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Verifying Ownership of Web Properties

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Domain Ownership Verification

Verifying ownership of the domain is pretty easy as we describe here.

Control of the site could also be verified by requesting the seller to upload a blank text file with a file name of your choosing. Google and others having been using this successfully for many years to perform automated verification before providing webmasters access to confidential information about a site. For example, the buyer could specify i8paoi4pw6qncoil5k9a2sdj.txt as a filename. If the seller has access to the hosting account he'll be able to upload that file and that file should be accessible via a browser.

Caveat: Sometimes sites are setup to return a 200 code (what?) instead of a 404 for page not found giving the impression he has uploaded the page even when he hasn't. To protect against drawing the wrong conclusions about seller's access to hosting it may be worth also specifying a line or two of text that should appear in the file.

Domain Control and Transfer

Caveat 1: That a seller has control over the domain does not necessarily mean he has the authority to sell or transfer it particularly if there are joint owners or the owner is a company. In some cases the person controlling the domain is the one providing site design or hosting services to a client who trusts him to look after and renew the domain for them. In such cases he would be acting way out of his authority - and illegally - in selling it and it could later be reclaimed from the buyer.

Caveat 2: Domain Registars sometimes impose their own conditions. Many prevent the transfer of a domain name under certain conditions e.g. if it's been less than 60 days since the last transfer.

Caveat 3: Sub domains aren't individually registered domains so is always going to be under the control (and ownership) of the entity that owns irrespective of any agreement on the sale of the "health" sub-domain. Many free blog hosting companies are similarly setup where individual blogs are sub-domains. Even if their terms allow the sale of blogs the fact that a third party could delete the sub-domain at any time makes the buying of these highly risky.

Caveat 4: Similarly, buying folders or files within a domain is fraught with risk. Sites like Squidoo, Hubpages and other User Generated Content (UGC) sites allow users to "own" pages and trade or sell them. However, be aware that the page remains always at the mercy of the UGC site itself.

Guarding Against Trademark Violations

Domains can violate third party trademarks. That a violating domain has been in existence for a certain period of time is no defence against the trademark owner getting it shut down. Domains with trademarks like the word "Microsoft" within them are easy to recognise as trademark violations. Others aren't so clear. What if the domain is the webmaster's name?  A webmaster whose surname is MacDonald may not be entitled to own a domain with that term in it. And there's the case of a man born Uzi Nissan who ran companies under that name during the years when Nissan, the car company, was called Datsun. However, when Datsun changed their name to Nissan they sued him for 10 million dollars for running a company called Nissan Computer Corp (incorporated way back in 1991). Uzi Nissan lost the case. 

Just steering clear of first names and surnames is not a protection in itself. A UK company owns a range of businesses trademarked with Easy (as in EasyJet). They've been known to harass owners of domains with the word "easy" in them. 

How to protect: The buyer could get a solicitor to run trademark checks against the domain name. They could also protect themselves by getting the seller to sign an indemnity.

Other Assets - Text

Due Diligence And Website Buying AssistanceWhile the domain name and access to hosting are the first checks they are far from the only ones. For many sites, a large part of their value lies in their content, design or programming.

Fortunately, there are some easy, quick checks that can be performed on text. Content can be run through some simple copyright checks either by taking snippets and searching for them in your favourite search engine or using the excellent Copyscape website. Choosing snippets: Continuous selections of words from, preferably, across two sentences would give the lowest possibility of an accidental positive.

For example, from the previous paragraph this string of text is unlikely to occur frequently on the web:  website. Choosing snippets: Continuous selections of words from, preferably, across. Click that link and if you come across multiple entries in Google it may require further research. In our case, we don't have a Creative Commons licence allowing others to reproduce content from this site and we haven't granted permission for any part of this page to be reproduced so any copies are likely stolen from site and are copyright violations.

Non Text Assets

Does the site rely a lot on images or videos? Who owns those? Do they reside on the site itself or are they hotlinked (thereby giving a third party control over them)?

Establishing ownership of assets like software programs, downloadable scripts, databases and email lists - or even just rights to using them - can be almost impossible sometimes. But if the sellers commissioned this work from third parties, correspondence/email should exist even if receipts and contracts don't.

The more these assets are key to the survival or profitability of the site the more the care needed in assessing ownership and right to use. The buyer can build in a certain level of protection by adding a disclaimer or two to the contract to protect against third parties claiming rights but prevention is a lot cheaper than going to court.

Creative work - from design to scripts - often leaves a trail of documentation that could be requisitioned. Email lists and databases are built gradually and there may be older copies available showing how the collection grew over time - proof that it grew here and not elsewhere. In some cases, the very existence of documents may point to a legitimate ownership of the asset in question.

Of particular ownership risk are images. Webmasters often "hotlink" images from a third party site leaving the property vulnerable to someone else "pulling the plug" on all images.

Researching the Owner

When buying a site at auction in one of the webmaster forums you usually have access to the seller's profile and possibly his trading reputation. However, it doesn't end there. Trying his real name and his user name in search engines may provide pointers to other forums he has accounts in. He may also have accounts in social bookmarking and networking sites as varied as LinkedIn and Wikipedia which can prove a rich mine of unguarded comments and an insight into the honesty of his activities online.

Other simple checks: Does his home phone number work? Does he have a work email address (rather than just a free mail one)? Does his address seem genuine or is it an accommodation address; were you able to find any reference to his house number + street name in search engines?

Is he a regular seller of sites and if so what do previous customers have to say about him (references on his own site will obviously be only glowing ones)?

More intensive information, background checks, criminal record searches etc. are available from third parties for as little as $10.

Other due diligence checks on purchasing web businesses