Last month I asked Nick Wilsdon if he’d write an article about, “What does Google know about your domain names?” and today he responded with
That article on TW today prompted me to finish this – http://www.threadwatch.org/node/5238 – I think my notes went further than that.
So here ya go, my first guest article is a great one, and it’s by Nick Wilsdon. (Nick Wilsdon has worked as a domain registrar for Tucows since 2000, as well as being an active member of their beta development team. He founded e3internet.com; a web production group based in Russia and is a regular contributor to Multilingual-Search.com.)
The answer is probably a lot more than you think they do. I’ve been prompted by Jim and several recent posts in the SEO community to try and answer this question. I’ll apologise now if you find some of this material simple. Largely it is once explained. However subjects touching on domain registration always seem to be surrounded by quite a lot of FUD. Hopefully this article can clear some of that.
One such issue was Google becoming a registrar back in February of 2005. To understand this move we first have to understand what exactly it means to become a ‘Registrar’, what benefits does it give you and how can it be utilised by a company like Google?
Domain registration is very much a business of resellers. Basically anyone who sells domain names is a domain registrar but they may be 2, 3 or 4 tiers down from the source, the Registry in charge of that domain extension. For example in the case of the .com extension Verisign was put in overall management authority. In most cases being a reseller is simply more practical. It costs a few thousand dollars to sign up for each individual Top Level Domain (TLD) or Country Coded Top Level Domain (ccTLD), reselling for a larger Registrar such as GoDaddy or Tucows gives you access to their entire portfolio of domain extensions.
However it seems that Google did not start signing as a Registrar in order to buy or sell domains; they did this to have greater access to domain information. Now to clear some of the FUD that was speculated about this. Google as, say a .com Registrar, does not have access to all the customer records of Verisign. They can only access the further details of domains which they personally sold. Tucows and GoDaddy are both Registrars with Verisign, do you think they have access to each other’s entire customer database? Certainly that information would be well worth the $3500 fee. No. Unless the domain is within their own account they have exactly the same access as you or me using the public WHOIS records.
Well that’s not entirely true. There is one very important benefit to becoming a direct Registrar with each ccTLD and TLD Registry; access to their APIs. While the Registries do provide a public WHOIS service this is often limited. In much the same way Google and Yahoo restrict automated searches, the Registries restrict queries on their data. As a Registrar you are entitled to carry out high volume automated queries.
I’m sure at this point several of you have already reached my conclusions. I believe Google has built or is building a tool to analyse domain names. The API access they were given as a Registrar allows them to carry out the level of automated queries they needed for this. I would also go further and suggest this tool is building up a historical picture of each domain through regular scraping of their WHOIS records.
As you can imagine this tool could be very useful for Google. It would allow them to track the age of domain names and connect likely networks and portfolios. They would see when a domain name changed ownership and allow them to adjust the value of that domain in their engine. As Jim wrote some time back, we have all learnt to appreciate old domains; they escape the aging filters as well as saving you months if not years of link building work. It’s considered good practice when buying an old domain name not to change it radically, adding hundreds of new pages suddenly or overhauling the design but what about changes in the WHOIS?
Ah yes, but we can cover our tracks here with Domain Privacy. Or can we? As I have explained before, Google can not access the records of other clients of the Registry. However their tool could be used to flag domains which take out this service. It is also important note that several pieces of information are not included in domain privacy services. These are the current Registrar, record creation date, expiry date, renewal date and the name servers associated with the domain. A system could be set to look for one or more changes in this data as an indication the domain may have changed hands. Changing too much of this data plus a domain privacy service appearing on a domain might raise a flag or reduce Google’s trust in the domain.
They would especially be watching domain which are about to drop (expire) as this would be the likely time they would change hand. The system would be looking for status changes on WHOIS records, such as DETAGGED, REDEMPTION PERIOD, or PENDING DELETE. These would all indicate the registrant had failed to renew their domain. None would be hidden by domain privacy contracts.
This article is speculation. I think it is considered speculation but only Google knows. This theory would go someway to explaining the success that some marketers are still having on some expired ccTLD’s; it is unlikely that Google has integrated these into their system as yet. While they may be “wiping the slate clean” on expired .com domains, they don’t have this level of data from these other Registries. Some, such as the Russian (.ru) Registry have very limited API capacity at the moment which might be a barrier to inclusion in such a system.
It is certainly Google’s modus operandi to accumulate information and incorporate that data into their algorithm. As Eileen Rodriguez, a Google spokeswoman wrote “While we have no plans to register domains at this time, we believe this information can help us increase the quality of our search results.” The Google Patent increased speculation on positive benefits of changes in the WHOIS, notably increasing the registration period, but little has been written on negative effects that some changes could cause. Carefully management of this information may have just become another string the SEO/SEM has to add to their bow.
Added by Jim:
Nick offers Domain Name Registrations , e-commerce hosting, as well as Internet Marketing Strategies. More on Nick.
Great Artilce Nick! Thanks for letting me publish this on my blog.
Good article. These same thoughts have been tickling the back of my brain since last February. Thanks for putting it all together.
Thanks Dan (and Jim)
Yes I don’t think I’m putting anything revolutionary out here but hopefully bringing it together allows people to see what Google may be doing with this data.
I got sent a couple of emails about how to apply this, the space/time on this didn’t really allow for that. My advice would be to similar to the current thinking on buying old domains – change as little as possible/do it slowly. Consider keeping the same host (name servers) and registrar. If you want to use domain privacy then get the seller to set that up some months before the domain handover, then continue with the same provider.
