John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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May 2nd, 2010 by john andrews

Domain Conference June 8-10 Vancouver

The T.R.A.F.F.I.C. Domain Industry conference will be in Vancouver, British Columbia on June 8-10. This is a long running and very authoritative meeting within the domain investment industry, and is billed as a great way to learn the business side of domains. You can read the official announcements here or some press coverage here. I have been to several of the TRAFFIC meetings, and consider them to be among the best conferences I have attended overall, especially when it comes to making connections and learning the real behind-the-scenes business aspects. Where search marketing conferences are often a lot of fluff and filler, these meetings are very much true-grit business gatherings.

Vancouver is a beautiful city, just under an hour from the US border north of Seattle. Amtrak runs 2-4 trains per day between Seattle and Vancouver, direct from downtown Seattle to downtown Vancouver (a few city blocks from the conference hotel).

To cross the border and return hassle free, you need a passport plus driver license or other ID, or one of those new enhanced driver licenses (Washington State offers one) or a Nexus pass which gives you a fast lane through the checkpoint (read the tips about usage).

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November 3rd, 2009 by john andrews

Not All Domainers are Scammers

I’ve been a competitive web publisher (and SEO consultant) for many years, and I’ve been participating in domain development for the past few years, working with domain portfolios and people generally classified as domain investors or “domainers“. Lately we’re seeing news articles about scams and rip-offs, and some of those are on big premium domains known to have been developed by domainers (with development partners, of course). Most claims of “scammyness” focus on the monetization angles pursued by the sites.

Question: Are all domainers scammers? No, not all of them.

Proper domain development is an expensive and detailed process.  The most important aspect of successful domain development is web marketing strategy, or publishing strategy – the “why” that should be driving the development process. For those of us experienced in search optimization (SEO), this is the core fundamental aspect of our work. Without a strong set of publishing goals and an associated web strategy, any optimization efforts will succeed only at the whim of search engines. When they are sloppy, and when they leave profits on the table, you can take them. But when they pay attention, you get very little. And when search engines focus attention on actually taking the profits out of your market, you get nothing.

Google has been doing this in more and more markets lately. Any SEO who didn’t pursue a sound publishing strategy a year or more ago is feeling the heat of poor performance right now. How they respond to that heat probably reveals a lot about how they approach domain development in general.

Many domainers  choose only to develop when they find a development partner willing to go after fast money opportunities, which promise a lot of money for little work, risk or investment. Absent that, they are willing to wait. That process acts as a filter, eliminating most opportunities and creating opportunity for scams.

You take your own look at the “free credit reports” marketplace. Does this web site look legitimate? Does it look like a safe and wise choice for getting your government-mandated free credit report? What about this web site. Here’s a hint — the ugly one, with poor optimization, poor user interface and very little character, is the official and safe one the FTC expects you to pick. The others?  The FTC says they are scams… because they actually sign you up for automated monthly rebilling for various kinds of credit monitoring services. Check out the left side of that site, and the full paragraph of information that starts with “Important Information” and says it is not the official free site, does charge a fee, and even links out to the ugly site. Apparently that’s not enough for the FTC (PDF) or at least one congressman.
Scammers exploit opportunity as fast as possible, as aggressively as possible, without regard to consequences, which are often viewed as someone else’s problem (SEP). Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is make money as fast as possible, SEP is what’s left behind. Sometimes, the investors inherit the problems.  Sometimes the economy does. Usually we are all left with more cautious, more conservative, more heavily regulated environments, while the scammers move on to the next opportunity for exploitation.

Contrary to scammers, more traditional businesses seek to secure a mind share position within a marketplace, maneuver into a position of control and influence, and then exert that influence in ways which manage the marketplace, keeping it profitable (for them) while erecting barriers to entry for competitors. SOP for them is a long term play, even when fueled by revenues gained from fast acting, short term exploitation of transient opportunities (such as those that may exist after innovation and disruption, when such companies build their “war chests”).While scammers take the money and run, real businesses take the money and secure dominant positions in the marketplace.

Strategic SEO/web development is based on sound strategy. The FTC and the entity it designated to set up that ugly, not-very-trustworthy-looking free credit report website had no such web strategy. And it shows.

You’ll find a large number of free credit report websites monetizing on those subtle rebilling programs the FTC despises, and the most successful ones are on premium domains like FreeCreditReport.com, AnnualCredit Report, etc. Premium domains. Are they owned and operated by domainers? Wholly? Partly?

The domain investment industry grew out of nowhere to very high value over the years that the web grew from an idea to the central commerce and information network it is today.  A portion of the domainer community succeeded by stepping into the market, taking risk, making wise moves and/or getting lucky. A portion stepped in and worked hard and/or smartly, again taking risk and investing. And a portion elbowed their way in by breaking rules and conventions, taking advantage of others, and exploiting the commons. We are all free to assign character traits to individuals as we might like, but this is not unlike other industries such as banking, railroads, IT or even SEO.

