How To Protect Your Domain Name

True story: A small business owner, who was not a client, called me one day with a problem. Let’s call him “Dave.” His web site was missing. Not missing from the search engines, missing completely. Gone. No longer reachable at his domain. It was nothing I could help with since he wasn’t a client, but we kept talking. I wanted to learn more.

Dave had a disagreement with his web developer over money. The web developer took the web site offline. But he didn’t stop there. He also took ownership of Dave’s domain. And there was nothing Dave could do about it, because the web developer had listed himself as the administrative contact for the domain when he registered it on Dave’s behalf.

Ouch! It’s one thing to lose a web site; you can rebuild that. But losing a prime domain name, the address at which customers have found you for years? That hurts big time. There’s a search marketing angle to this, too: If you’ve spent several years building up “search engine trust” in a domain, you’ll have to spend at least the same amount of time re-building trust on a new domain if you have to start over like Dave did.

This story dates back several years, but I’m sure similar stories could be told today. I’ve found over the years that many small business owners don’t appreciate either the value of their domain name or the need to protect it. I’ll focus on the need to protect your domain name in this article.

How to Protect Your Domain Name (i.e., How to Avoid What Happened to “Dave”)

It doesn’t matter if you register a domain name yourself, or if your web host, web developer, or someone else does it for you. What matters is that you, the small business owner, are listed as the domain owner and main contact person.

When registering a domain, you have to list several contact people:

Registrant: The registrant is the legal owner of the domain. This should always be you, the business owner, not your web developer or anyone else.

Administrative Contact: Whoever is listed here has the ability to change the domain record at will. Again, this should be the business owner, or someone who works in a position of authority at the business. In Dave’s story, the web developer listed himself here, and had the ability to change the Registrant information when he and Dave had their disagreement. The web developer claimed ownership of the domain and Dave would have an uphill fight to get it back because the web developer was the domain’s administrative contact.

Technical Contact: This is the person in charge of dealing with any technical problems with the domain. If you have a system administrator or some kind of IT person on staff, it could be him or her. But this is also the one contact where it might be okay to have someone not on your payroll listed. Your web hosting company, for example, might be the most appropriate technical contact.

To protect your domain name, make sure you are listed as both the Registrant and the Administrative Contact on the domain record. Not sure if this is how your domain is currently setup? You can use any WHOIS service to see your domain registration. One that I use for quick checks is—no graphics, no sales pitches, no advertising, just a quick-to-load text page with a simple search box.

If you find you’re not listed where you need to be, get that changed. You don’t want to be the next “Dave” and lose that domain, not to mention all of the search marketing trust it’s developed over the years.

Matt McGee is the SEO Manager for Marchex, Inc., a search and media company offering search marketing services through its TrafficLeader subsidiary. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land.

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About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • Domainer’s Gazette

    Hey Matt,

    interesting article.. wondered if you might expand on one point..

    You mentioned the Admin Contact has the ability to change the Registrant information… would the Admin contact be able to do this over the phone with the domain registrar, or would he need username & password access to the actual domain account?

    thanks man..

  • Mike Maddaloni

    Unfortunately there are unscrupulous people on all sides of the fence. A domain name owner should also have a contract with whomever is registering and/or managing the domain name, as contact information can be changed rather easily.


  • Cavan Moon

    Nice article, couldn’t have been better timed for me since I was about to email a client on properly registering all their domains. I sent them a link to this article instead. The one thing I’d add is the importance of registering your domains for a long time once they’ve been developed and setting them to renew automatically. And keeping a master list of all your domains and their relevant information is always a good idea.

  • st0n3y

    Good article Matt. We’ve seen this many times before and are always careful to make sure the companies we work for maintain ownership of any domains we set up for them. It’s sad that this kind of thing happens.

  • Matt McGee

    Thanks for the kind comments, folks.

    DG – it’s been a while since I’ve been involved in registering and managing domains for clients, but as I recall, the Admin contact can use the phone to manage the domain. They have to prove who they are, but I’m not sure how that proof had to be offered.

  • Reaper-X

    Hello Matt,

    Nice article, but i have a question. What if the domain owner (me for example) use domain privacy to protect his identity ? Since domain privacy doesn’t list your name on the whois record


    We always insist that new clients who are embracing the internet world register their domain names themself. We insist on that since we have had similar clients coming to us with the same kind of problem. We use a simple analogy: you buy a home and you are the legal owner. A domain name is an asset and should get the same kind of protection as movable and non movable assets.

  • Matt McGee

    That’s a good policy, You can’t go wrong that way.

    Reaper — the privacy thing doesn’t change the domain record, it just hides it from prying eyes. At the registrar, as long as you’re listed as the Registrant, that’s what counts.


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