There is an absolutely fascinating piece up on the Business 2.0 site about the inner workings of the domain name speculation game. It is a business that has changed entirely from the old world of domain squatting, and now it is also — and perhaps more so — about controlling and redirecting Google-driven traffic flow by standing at domain-owning junction points:
Domainers have their heroes, and one of the most mysterious is a man named Yun Ye, a Chinese citizen living in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is credited with boosting the entire market when he sold his portfolio of more than 100,000 domains to Marchex. His names were bringing in more than $20 million a year in revenues — and $19 million in profits — when Marchex paid the equivalent of 8.6 times annual earnings, based on figures provided in SEC documents.
“He is our god,” says domainer Michael Bahlitzanakis the moment he hears Ye’s name uttered at a Delray Beach party. Every domainer knows of Ye, but few have ever met him. He’s the domainers’ Keyser Soze. “My attorney happens to be his attorney, but that’s as close to him as I can get,” says Bahlitzanakis, 29.
A onetime hotshot programmer, Ye used his software chops to build the bulk of his domain empire in the late ’90s and early 2000s. He became a master at what’s known as “catching,” or buying up domains that were dropping because people gave up on them or forgot to pay the annual registration fee. At the time, the system was secretive, and domainers were trying to figure out what names were expiring and when. In the dark of night, Ye would sit before a bank of computers and, like a conductor, launch programs he wrote to shoot rapid-fire requests to purchase names.
His prowess quickly became clear. Chad Folkening, a domainer in Indianapolis, was disorganized in those years and sometimes missed renewal deadlines. He noticed that Ye was grabbing his expired names with lightning speed. After Ye had snapped up 100 of them, Folkening decided he needed to talk to Ye. “I was eating, sleeping, and drinking Yun Ye,” he says. E-mail drew no response. Nor did phone calls. So in late 2001, Folkening traveled to an address near San Jose listed on Ye’s domain registrations. “I figured I was going to walk up to his front door, knock, and say, ‘Yun Ye, I just had to meet you,’” says Folkening, who now owns 7,000 names. Instead, the address led him to a Mail Boxes Etc. outlet. Folkening stuck Post-It notes on Ye’s box asking him to call. Ye sent Folkening an e-mail a couple of days later, but the two never met up. Two years later, some acquaintances of Folkening’s set up a get-together with Ye in a Los Angeles bar. “I did most of the talking, then he left,” Folkening recalls. It wasn’t until the next day that it dawned on Folkening that the man he’d had drinks with was probably an entirely different Yun Ye, which the real Ye confirmed to him in an e-mail. (Ye’s attorney, John Barryhill, says Ye won’t talk to the press, and he adds, “I don’t answer questions about him.”)
When Ye was building his portfolio, there was really only one way to make money from names — reselling them. That began to change in 2003 as paid search — developed and pushed by Overture, now part of Yahoo, and current market leader Google — started to take off. The technology powering the whole thing is complex, but not the basic business model: Advertisers pay only when someone clicks on their ads. And to get their links listed high in search results — or on a domainer’s page that someone lands on by typing a name into a Web browser — they bid on keywords.