Does Google use Whois Information

I received an email last week from one of my readers asking me to explore the question of “Does Google use whois information”, and it seemed like an interesting topic to talk about.

First off what I or any other SEO can tell you is definitively part of a ranking algo is very little. What we can do is make best guesses about what google is or isn’t using based on what we observe first hand and talking with other people we trust. First off let’s talk about everyone’s favorite Googler Matt Cutts. I can recall this question being asked directly of Matt at least two or three times, and I’ll paraphrase his response as best I can recall “currently Google isn’t currently using whois data in the ranking algorthym, however that doesn’t mean we won’t be using it possibly in the future.” I think also recall him saying whois data will probably be used when a site comes under a manual review.

The next thing we should look at is figuring out what information Google has access to and could potentially put into use in the future. For that we turn to a post by Nick Wilsdon (not to be confused with Nick W of Performancing) who made a guest post on Jim Boykin’s Blog entitled What does Google know about your domain names. Now Nick does a very good job of explaining things so that pretty much everyone can understand it, and you really should read the entire piece if you haven’t already, however here’s the part most of you are probably concerned about:

I’m sure at this point several of you have already reached my conclusions. I believe Google has built or is building a tool to analyze domain names. The API access they were given as a Registrar allows them to carry out the level of automated queries they needed for this. I would also go further and suggest this tool is building up a historical picture of each domain through regular scraping of their WHOIS records.

Well we’re practically 9 months after that article has been written, surely if Google was writing a tool they would have had enough time to finish it release a beta version, and we would start seeing the effects of it in the ranking algos. Well the simple fact is there are a lot of domains in use out there, if you’re so inclined you can go read some interesting facts about domain names, but let’s just say there are a lot. Now if Google wanted to they surely have enough computer power to look at and analyze every scrap of domain name data, and I have no doubt at some point they will, but right now I don’t think it would be worth the effort. What would be worth the effort is checking on domains that are close to expiring, have expired, or have entered “the drop”. Now I can tell you that I have first hand experience with buying old domains and if you do things right they don’t lose “the trust”, (more about that later). It would probably be in Google’s best interest to “reset the trust” on domains that have expired and hit the drop, and probably on domains that expired and were renewed before the drop (especially if the whois changed). For those of you who are unfamiliar with how a domain actually expires, and how drop services work I recommend reading How to Snatch an Expiring Domain by Mike Davidson. To put it simply a domain that expired but was renewed before the drop and had a radical change of whois information would probably be a good place to put up a “spammer at work” sign. Now before the flames start there are hundreds of legitimate reasons that situation could occur that are not the work of a spammer, and I’ll agree with you. However we’re talking about beating the algo here not whether something is right or wrong, so get over it.

Let’s get down to the nitty gritty if you have 2 domains in the blue widget space do I think it’s a problem if they share the same whois data … in a word no. However if you have 20 domains in the blue widget space having the same whois info could definitely be a problem. While I’ve never heard of anyone losing a site solely because of whois data, if you have one site that gets flagged for a hand review and there are 20 other sites with the same whois information about the same thing and any of them are engaging in spamming I could see them getting torched. I have heard first hand accounts of sites getting nuked for sharing IP’s which would be no different than whois data IMHO.

So where’s the threshold for how many sites should share whois info, I think that really depends on how close you are to the spam line and your personal tolerance for risk. If you’re not doing anything risky then you really don’t have anything to worry about. The more questionable your methods the more reason you have to be concerned. The second factor is your tolerance for risk. I’d never have the same info on more sites than you are comfortable losing in one shot.

So what are some strategies to minimize risk, first mix up your registrars. I still have a couple domains at Godaddy although I don’t trust them. The majority of my domains, especially the most valuable ones, are with Moniker, and I have 3 others I use for my churn and burn stuff. If the name of your company is Elbonia Web Development, register some under that name, and register some Elbonia WD, some under EWD and so on. I’m sure someone will chime in that falsifying whois data can cause you to lose your domain, which is true, however I’ve never heard of something like that happening when the info is a variation on the legal name. However if you want to go the extra mile to protect yourself get a DBA for $20-$30 from your local government.

The second part of the equation is does the algo place value on things like a privacy policy, terms or service and contact page? Well according to the Google Librarian Newsletter those are factors they urge librarians to consider in evaluating websites. They are also mentioned in the leaked Google Spam raters Guide. Now curiously most recent Google Patent deals with using human evaluations, although I haven’t had a chance to do much more than skim it to say if it has any bearing on this discussion. So it’s likely that Google is making an effort to look for the presence of those items. I don’t however think that there is anything in ranking algo that looks like this:


if($contact_page){$domaintrusted = true;}
if($tos_page){$domaintrusted = true;}
if($privacy_page){$domaintrusted = true;}

It’s just not that simple. IMHO the right way to look at that information is to think of them as signals of quality, if you have enough signals of quality then you will have trusted domain and get more favorable rankings. Now again I’m sure some of you can come up with hundreds of reasons why a domain doesn’t need a terms of service, privacy policy, or contact page. Again I will agree with you, but this isn’t about being right or wrong it’s giving Google what they are likely to be looking for.

Now I’ve often pondered about whether publishing a phone number and physical address would be a signal of quality. Clearly google has access to that data [brands fitness center]. If the whois data corroborated with the address in Google’s database and the data published on the website again IMHO that would be a strong signal of quality. So how would one go about providing that strong indication of quality in the absence of actual quality? Well as I mentioned above getting a postal box from UPS gives you an actual street address that works in Google maps. You could always get pay-as-you go cell phone and use that number, but that wouldn’t scale well at all. Instead I’d suggest buying a Skypein number. For $38 a year you get a real number in a wide range of area codes that come with a VOIP voice mailbox. I’d change the message to say please send us an email for faster response. Everybody’s happy except …. you know who.

So to wrap things up think of whois data and contact information as items on checklist of quality. If you’ve got enough other items that make you look reputable don’t sweat it. However if you need all the help you can get then they are something you should consider getting your contact on whois data looking sharp.

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