Occupying Internet Domains To Protest… and Profit

on Monday, Oct. 24th

Read Turnstyle News’ Full Occupy Wall Street Coverage

Citizens, the Internet has been occupied.

And not just by the Occupy Wall Street protesters encamped in Lower Manhattan who have inspired unceasing Twitter chatter, Facebook feeds, and hours upon hours of livestreaming video. No, there are new occupiers appearing on the movement’s digital fringe. Call them the #OccupyWallStreet domain traders.

Not to be confused, of course, with the institutional traders and bankers who have long occupied Wall St. and are presently the objects of so much popular scorn. Domain traders — or “domainers” — have carried out their business mostly unnoticed. They exist only because the protest exists; the flurry of social media that has amplified on-the-ground demonstrations has presented a branding opportunity around all things #Occupy, as well as a land-grab on all associated #OWS website addresses.

“I was curious to see how much people were willing to pay,” said Rob Paone, a marketing student at Elon University who last week registered the domain name OccupyWallStreetLive.com for $11.

The next day, he listed the domain on the auction site Flippa.com, starting at $100. In the listing, he cited the name’s use of popular Google search terms as a reason for his asking price.

“You have a domain name for Occupy Wall Street that would certainly be on the first page of Google results, if not in the top five,” Paone told me. “That would be something of interest to anybody who’s really passionate about the movement.”

It’s a passionate demographic that appears to be growing, along with spin-off protests in cities beyond the one where the real Wall St. is located. And for each of these organized protests there is a corresponding website — from OccupyAlbuquerque.org to OccupyBoston.com to OccupyCologne.de. That is, at least one site for each.

Before #OWS supporters in Baltimore could register OccupyBaltimore.com to host their site, an apparently unaffiliated domainer laid claim to it. That person “parked” the site, filling the screen with apparently pertinent links to “Freedom of Speech,” “Police Misconduct” and “Civil Rights Violation” that instead lead to pay-per-click advertisements. The real demonstrators in Baltimore don’t seem to have protested losing that prime domain. Two days later, they created a page using the alternative domain, OccupyBmore.org.

Not all #OccupyWallStreet domainers seek money for being the first to snatch a first-rate domain.

“I would like to donate the use of this domain to someone who is willing to develop it,” wrote Jay Samel on the website OccupyCanada.com. Then comes the caveat: “You must be in solidarity with the Occupy Wall St… movement.”

Contacted by email, Samel told me he had received many offers from interested developers. “But nothing solid just yet,” he wrote.

Such altruism in the #OWS domain market is balanced by plenty of cynicism. There’s the self-interest of certain domainers who see a business opportunity where others see the chance to unleash a free flow of communication that could help move the country toward economic equality. Then, more upsetting, there are the cynics who prey on those of us who just can’t spell.

OcupyWallStreet.org — [sic], with only one ‘c’ in occupy – was recently registered by a company called Trinet, based in Brooklyn. Every unsuspecting, middle-school-spelling-exam-failing visitor to that site comes face to face with ads for auto loans, gaming sites and the website InboxDollars.com, which pays users 50 cents to several bucks at a time to do menial Internet tasks, like filling out online surveys.

According to a recent study at the University of Cambridge, such “typosquatting” sites tend to capture about 0.7 percent of the intended website’s traffic, which for the movement’s ad-hoc homepage OccupyWallSt.org averages about 400,000 a day. So depending on click-through rates, the misspelled OcupyWallStreet.org’s 3,000 daily visitors earn Trinet anywhere from 15 cents to $15 each day.

“The revenue is negligible,” said Trinet’s administrator, who declined to give his name. Without providing details, he told me my back-of-the-envelope calculations were “just about right,” and that traffic to the site has been steadily declining. “I’m not sure how that movement can be growing,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rob Paone is still waiting for his windfall. His nine-day auction on Flippa.com got no bids. But he’s still optimistic.

“I think there’s a pretty large potential for someone to take the website and monetize it,” said Paone.

Personally, he’s ambivalent about #OccupyWallStreet as a political movement. On the one hand, he thinks the “whole stance against capitalism” is misguided and he believes in the idea that someone else’s good fortune doesn’t preclude your own. But he doesn’t like to hear about corporate tax loopholes and he thinks the cost of higher education has become “pretty outrageous.”

So he’s ambivalent, too, about what to do with the domain. Since he failed to unload it in the auction as a blank page, he’s starting to build it out with #OWS videos and other coverage. If it drives traffic and gets a top result in Google searches, he thinks he could command a higher bid for it.

But then there’s the question: who would actually buy it from him? So far, #OWS seems to be run by the kind of organizers who would rather buy a cheap alternate domain firsthand on GoDaddy.com than to splurge on choice names in the aftermarket. Just look at what happened in Baltimore.

And who knows how long the market in #OWS domains will hold?

“They are almost always a waste of time and money,” long-time domainer Ron Jackson said about names derived from news events. He tracks the sale of domains for his online trade magazine DNJournal and recommends buying everyday terms that have some commercial relevance over of buzzwords. “They have a short shelf life and once the event is over, no one is interested,” he said.

But it’s not over yet.

And so this reporter emailed an interview request to the owner of the website OWS.com. Had he received more traffic than usual to his site? Any bidders for the rights to the URL? Is he willing to sell, and for how much? The owner, Oliver W. Shelksohn, an osteopath in Weiser, Idaho, did not respond in time for this post.

Maybe he’s just holding out.

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