It maybe that Google views domain privacy as a reason to reduce trust in the domain. I don’t have any research on this. There is a lot of contention on this topic among the registries. For example the Belgium (.be) has never allowed it and the US (.us) registry is banning this service shortly, while the UK (.uk) are strong advocates of this service. There is not a registry wide consensus on whether this is a_good_thing yet.
Certainly the entrance into the market of companies who register the domain on your behalf (to hide your details) is a worrying development. Technically they own the domain and if they don’t play nicely it turns into a very messy situation.
heres a short article i wrote about “private domains”:Do Privae Domain Registrations Hurn Rankings” possibly making ranking more difficult.
I outline a scenario where a search engine could reduce the value of a link if both pages were on private domains with the same registrar. I am sure Google probably is more sophisticated than this though.
I’m not so sure about the Domain Privacy idea. The issue with this is that although they do have access to the root zone info on all domains for “thin” registries such as .com / .net which are the biggest two GTLD’s, this data only includes the domain, create, expire and name servers as listed in the article above. It would be tough to determine whether a domain is using a privacy service based on this alone without corroborating through whois.
In order to truly determine if privacy is used they would have to query the whois server of the registrar of record for that domain directly to find out the details and most registrars including us over here at Tucows severely limit general public access. Although by ICANN mandate we do raise these limits for other registrars, that ceiling is set based on how many domains are being transferred between registrar tags and Google is not registering domains for the public so their volume wouldn’t necessarily warrant such an increase.
Past the security of having all of your own domains on your own Registrar tag, I believe most of the value of this move would have been to access the “drop lists” or domain expiry lists that the registry publishes to every registrar for all domains by every registrar on a daily basis. This way they would know domains that are changing ownership and thereby tweak their search results accordingly.
The only wrench is that most of the top ten registrars have either significantly reduced or almost completely eliminated the deletion of their domain names by auctioning them off, or in extreme cases even keeping them for themselves if they generate revenue through traffic so that benefit may have been short lived.
Do you think that google peeks at the actual owner (not just the changes) and uses it to connect domains that are hosted at different IP addresses?
It makes absolute perfect sense. It gives G 20/20 vision on the backend. This is going to be huge, very important to keep in mind. Great article Jim.
It’s great to have you involved in this issue, I certainly respect the extensive knowledge you and Frank have in this area. I’d really like to know if Tucows has seen a significant number of queries coming from Google? 😉
It’s a fair point that few registries would be willing to increase their limits for Google but at least by becoming a registrar they have met the basic conditions to begin negotiations on this issue.
As you explain, the drop lists are of very limited value with the top registrars (Tucows soon too) auctioning off domains before expiry. Certainly if Google intends to stop the benefits of buying old domain names this would not be so helpful. If they are going to use domain data in a meanful way they need to develop a tool of this nature.
Ptiddy – that is an interesting take on this. I think though you would have to consider that within the current discussion on the way Google treats networks. These days with the rise of so many blogging and advertising networks, Google has become more accepting of this practice. My view is that is you’re linking for the visitors and not the search engines then you’re going to be fine.
SEO Intermediate – my view is that Google would want to use the WHOIS data to pick out patterns of ownership. Of course their unique perspective on the internet allows then to likely pick out networks through their linking patterns. Simply putting your sites on individual IP’s is not going to hide the connection. You should read some of the comments that Ammon John has made on this.
Don’t be surprised if Google also pays attention to the length of your domain registration which may include adding a few more credibility points to those domains that the owners have registered for multiple years.
don’t you think they can license cached copies of the whois data that companies like the one that runs whois.sc use?
True, the API service that whois.sc offers seems very useful. I was even considering it myself for one of my tools recently. However it too has limits, their top account has limitations, 143’000 queries per month.
The normal method of arranging these volume limitations with the Registries is through becoming a client. The Registry/Registrar relationship is designed for this.
Thanks for this article and the feedback to our comments. Indeed, it would very interesting to know where the traffic for the Tucows download website originates.
However since this is handled in a different division of the company, we don’t have access to those numbers 🙂
I think after all of these years Tucows has developed into a big brand on the Internet, that can certainly by itself generate type-in and search engine traffic.
PS: As always, I am stating my own opinion.
Indeed, i find this article with a certain grain of truth. I own a website that is ranked 6/10 in google and i’ve started to pay attention to my rankings after purchasing a second domain ( check rankings at http://www.mypagerank.net/ ). I’ve discovered that after I installed the second domain, the backlinks and the indexed pages doubled their importance on google. At this point, I intend on purchasing several domain names for mai project in order to become a big player ( you can also check http://www.marketleap.com/publinkpop/default.htm to see what I mean ).
I’ve also read the Google patent but I don’t recall them mentioning about this fact in there.
i prefer to register anonymously domens, + 4 bucks
Just out of interest, is there a legitimate, white hat way to register domain names anonymously. My name is closely associated with my business, and I’d like to set up a site focussing on subjects unrelated to my business areas, without any perceptible connection between my computing/business persona and my academic humanities persona. Usually the two fit together quite well but not in this instance – I’d really like to be able to buy a domain name without the two becoming entangled with each other on Whois. All I want really is a pen name, so that I can get on with other non-commerical activities.
That’s really interesting. I’d be curious to know more about what google can find out by being a registrar. Also, I never knew a you could become a registrar without selling domains.
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