In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when domain registrations were free and most generic dot com domains were unregistered, at a time when it was understood that the Internet was non-profit and domains were for companies or individuals (one domain per entity), a Unix system administrator at a University may have registered dozens of names for himself anyway (perhaps working on company time, which may have been funded by grants from the US government). An administrator somewhere else may have reserved names in the system as if they were requested by others, only to take them back for himself years later when they were worth millions. There are many such success stories. It’s not too different from the way “robber barons” operated during the industrial revolution. But there are many others who earned their stripes in more honorable ways as well. in short, it’s business, American style.

So now some domainers are looking to develop their domains into revenue generating businesses, by working with development partners. Some are selling their domains to others, hoping for big prices from those looking to generate revenues on those domains. Along the way, business people driving development are choosing the highest profit opportunities, which often involve consumer scams. When that happens, who are the scammers?

If you enter “free credit report” into Google, what comes up? It’s always more than one site. Anything else would be un-American.

I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone who takes a closer look. No matter what necessary illusions get published in the mean time, those knowingly ripping off others assume the responsibility for the fraud. The rest are doing business.. meeting market needs, creating opportunities.

Not all SEOs are scammers. Not all domainers are scammers. You don’t need to cheat and steal to make money on the Internet. And your government doesn’t actually have to do a good job with your tax money, does it?

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June 19th, 2009 by john andrews

Search Engines want to Eliminate Domain Names

Search engines want to eliminate domain names.

There, I said it (again). Anyone have any thoughts on this?

Years ago I said it out loud to several people at a meeting, repeated it in conversation many times at domain industry meetings and SEO conferences, and in a few venture capital/startup private meetings. I believe I slipped it in one of my search talks in 2008. To date, I have not enjoyed any good, serious debate about that inflammatory suggestion. A few people have disagreed. One scoffed at the thought with blithesome disregard. No good counter arguments or convincing support yet.

Search engines would love to see URLs come under their complete control, so they could eliminate them altogether.

Domain names have value right now. The traditional value is in direct navigation: the tendency of a fraction of the Internet using population to type into their browsers the URL of exactly where they want to go. Some people actually choose to go to Candy.com to look for an online candy store. Candy.com has a high value not because it is famous as an online candy store, but because of the value of direct navigation. One could easily sell candy on candy.com, goes the thought.

But domain names are also a depository for Internet market value. We call developed domain names “assets” because we have difficulty accounting for that stored value. Accounting methods allow for “intangible assets” such as “intellectual property” and “good will”. If you build a successful site, you do it on a domain. When the site is no longer active, the domain retains a significant amount of “stored value” from the previous market success.

Search engines want to take back that stored value, or perhaps keep it for themselves. On many fronts, the domain name is in the way.

I won’t go into much detail here, but if you look at the way search engines have been evolving, and some of the actions they have taken or tried to encourage, you see very little support for domain names. You see search engines creating mashups, extracting unique content from domains and serving it in a new context, associated topically or in some other channel separate from the domain name. You see search engines like Google stepping into the domain industry late (Google parking programs) but with power, forging “contract” relationships which took control of parked page profits. You see browsers built without “location bars”, forcing every user request through a search engine (Google’s Chrome eliminated direct navigation altogether). Every time I engage in futures research on the search marketplace, I am reminded of the problem the domain name presents to search engines. And that makes me think.

  • It reminds me that when traffic is the currency, Google and domain owners are competitors, not friends.
  • It reminds me that while branding is most easily accomplished with a good domain name, there are other ways to brand, and those other ways can be encouraged and supported by those who control traffic flow. Are search engines working on those more attractive alternatives? Consider Google Knoll, Google Profiles, Facebook, etc etc etc. Rather than brand the destination, why not brand the content or content creator, or better, the “authority”? People can find them through search engines.
  • It reminds me of how we as a society have (so far) neglected assigning the label “civil right” to Internet access.

Like everything else of value in our society, until we protect it with some basic tenets, it will be co-opted by commercial concerns (like search engines). Google censors the Internet now. So does Yahoo! and every other search engine, whether via algorithmic bias or intention.

We are still early in the evolution of this Internet thing, and there are still many reasons why domains are essential for the operation of the web and the success of search engines. Short term thinking shouts out reason after reason why it is ludicrous to think search engines want to eliminate domains from the web. They need them… domains are the fundamental basis for the Internet. The URL is *everything* — one could not even index content without URLs, which by the way have a canonical root that is the very definition of “domain”.

But it won’t always be that way, and there are many great reasons for eliminating domains. There is a lot of money tied up in the domain name, not only due to the nature of navigation (which we see can be co-opted),  but that pesky stored asset value. If only that could also be controlled or eliminated…

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John Andrews is a mobile web professional and competitive search engine optimzer (SEO). He's been quietly earning top rank for websites since 1997. About John

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