Expired domains – a success story from the US about expired websites

The terms 'expired domains' and 'dropped domains' are very common in online marketing. These are website addresses that have been registered, but then not extended or terminated after the contractual period ended. The domain is then re-released for registration. In most cases, website operators secure their domains for longer than the minimum period of a year by remaining registered with a hosting provider for a longer time.

There are many reasons why a domain is deleted or cancelled. When a company shuts down or a project finishes, the entire domain portfolio is deleted. There are many providers that buy these available expired domains and sell them on.

Finding expired domains: what makes deleted domains so attractive?

What makes an expired domain especially attractive is how beneficial it is for a website’s off-page search optimisation. In the ideal case, the existing backlink structure can be kept and used. This saves a lot of work, as there’s now less pressure to continuously build inbound links. Generally, the value of a website grows organically over several years. The value of the domain increases with the search engine ranking and backlinks. The acquisition of an expired domain is a great opportunity for website operators to shorten this long path.

There are also risks associated with expired domains: The invested sum for the purchased domain is only worthwhile if the website really brings traffic and has a good reputation. In the worst case, you 'inherit' any liabilities the abandoned domain might have – for example, problems with bots, spam attacks, or Google warnings. It is therefore very important to find out as much as possible about the relevant domain in advance.

The case of Cameron Harris: quick money with fake news about an expired domain

The New York Times reported about Cameron Harris, a political science graduate, who was able to make a profitable business by purchasing an expired domain. His idea was called 'A Fake News Masterpiece' by the paper. After finishing his studies, the 23-year-old was looking for a lucrative business model and came up with the idea of carrying out a 'sociological experiment', in his words.

Harris first posted some articles online, but only got a few clicks and comments on them. Only after he accused Hillary Clinton of saying the shooting of Harambe the gorilla was racially motivated, did he first start to get more attention with his stories. Harris then focused on political issues since he realised he could get a lot of clicks this way. Examples include accusing Bill Clinton of being involved in a sex ring for minors, as well as his wife intending to file for divorce.

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How could Harris generate money with an expired domain?

Harris then explained that he found the expired domain name 'ChristianTimesNewspaper.com' using the provider, ExpiredDomains.net. He paid $5 (just under £4) to buy this domain for his 'experiment'. According to him, the title of the URL alone should have been enough to show credibility. Harris published some articles on his newly acquired domain, focusing on the US election campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Harris announced in his top story what conspiracy theorists long suspected. 'Tens of thousands' of Clinton votes had been found in a warehouse in Ohio. Police were investigating, according to Harris’ article. He even added a stock image containing a warehouse worker and the alleged ballot papers in boxes. To accompany the image, Harris added the story of a supposed plot with the aim of influencing the outcome of the election. The plan was to smuggle the ballot papers under the completed ballot papers on the day of the counting, making Clinton the unlawful winner.

To help his story spread, Harris set up some fake Facebook profiles and shared the article on his website. It worked: the story about the alleged election fix went viral. Harris earned $5,000 (around £4,000) through Google AdSense from this article alone, since many people were taking the article at face value, clicking on it and then sharing it.

The article received 6 million clicks and was even shared personally by Trump! The winner of the US presidential election had already used a fake news article to attack political opponents, question the legitimacy of the Obama administration, and disparage the media. This practice accompanied his rise from reality TV star to the highest elected US official.

What was Harris’ motivation behind the fake news on the expired domain?

Harris denied that there was political motivation behind the fake news. He was only concerned about the maximum profit that he could obtain with these political issues. When asked if he felt guilty about spreading untruths about a presidential candidate, Harris said that since politics was generally made up of exaggerations and half-truths, he hadn’t really done any different to what would normally be the case.

Harris also confirmed that he would have been prepared to go against Trump and promote Clinton with his articles if this tactic had been more lucrative. However, Trump’s supporters proved far more impulsive than Clinton’s, since the Republican candidate’s supporters shared the articles more willingly.

With the story, the political scientist could show his Republican spirit, but for him it was the $20,000 (£15,500) he generated from Google Ads on his website that made it worthwhile. Google, however, quickly withdrew his advertising after realising what he was up to.

Harris made a costly mistake: he decided to wait. A few days after the election, Google announced it wasn’t going to place any more ads on fake news sites. A few days later the ads had disappeared from Harris’ domains and after conducting a test, an expert reported that his domains were now essentially worthless.

But all was not lost. Harris had added a pop up on the re-activated expired domain, which encouraged visitors to join a (fictitious) 'Stop the Steal' team. The aim was for the users to find out how Clinton manipulated the elections and how to stop them. By doing this, Harris was able to collect 24,000 e-mail addresses. What exactly he plans to do with them, is still unclear.