Over the last eight months I’ve been keeping an eye on the progress of a project that I used to work on which is now being run as a commercial operation. The site enjoyed very high ranking in Google and was in the top five results returned for most terms associated with its core activities.

To reflect the move from the fluffy academic world to the cut-throat business world the new owners wanted to swap from nameofproject.ac.uk to nameofproject.co.uk

However, the .co.uk domain was owned by someone else. The domain wasn’t in use per se and the Web site at that address consisted of just one page of sponsored links – all related to the business activities of the original academic project.

I believe this practice can be classed as “passing-off” but further information can be found here and you can make up your own mind: http://www.weblaw.co.uk/typical_domain_name_disputes.php

The main point is that the Web site on the .co.uk domain was merely a vehicle for sponsored links and hence of debatable value as far as users, and therefore search engines, were concerned.

The domain name was duly obtained and then, following Google’s advice, a 301 (permanent) redirect to the .co.uk address was set up on the old .ac.uk domain.

However, as the old .ac.uk links disappeared from Google it became increasingly obvious that the new site wasn’t appearing in Google’s search results. Looking at Google Webmaster tools and also the site’s logs it was obvious that the new site was being crawled on the new URL by Googlebot. In fact, Google Webmaster tools indicated that Googlebot was indexing several hundred pages a day. So why wasn’t the site appearing, after all this was just a domain name change – the content was the same and no links had been broken?

The answer came again from Google Webmaster tools, the words associated with the new domain were all terms from the sponsored links the site carried prior to the switch-over. This strongly suggested that Google, whilst still regularly crawling the site, was “suspicious” of the content and subsequently holding the site in the sandbox.

This is how the situation remained for some months, the site was being crawled daily but the terms associated with the site (as reported in Google Webmaster tools) were the old terms. The Google index contained no record of the new site (or the old one) during this time and this could be verified within Google Webmaster tools and searching for the name of the project or its URL.

Then, six months (almost to the day) after the instigation of the 301 redirect, the site started appearing in the Google index and search results again.

Whilst there’s some debate on the existence of the Google sandbox it seems clear from the above that the switch of URL caused the site to be excluded from the search index. What’s odd in this case is that a site with an exceptionally high organic ranking can completely vanish from Google despite following the guidelines issued by them – I could understand a drop in ranking but to be excluded from the rankings seems odd.There’s no doubt that, during this time, the site wasn’t in the index it wasn’t a case of just having a very low page rank.

The logical conclusion is that Google’s view of the somewhat dubious nature of the .co.uk site prior to the domain being transferred was passed on to the new site. This adversely affected the ranking of the new site even though the redirect was in place indicating the .co.uk was the new home for the .ac.uk site. Ultimately, as references to the old domain disappeared, the site fell from the visible part of Google’s index and vanished without trace. Six months later, the site was re-listed.

So, the warning to other developers is, buying a previously passed-off domain could be akin to giving your Web site an STD that takes it out of circulation for six months.

Of course, there’s a legal position from which to combat passed-off domains but, if these domains are shown to adversely effect ranking of new sites post transfer, then the value of these domains is almost completely devalued and maybe the dubious practice will stop.