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How does Google handle the use of expired domains?

Google is a complex search engine. And behind it stand even more complex algorithms, deciding which websites deserve the attention of over 1 billion active monthly users. Regardless of one’s expertise in SEO, there are certain guidelines every SEO enthusiast has to follow in order to get to the top of the search results. However, the complexity of the system always comes with certain loopholes.

And our job as SEO experts, in basketball terms, is to (sometimes) exploit Google’s defense, in order to give ourselves the best chance to win the SERP.  Using expired domains for link building could be one of the plays from the book, but what does the opposition think about this strategy?

The question here is: Can Google detect every use of expired domains for link building? And what should you be careful about when implementing this technique?

The history behind expired domain link building

Redirecting expired domains was one of the go-to techniques for generating backlinks in the past. Back when Google’s algorithms were not as sophisticated as now, people would simply find an expired domain with thousands of backlinks and just redirect it to their website.

Google’s PageRank was still active, and since it focused on the number of backlinks, this approach worked like a charm. SEO experts wouldn’t pay attention to what kind of expired domain they’re redirecting. This can be traced all the way to Google’s 2003 Florida Update. Of course, over time Google figured that people started manipulating algorithms to boost their website, and with subsequent updates allegedly banned the use of expired domains for generating backlinks.

Backlinks of expired domains are always re-set. Or are they?

Well, you already know the answer to this question, otherwise, we wouldn’t spend time on this SEO strategy. Exactly the same question – are backlinks automatically dropped once the domain expires – was asked Google’s John Mueller in 2021.

He did not give an answer to that, which can be taken as an answer in itself though. The only frame of reference for this question comes from GoogleGuy, a.k.a Matt Cutts. This was his answer to the given question:

“–the authority for a domain will be reset when a domain expires, even though dangling links to the expired domain are still out on the web. “

GoogleGuy, 2003

But this was in 2003, and there were dozens of Google Updates since then. Another proof of Google not resetting the backlinks is auditing expired domains with Ahrefs. And if you don’t believe us, take a look at our examples of 301 link building with expired domains, and see for yourself!

Google point of view with expired domains

Google can’t keep track of how every expired domain is being used

According to the research by WhoIsHostingThis.com, over two in five domains are left to expire each year. And if we know that there are over 360 million domains registered, the number of expired domains is staggering.

With all these domains being dropped, re-registered, or parked, even the largest search engine in the world can struggle with detecting what exactly is going on with each of them. For everyone involved in SEO, this is actually good news. It means less competition, and not having Google’s all-seeing eye at everyone at all times.

To be fair, not every expired domain is being used as a way to boost SEO rankings. There are legitimate businesses buying expired domains and rebuilding sites with great content. Nothing wrong with that, on the contrary.

But as Google admitted itself, there is no unique indicator that can point to someone using expired domains to manipulate search algorithms. There are just too many domains being sold, bought, or left to expire for Google to know each one in detail. Moreover, you have domains that are not expired yet but will soon and are available for purchase at auctions.

“Our systems try to understand what to do here and for the most part, I think we get this right.

So it’s not that there’s this any one specific factor that we would look at and say, oh they’re trying to do something sneaky with those expired domains.”

John Mueller

There’s no way for Google to know that that domain was bought for the sole purpose of link building. Who’s to say that domain wasn’t just transferred from one owner to another? Maybe the new owner has legitimate plans for it.

How to avoid getting penalized?

Google’s algorithms are extremely smart, so even if they can’t keep track of everyone, you should still be cautious with redirecting expired domains. We’ve covered the best practices for finding and buying expired domains, but here it is once again:

  • Find domains in your niche
  • Find domains without bad or spammy links
  • Check if the expired domain was penalized in the past
  • Gradually redirect pages, instead of doing it all at the same time
  • Use this method in combination with other link building strategies

So what is the official Google stance exactly?

As mentioned above, Google does pay attention to the use of expired domains, and if they’re used in a suspicious way. As expected, the official stance is that redirecting expired domains for link building purposes does not work:

No. We don’t use DA, and redirecting expired domains hasn’t made sense for a long time now. People still do it, people do lots of things that don’t make sense, even outside of the SEO world 🙂

— 🐄 John 🐄 (@JohnMu) October 9, 2019

Since Google obviously can’t keep track of how every expired domain is used, a much easier way of dealing with this “problem” is for them to just say “don’t use expired domains for SEO purposes”.
This is what John Mueller said about expired domains in 2017:

“Sometimes we recognize that a new site is completely unrelated to an old site. So for example, if you go out and buy an old domain name, it might have been a church website for 10 years. If we recognize your new website is really not the same as it was, then we need to understand that difference and say that, these links, they apply to the old website but they don’t apply to the new one.”

John Mueller

So basically, this confirms the theory that expired domains can still be useful. You just have to be careful – look for expired domains in your niche, and use this strategy as an add-on to other link building techniques.
There is also a scenario where one company acquires another, and in the process redirects the links to its website. In that case, Google will recognize the purchase and won’t penalize the redirect, as both companies are part of the same entity now.

Advertising is where Google makes its money

Google’s goal is to give users the most accurate and relevant results to their search queries. However, Google is still a company. An enormous company with an even larger pool of users. And with its frequent updates, new practices, and penalties for businesses doing SEO “wrong”, you can’t but ask yourself “Is SEO worth it?

Even if you have top-notch content, your site is lightning fast, and you’ve garnered some solid backlinks, that still doesn’t guarantee you the spot at the top of the SERP. That is why many companies turn to advertising, as the results are immediately visible.

And that is also something Google counts on – instead of spending your time and money on SEO, spend it on Google Ads. You see the results instantly, and Google gets paid.

It’s a win-win situation, right? Wrong.

PPC is a legitimate marketing tactic, but unless you have a huge budget for advertising, it is also a pretty risky one. Even if SEO practices like redirecting expired domains seem dodgy, they still might be smarter and more affordable than putting all your money into Ads.

Bottom Line: Should you still use this technique

Absolutely, but like everything in life, balance is the key. Don’t overuse the redirection, and be careful when buying the expired domain. Don’t redirect a fishy website to your own, and make sure to audit the domain before the purchase. Google doesn’t want people to game the system but it also won’t wrongly penalize an expired domain, either.

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