions outlined in ICANN’s Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP). Consulting a lawyer may also be useful in ensuring your case is as strong as possible.

Note, however, that even though you own the trademark, a domain squatter will still likely fight to keep the domain, since it was purchased in the first place to make money. Getting the domain name may be expensive, but if you own the trademark (or are a celebrity), you have a good chance of getting the domain from the squatter. Really, it comes down to whether it’s worth the trouble.