I Make My Pocket Money by Hijacking Domain Names
Pim Roes just decided to take on Vietnam's $100 million answer to Google.
Pim Roes with his cat.
There’s a saying among expats in Hanoi: “Vietnam is the best party in the world, so long as you don’t question the party.” The threat of the hardline communist government raining down upon you with its iron fists is enough to ensure that most just keep their heads down and continue with their office jobs, sex tourism, animal abuse or whatever it is that they're there to do.
So when the country's leading lights made an ambitious and arguably misguided $100 million bid to oust Google as the country's primary search engine – with a new company called "Cốc Cốc" – expats might have felt it wiser to stay out of the way. However, when Dutch expat Pim Roes heard about the plans, he didn't stand aside for these captains of Vietnamese industry. Instead, he put himself right in their way, registering the domain name www.cốccốc.com, which – unlike the official www.coccoc.com website – contains the company name with its full Vietnamese characters.
That might not mean too much quite yet, but Pim has been quick to recognise the potential of grabbing websites and domain names using Unicode (those country-specific accents and characters, to you and me). So that when Unicodes inevitably take off (as Pim is adamant they will) and these companies want to register their domains with the characters they actually use in their names, they'll have to go through Pim first.
I caught up with him to find out a little more about his domain grabbing and how he plans to proceed with his hijacking of the multi-million dollar juggernaut aiming to boot Google out of Southeast Asia.
The homepage of Cốc Cốc, the site whose domain Pim has hijacked.
VICE: Hi Pim. So how did this all come about?
Pim Roes: Normally, if I read anything in the news about Google launching a new service or a new movie coming out, the first thing I’ll check is if the domain name is still available. I've done it before, too. When I heard that the new James Cameron film is going to be called The Informationist, I quickly snapped up www.the-informationist.com.
Sometimes I do it for money, but it’s certain that if I don’t do it someone else will, and it’s likely to be lucrative. Sometimes they’ll threaten to sue you and then you have to decide if you want to ask for money or hand it over for free and avoid any legal trouble, so there isn’t much to lose. With Cốc Cốc, I heard about the company, checked if the domain name was available and then registered it for $8. In this case I didn’t really do it for money, I just saw that it was there and realised this would be potentially valuable – not necessarily in financial terms – so I took it.
That sounds either very clever or very stupid. Rebels haven’t done too well in Vietnam in the past…
I didn’t intend to hijack their brand name, I just recognised the significance of this particular address. I’m not really afraid of lawyers as I can always just give it back for free – I’ve had threats in the past, but I’ve always cooperated. In terms of the countries involved, I have to be careful what I say as I’m very much aware this is being recorded. With this, I’m not really standing in their way too much as most users will still go to coccoc.com, without the Unicode. But if they want to become as big as Google then they need to consider elements like this.
So were they careless to push ahead with this huge project without safeguarding the domain name?
I wouldn’t necessarily say they were careless, as Unicodes as domain names are still a relatively new concept and only came into use in 2010. You wouldn’t expect your typical developer to know too much about them, but with the level of staff Cốc Cốc have, you’d hope the people in charge of choosing the domain name would have knowledge on the subject. It’s my prediction that, in ten years time, Unicodes are going to be the innovation people will be kicking themselves for not getting involved with in the early stages, in much the same way that people regret not registering domains like pizza.com and insurance.com in the days before the internet boom. All money made from the internet comes from discovering the small improvements and ideas that people are not yet doing, so small insights can become very lucrative.
Insurance.com, AKA the only insurance domain that doesn't need opera singers or meerkats to remain popular.
Have you had any contact from Cốc Cốc so far?
I met one guy who works for them at a house party and he was pretty cool, but other than that, nothing. It’s strange, because with so many people working for them in Hanoi, I’d expect to have encountered a few more. I actually emailed them to say I was surprised to find that cốccốc.com hadn’t been registered and asked whether they’d heard of Unicodes. I told them I paid $8 for the domain name, but they could have it back for free once the transfer lock of 60 days had passed, so we’ll have to see what they say.
Right... If you don’t want money, then why did you do it?
I just did it as a small thing for a laugh, really. I shared it with my friends on Facebook to show them what I’d done and see their response. Hopefully Cốc Cốc might like me for it and thank me for the tip. I once hacked the website of a major political party and then emailed to let them know of the weak point in their site. They were really grateful and sent me a T-shirt with that country’s Prime Minister on it. With Cốc Cốc, I partly did it because I’d like to meet their developers and share ideas. I used to work as a developer in Dublin and there were loads of like-minded people to talk to, but there don’t seem to be many of those in Hanoi, so it would just be nice to start a dialogue.
What’s the moral position in developer circles on using other sites’ intended traffic to make money?
Lots of traffic comes through search engines rather than direct visits, so most of the sites I make focus on ensuring high rankings in search engines. People are unbelievably reliant on search engines; for a long time, the top search term on Google was actually "Google", as well as being the top term on Bing. People are so drilled in getting to search engines that they don’t actually realise they’re already on one. By that same token, it means hijacking domain names (registering sites with accents or familiar typing mistakes, "like facebookk.com", for example) isn’t too damaging to big sites, as the bulk of their visits come from search engines.
Can you make a lot of money out of it?
Yeah, if you have enough domain names in the right places, you can make a killing. I know one guy who made it his business – he bought thousands of domain names similar to popular sites and became rich very quickly just through Adsense and affiliate marketing. I think it’s a legitimate way to make money, just as long as you don’t misuse that site by tricking the user into thinking they’re actually on Facebook and stealing their data.
What kind of sites have you created in the past?
All sorts. I’ve currently got around 50 sites, which in total attract 2.5 million visitors per month. Some of my celebrity sites listing stars’ heights or showing pictures of them without make-up are pretty popular. And then I’ve got others, such as websites listing popular baby names, which is a great one for running in multiple languages as it’s of universal interest and unlikely to attract anything controversial that might piss off advertisers. There are also the funny ones, like kick-a-ginger-day.com, which started as a joke on South Park and then gained media attention, so I bought the domain name and knocked up a website. I’ve actually sold quite a bit of merchandise on there as well.
So what advice can you give me for making internet millions?
The thing with the internet is that, if you get the right domain name, you can make easy money for doing nothing. But you generally need to have years of experience in programming, as well as studying user behaviour, advertising and marketing. The people I know who are good at making money online were interested in the industry from a very young age, whereas those who study it may learn techniques but won’t necessarily have the great ideas. Money-making ideas are usually very simple, but you have to be the first person to have ever come up with them. Being first and having no competition is the best situation, then when more players come into the market you have to be the best. Be first, then be best.
Great. Thanks, Pim!
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