A convoluted path to owning an expired domain name

Domain status codes, drop catching and taking anonymous proxy bids very personally

When I was in my mid-twenties I started to regret buying domain names for personal projects that sounded like the titles of zines—my preferred approach since my teens—and I decided to register gregsullivan.com. But it was 2006, and by then having a very common name like Greg Sullivan made it pretty likely that another Greg Sullivan had already set up shop at gregsullivan.com.

And so it was: An Australian Greg Sullivan had registered the domain in 2004. I began semi-annual checks on the domain’s availability, and I registered gregsullivan.ca in the meantime.

Making it up in volume

Despite owning gregsullivan.ca, I never built a corresponding website. When Google started releasing .dev domains, I figured that gregsullivan.dev would be more appropriate for the website I wanted to build, and I added the February 28 public launch to my calendar.

After registering gregsullivan.dev, I did a quick check on gregsullivan.com, expecting to feel disappointed once again at the distant expiry date. I ran whois gregsullivan.com, and buried in the result I saw this:

Domain Status: redemptionPeriod https://icann.org/epp#redemptionPeriod

Mistakes I’d already made

When a domain expires, it spends 30-ish days in an expired state, and then 30-ish more days in its redemption period. (The number of days varies by registrar and is subject to change, but it was 30 and 30 in my case.) The redemption period allows the registry to give the original owner a final chance to change their mind and maintain their registration while also tacking on high fees to encourage said original owner to renew more promptly the next time.

There’s a very solid chance gregsullivan.com was made available for auction after it expired and before it entered its redemption period. Most registrars partner with an auction house and send domains there to test demand when a domain first expires. I continue to suspect that had I backordered the domain years ago with the auction house partnered with the previous owner’s registrar, this blog post would have been significantly shorter.

The more positive view, though, is that no one else bought it during that phase, and I still had a chance, having first spotted it 19 days into its redemption period.

When the domain you want is probably going to drop

Once a domain enters its redemption period, there are two potential outcomes:

  1. The original owner pays to renew it.
  2. The domain drops and can be purchased by someone new.

However, in making it this far, the original owner is much less likely to renew it since they already failed to do so during the phase when they could have renewed it without additional fees, and it’s possible they still haven’t noticed the domain expired.

Should the domain drop, it would become available for anyone to register—but that doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to register it yourself.

Enter the drop catchers

Drop catchers pool the resources of hundreds (or thousands) of registrars and use proprietary algorithms to overwhelm the registry with attempts to register domains as soon as they become available, making it almost impossible to register a valuable expiring domain on your own.

Reading through various Hacker News threads, the consensus seemed to be that once the domain you want is going to drop, your plan of action should be to hire the top drop catchers and wait to see what happens. Older threads suggested hiring NameJet, SnapNames and Pool. Newer threads also suggested DropCatch and Pheenix. So I set up accounts with all five.

This was a bit tedious: There were various levels of account verification, and Pheenix wanted a $29 USD deposit via PayPal in order to set up a backorder. (Spoiler: Pheenix didn’t catch the domain, but they did refund my $29 USD.)

If more than one person backorders a domain with a given service, most services will then hold an auction between the backordering customers. The exceptions are DropCatch, which holds a public auction, and Pool, which apparently limits bidding to the two users with the highest initial bids following the drop (and doesn’t tell you how many people are vying to be the top two).

After about 11 days of staring at the redemptionPeriod status message, a new one appeared:

Domain Status: pendingDelete https://icann.org/epp#pendingDelete

The redemption period had ended, and Australian Greg Sullivan still hadn’t renewed the domain. In five more days it was guaranteed to drop.

whois gregsullivan.com

Every day at 11am Pacific Time, .com domains start dropping. On the day gregsullivan.com dropped, I started running whois every few minutes hoping to learn which company had won the battle.

My dreams of a private auction with straightforward terms ended when DropCatch won, extending the whole ordeal by three more days and ensuring a public auction with unlimited participants—and Greg Sullivans.

The positives of bidding as a domain’s end user

Watching auctions on DropCatch to see how they played out, I was surprised at the amount of early bidding on a lot of domains—is there really an advantage to bidding before the last day?—and I was pleased to see that all of the users who’d backordered gregsullivan.com were bidding on other domains as well.

I knew I could probably outbid a domain investor: Their goal would be to sell gregsullivan.com to a Greg Sullivan like me, and they had to consider their profit margin. My main worry was a deep-pocketed Greg Sullivan discovering the auction and bidding more than I was willing to spend.

After howardmartin.com sold for $209 USD, I considered trying to figure out what metrics could be behind that—search volume, domain length, census data on the number of Howard Martins in the world—but I decided instead just to hope gregsullivan.com wasn’t significantly more valuable than howardmartin.com.

I budgeted $500 USD.

Counting down to zero (twice)

Five people had backordered gregsullivan.com aside from me, and five more bid on the domain in the auction’s first two days. I started to suspect people were doing this to add the domain to a watchlist so they would know to monitor it on its final day—their bids just seemed too low for them to be expecting to win the domain. Most of them never returned.

The two relevant auction rules at DropCatch are:

  1. All bids are proxy bids.
  2. Any bid placed in the last five minutes of the auction rewinds the auction clock back to five minutes (so other bidders always get another five minutes to respond to last-minute bids).

The auction was set to end at noon; I waited until around 10am to bid a maximum of $189 USD. I was promptly outbid by a proxy bid of $199 USD.

I then waited until 45 minutes remained and bid a maximum of $239 USD. This gave me the high bid at $209 USD.

Up to this point, no one aside from me who had backordered the domain had bid in the auction. That changed when I finally saw the strategy I had been expecting to see all along: bidding with just over five minutes remaining, and doing so after not bidding at all for three days. The new high bid was $259 USD.

I got another bid in before the five-minute rule took effect, and I had now committed $279 USD. If there were no more bids, I would own the domain at noon.

But another person who’d backordered the domain arrived with two minutes remaining. I cursed the anonymized username before immediately bidding again, wanting to restart the five-minute countdown as quickly as possible.

None of my fellow Greg Sullivans arrived, and $300 USD seems to have been the ceiling set by the domain investors I was up against. I won the domain for $319 USD (due to a minimum bid increment of $20).

I’d originally dreaded dealing with DropCatch, but their auction process is transparent (though stressful), and they seem to be really, really good at catching dropped domains.

And now I’m here: Motivated by a vanity domain purchase to build the website I’ve been meaning to build for years.

It feels like $319 USD well spent.

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