Winning the Domain War: Startup Lessons from Ugly Domain Mishaps

Domains have become the coveted real estate of the internet. Similar to finding the right brick and mortar with plenty of visibility and foot traffic, securing the right domain can significantly enhance your presence online. Domains can have significant consequences on your business if not secured and managed properly.

Deciding on and registering a domain name should be one of the first tasks for a startup. It’s a valuable marketing and search tool that should successfully lead customers to your site. Careful deliberation and research should be applied, as it might be the most important decision you make when carving out your slice of the internet. A new startup business should select a domain name that parallels—or even better, matches—your company name in order for customers to easily search and find your website. 

While securing a domain name early in the process might seem like a simple enough strategy, even the savviest of companies have faced domain ownership issues as a result of mismanagement. Here are some of the ugliest (and funniest) domain disputes, along with the lessons small businesses can learn from them. 

Fan holds hostage over premier tickets

In December 2018, Marvel finally unveiled the name for the fourth Avengers film across prime time TV programming. Fans were stoked, but Marvel made one small marketing glitch: They were not fast enough to secure the domain Someone acquired the domain back in April as a prediction of what the next installment would be.

A Twitter user with the handle @AGuyInChair quickly claimed to own the domain and was holding it ransom for a pair of tickets to the movie premiere. To make matters worse (or funnier), the domain redirected to 20th Century Fox’s website for Once Upon a Deadpool, it’s PG-13 re-release of Deadpool 2. Months later, the domain is still owned by @AGuyInChair, who has taken it upon himself to redirect the website to any non-Marvel superhero movie.

Lesson learned: Secure a domain (and social handles while you’re at it) before you announce your business, project, side hustle, event name, etc. to the world. If your domain name is not available, consider changing it to avoid future disputes. While merely a funny prank, that most likely didn’t have a major impact on Marvel, it could have had a much different impact on a small business or startup. 

Related: The Ultimate 10-Step Checklist to Starting an Online Business

The Brooklyn Nets Didn’t Score

The Brooklyn Nets, a basketball team in Brooklyn, NY, purposely chose not to secure the domain and instead stuck with Aside from losing out on traffic, not purchasing the domain has netted the NBA team several headaches.

Between 2012 and 2014, if you ever typed into your internet browser, funky things would happen. Sometimes you’d be taken to the Boston Celtics homepage or the New York Knicks homepage. Other times, you may have been greeted by Mark Cuban sticking out his tongue. Ultimately, the address led anywhere but the Brooklyn Nets homepage. 

With renewal looming in 2014, many believed the NBA franchise would finally take control of the domain through a handsome payout or legal action. Surprisingly, the mystery owner retained their rights to keep the domain, and the Nets didn’t take any action. 

The domain owner remained a mystery until stepping forward in a New York Times article. The website was owned by Jane Hill, a former photographer and telecom businesswoman living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Hill said she purchased in 1996 for $20,000 and she enjoyed being the subject of internet and NBA intrigue. 

Hill offered to sell the domain for $5 million, but the team declined the offer, stating that fans knew where to find their website. To this day, Hill still owns the domain and it currently shows a black background with a simple “” in white.

Lesson Learned: While the upfront cost of purchasing a domain can seem daunting, consider the headaches and missed traffic down the road if you don’t buy it. 

Former Google employee purchased for $12 is easily one of the most valuable domains on the Internet, so you’d think the largest search engine in the world would keep track of its own renewal. This was not the case in 2015 when a former employee bought the domain for $12. 

The buyer, Sanmay Ved, saw the domain available for sale and bought it out of curiosity. To his surprise, the transaction went through and he got a flood of information from Google users. Before Ved could change the homepage, he swiftly received a cancellation email from Google.

Google offered to pay Ved $6,006.13 (which is the numerical version of the word Google if you squint) for catching the domain mistake. After learning that Ved wanted the money to be donated to the Art of Living India Foundation, Google doubled the reward.

Lesson Learned: This domain flub ends happily with no impact on Google and $12,000 donated to charity. However, not everyone buying domains is willing to return a domain they purchased off an auction, even if it was a mistake. Startups and small businesses can avoid losing their domain by turning on auto-renewal, especially if your business is in it for the long haul.

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In 2007 went up for sale, and the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones, looked to be a favorite for swooping up the name. However, a slight communication problem occurred during the bidding.

The asking price for the domain was $275,000, but because of a miscommunication, team representatives thought they were bidding $275 for the domain. After being shown the actual price, team officials scoffed and rescinded the offer, which ended up falling $100,000 short of the winning price.

The domain did gain a bit of notoriety in 2012, but it has been dormant and up for sale ever since. In the end, Jones may have won this battle, as the Dallas Cowboys’ actual website ranks first in a Google search for the term “cowboys.”

Lesson Learned: If you can’t find the perfect domain, find the closest possible variation and make sure you have a strong SEO strategy.

Domains can either grow your online presence or be the cause of several headaches, as these examples demonstrate. Securing the right domain isn’t always easy, but taking the first steps can be as easy as searching your name in a registrar before making a purchase.

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