Companies and individuals abandon domain names for a variety of reasons. For the record, there are not a whole lot of *good* reasons to switch your main domain — it’s generally a Bad™ idea, but we can get into that in another post.
Let’s say, arguendo, that you have already decided to change your primary domain. What do you plan to do with your old, no longer going to be used, domain?
Ideally, you should 301 redirect the old domain to the new domain. If you’re completely rebuilding your site from scratch and all of the old URLs are going to change, it’s still a good idea to 301 the old domain to the new domain. It’s an even better idea to 301 all of the old URLs to new, equivalent pages on your new site.
This advice assumes that you have:
- Had your site long enough for it to have accumulated some decent inbound links. If your current site has absolutely no backlinks then we can talk about the pros and cons of 301’ing; however, in most circumstances, you want to 301 the old URLs to their new equivalents.
- Not done anything stupid with your site, like gotten it banned from the engines or blacklisted in some way. If the domain is completely burned, then ditching it and running far far away is probably your only course of action. To people that fall into this category, I’m not talking about you, so feel free to move along.
Operating under the assumption that you’ve had your site for a fair bit and it’s got some backlinks and you’re not a dirty spammer/evil-doer…
Do NOT just let the domain expire and definitely do not release it before the end of its registration. Even if you’re not going to use it for just a 301…. even if you’re not going to use it AT ALL… your best bet (in almost all cases) is to keep it.
I know it will cost you $8 a year to maintain a domain you’re not using, and yes, I do know we’re in a recession. The facts are that some very bad things can happen if you release a used domain into the wild.
Bad™ Things That Can Happen
A competitor might get it. If your old domain was keywords only, and there’s nothing trademarked or trademarkable about it, there is absolutely nothing preventing a competitor from snatching up that domain and using it as their own, or 301ing it to THEIR site to take advantage of all of the inbound links you just flushed down the toilet.
If your old domain contained trademarks, you might be able to get it back, but the cost of filing a UDRP is upwards of $10,000 DOLLARS. It’s only 800 pennies a year to hang onto the domain and prevent the whole mess in the first place.
Besides, you’d have to notice someone is doing something they shouldn’t in the first place. If don’t care enough to renew the domain so you can sit on it, you probably won’t bother checking to make sure it isn’t being used by someone else, either.
Someone who doesn’t like your business might start using it. Recently, I discovered that a local chapter of a national not-for-profit organization was being impersonated online and that the fake site was being used as “proof” of the damaging claims the impostor was making on social networks and forums. Most people aren’t savvy enough to go check a domain registration to confirm the legitimacy of a site, so with the right illegally used logos and a cheap shared hosting account, this guy was able to set up a site that looked and read like the “real” site and even had backlinks to it from real government sites and other civic organizations.
The worst part about this story is that a couple years ago, someone else at the real organization had also noticed the fake site and spent the (large sum of) money to file a UDRP — and WON — but then no one kept tabs on the domain and it was allowed to expire again and the same guy went and re-registered it and put everything back the way he had it before.
Want to know the worst part of the story? (Yes, there actually is something even worse…) The domain they gave up (twice) had their full name in it. The new domain is all initials. 8 letters strung together that make no sense to anyone except to the people at the non-profit. All that hassle, and they would have been far better off keeping the original domain in the first place. :(
Someone who has no clue who you are, but is much better at marketing than you are might pick it up. Again, especially if your old domain had no trademarks in it, there is nothing stopping someone else from grabbing that domain and using it (and taking advantage of any accumulated backlinks you had).
The Moral of the Domain Story
Once the domain is registered by someone else, it is highly unlikely you’re going to get it back without giving up a sizable chunk of change — either to the new owner, or to a lawyer. It is much easier to just pay the 8 bucks a year.