Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a business owner, or just a casual internet historian, it can be useful to know exactly how to dig into the history of a domain name—something that sounds more complex than it actually is. By simply typing a domain name into a text field, you can get a lot of information very quickly. Ahead, learn about how it works, and how to find a domain’s history for free.
Note: If you’ve come to this article by accident while trying to figure out what domain names are and what they actually do, we have a guide for that too, as well as one for how to register a domain for yourself.
Table of Contents
Why you might want to look up a domain’s history
The history of a domain name offers a lot of information that can’t be gleaned just from looking at an existing website.
Researching the competition
You can find out a lot about your competition by looking at the history of their domain and website. How long has it been around? Has the domain been sold before? How much was it worth? Answering those questions can give you great insight into the value of a particular domain.
From there, you can begin to formulate your own marketing and SEO strategies, while taking the strengths and weaknesses of the competition into consideration.
Buying an aftermarket domain
Maybe you want to buy a specific domain for yourself, but you know the one you have in mind is pre-owned. Looking up that domain’s history can tell you what sort of reputation the domain has with search engines and email services (which can affect your website’s discoverability and your communications, respectively).
Purchasing an existing website
Maybe you’re planning to buy a whole website. Looking into the history of the website that’s up for sale can give you a clear look at its past popularity, the number of times it’s been sold, and whether or not people have had good experiences with that domain in the past.
Contacting the website’s owner
There are times that filling out contact forms on a website results in a lack of response. When you need to make direct contact with a website owner—whether it’s about purchasing the domain or simply just getting information about a product you ordered from them—digging into the history of the domain can help you identify the right contact.
Looking into the history of a domain name can help to uncover scammers, spammers, and fraudsters. If you’re considering doing business with a company, and have questions about their business practices, look into their domain to see if their website has been tied to any news of scams or overzealous marketing efforts.
How to find a domain’s history with WHOIS
An important domain name history tool is the WHOIS lookup. In short, WHOIS is a system for finding the owner information of any domain name. By default, every domain name is automatically associated with the full name and contact information of the owner.
You can also find out which company the domain is registered with, which can be helpful in resolving domain-related disputes. (Incidentally, if you’re looking to buy a domain after you’re done here, check out this list of the best domain registrars.)
There are two main types of WHOIS lookups: basic lookups for nuts and bolts information, and history lookups, which provide more detailed information. A basic WHOIS lookup will only show you the domain’s current status, where it’s registered, what server it’s pointed at, and other relevant information tied to where it stands currently. A WHOIS history lookup, meanwhile, will show you all of that information, but it will also show you all past registrars, servers, and owners.
Basically, every major change to a domain name gets tracked in the WHOIS history, and you can see it all with the right tools.
How to perform a basic WHOIS lookup
A basic WHOIS lookup will only show you the current status of the domain, but it’s a helpful start. Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Find a WHOIS search service
You can quickly and easily look up current ownership data here on Shopify.
Step 2: Type a domain name into the search field
For this tutorial, we picked manitobah.com, an online store that sells Canadian Indigenous-designed footwear.
Step 3: Check out the results
These results show the current status/registrar of manitobah.com, as well as the creation date of the domain, the name servers it’s connected to, and additional information you can see in the screenshot.
How to find the WHOIS history of a domain
A WHOIS history lookup requires a similar process. Try using whoisrequest.com for simple searches and Whoxy.com for when you need more advanced information. DomainIQ also provides some great-looking reports.
Note: WhoisRequest.com only offers 10 free lookups per day, but has the simplest UI. Whoxy.com offers unlimited free lookups and only charges if you want to integrate its service into an app of your own.
DomainIQ, unfortunately, offers only one free domain lookup per day. So if you really want a nice-looking report for one particular domain, use domainIQ to make it count.
Here’s the process:
Step 1: Go to the site of your choice
Here are some easy links straight to the history search options:
Step 2: Type in the domain name
Step 3: Check out the info
This particular domain has only had one owner, so that’s all that shows up here. This screenshot from Whoxy for cars.com, on the other hand, shows a few different owners in the domain history:
You can use the Wayback Machine as an alternative
The Wayback Machine is a project from the Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is, as you might have guessed, an attempt to archive literally everything on the web—including old versions of websites. The Wayback Machine was designed to capture “snapshots” of entire websites at regular intervals. It won’t show you updates from every single day (and some older websites won’t look right at all), but it remains the single best visual history of just about every website.
You can use those old versions of websites to find content that isn’t there anymore, which can include contact information that may still be valid. You can also see if the same people/company were using the domain or if it changed hands a few times over the years.
For example, let’s take that online store, manitobah.com. This is what it looks like at the time of this writing:
And this is what it looked like on November 18, 2018, which is the earliest snapshot of the website that actually works.
How does this help me? Well, I can see that some years ago the exact same business was using the domain. Additionally, there’s some historical information on the old version of the site that isn’t on the new one—or at least it’s not as easy to find, such as the address of the manufacturing headquarters on the Contact page.
How to perform a Wayback Machine search
Step 1: Go to archive.org
Specifically, go to web.archive.org, where you can easily search for the domain you want. You can also manually save pages and sites here as well, to create a record for the future.
Step 2: Search for the domain you want to check out
Step 3: Choose a snapshot from the calendar
Step 4: Find the info you’re looking for.
Other tools and tips
Short of hiring a dedicated researcher, there are a few easy and (mostly) free things you can do to analyze the history of a domain.
(For beginners, here’s a guide on how to choose a domain name.)
Start with Google (or your favorite equivalent)
You’ll find a lot of the information you need just by Googling (or using your search engine of choice). If the domain has a significant past, you’ll likely find mentions of it in reviews, website comment sections, forums, and anywhere else that people congregate to share their opinions.
Check your social media
You can also search for domains on social media sites like Twitter directly to see what kind of attention the site has gotten and what people think of it. Searching on these sites directly is especially useful because not all of them make users’ posts available to search engines.
Ask around in relevant communities
If the domain you’re looking to buy is part of an industry that lots of people are talking about, there are probably specific communities for that industry. Not all of those will be easily searchable sites, either.
Find a relevant Discord or Slack server and look into in-person and virtual meetups for your industry. Simply ask people what they think of the domain in question and collate their responses.
Search for the domain on Moz Domain Analysis
Moz Domain Analysis is a free tool that ranks domain names based on a number of metrics, including traffic, backlinks, and various SEO checks. It then gives the domain two highly relevant scores: Domain Authority, and Spam Score.
Domain Authority is a general indicator of how likely a website is to rank high on search engines based on the reputation of its content. The higher the score, the better.
The Spam Score is exactly what you think it is—and the lower the score, the better.
Last but not least, check the website’s backlinks
Through backlinks, you can find reviews of the website (positive and negative). If most of the backlinks came from social media, that could have implications for your social media marketing strategy and show you what individual customers thought of the company. You can also gauge the SEO potential of the domain by seeing how many of the top links come from search engines.
Two tools that will let you see the top backlinks for any domain or subdomain are the SEO and engagement tracking platforms SEMRush and Ahrefs. (Note: You’ll only get to see the top 100 backlinks or so for free.)
Domain name history knowledge is power
While domain name history research can be time intensive, it yields plenty of helpful and important information—usually for free.
Even if you can’t necessarily find contact information for the domain’s current owner, you can assess how popular the site has been, what kind of content it has had over the years, and whether or not it has a good digital or human reputation.
That knowledge is useful to you whether you’re buying a domain for your business, researching your competitors, or just looking for ways to improve your own website.