Assuming you’ve already tried typing in the domain name (both with, and then without “www”) and it didn’t resolve to anything, your first port of call in trying to track down the owner of a .co.uk domain name should be Nominet’s Whois service.
NOTE: If you’re more used to the Whois output for .com and other TLDs, there are some important differences with .co.uk in that there’s no telephone or fax number included in the latter, nor any email address contact. At best, you get the name of the entity that owns the domain name and their contact address (and even the latter is optional if you’re an individual).
There are a wealth of potential clues to be found in the Whois output, so let’s tackle them in order.
First, look at the “Registrant type”. The most common types of registrant are “company” or “individual”.
If the owner of the domain name is a UK company
- Companies House is the place to go to purchase various reports, such as annual statements and lists of current directors. These reports will only cost you a few pounds, and are worth every penny (as well as providing potential leads on the domain’s owners, you’ll also start to get a picture of the finances of the organisation behind it, which can be invaluable if you’re planning on opening negotiations for acquiring the domain name). NOTE: the Companies House website is available from Monday to Sunday 07:00-12 Midnight UK Time.
- When searching Companies House, you may see the notation “D” next to the name of the company. That means that the company has been “dissolved” i.e. it is no longer a legal entity. That’s usually the end of the road, though in exceptional cases it is sometimes possible to “undissolve” a company with the consent of its directors if it’s only been dissolved a short while. If you’re going to try that route, you’ll need to find out who the directors were at the time it was dissolved (buy the reports) and then get expert assistance. Firms that specialise in company formations may be able to give advice on undissolving a company.
- You can also try Googling the full name of the company, inside double quotes (“”) This may turn up references to the company, and even if these are out of date they may give you ammunition to extend your search.
- Through your Google research (or from a Companies House report), you may discover the company’s address. Try sending a snail-mail letter to the attention of the CEO.
If the owner of the domain name is a non-UK company
- See if there are any clues as to the jurisdiction that the company was registered in. From there, you should Google for the equivalent of Companies House in that jurisdiction. NOTE: many countries make it much harder – and more costly – to access information about companies, especially privately traded ones. You may need to engage the services of a specialist lawfirm.
If the owner of the domain name is an individual
- Do you see an address for them in the Whois? If so, why not send them a snail-mail message. Handwrite the message (or at the very least the envelope) to increase the chances that the recipient will open it and read it. If there’s a significant holiday coming up, such as Christmas or Easter, consider sending a card instead of a simple letter. Keep your letter polite, professional and to the point. You’ve only got one chance to make a first impression.
- Try Googling the full name of the domain’s owner, inside double quotes (“”). If their name is uncommon, that may turn up some leads as to alternative ways to contact them, such as an email address, the name of a company that they’re associated with, etc. Do they belong to any clubs or societies? Try adding keywords relating to the topic of the domain name – it may well be that the owner is active within the niche/industry covered by the domain name, and that may help to distinguish them from other people with the same name. NOTE: Never assume you’ve found the correct person – phrase all approaches very cautiously, explain the logical steps that led you to contact them and the interest you have in the domain name, and ask them to kindly contact you back if they are in fact the owner. Apologise for the intrusion if they’re not.
More Whois clues: the domain’s “Registrar”
Domain names in the UK are generally registered via Registrars, who are members of Nominet and who have been issued a unique TAG. You can find a list of all tag-holders at Nominet’s site. One way to track down the ultimate owner of a domain name is to look at which TAG it is registered to and then try to find out more information about that TAG’s owner.
There may be a URL listed for the tag-holder. Try it (both with and without the “www”) to see if it resolves to a site that offers any kind of contact mechanism.
You can try Googling for the name of the tag holder. It’s worth searching the tag-holder list to make sure that the tag-holder doesn’t have other tags (tag-holders are not limited to a single tag, but can apply for associated tags) as each tag associated with the same entity is one more clue (in the form of the name of a company, partnership or individual) that you can pursue to try and find a contact person behind the tag.
Once you’ve tracked down the tag holder, if they’re a hosting company or ISP it’s worth approaching their support staff and explaining that you’re trying to contact the owner of a domain name belonging to one of their customers. Ask them if they would be able to let you have basic contact details for that customer – or, if they’re concerned about the privacy implications, ask them if they’d be willing to pass on a message to the customer on your behalf, without revealing their details.
More Whois clues: the domain’s “Name servers”
If you’re lucky, the name servers that are set for the domain name will give you an indication of which company it’s hosted with. They may look something like ns1.examplecompany.co.uk, ns2.examplecompany.co.uk. Try visiting examplecompany.co.uk (with or without the “www”) to see the site resolves to a hosting service. If it does, then try contacting their support staff in a similar way to that described previously.
More Whois clues: the domain’s “Registered on” and “Last updated” dates
If the domain name has been registered for a while, and hasn’t been updated very recently, that’s a clue that the same entity has owned the domain name at least since the “last update”. It’s possible that there used to be a website on the domain name and that it’s simply not resolving any more. Time to do a bit of digging…
- Head over to the Internet Archive and search for the full URL of the site. You may be able to access copies of the homepage or other pages of the site as they were when the Internet Archive spiders visited them months or years ago.
- Try Googling for the full domain name. If the site was live until recently, a copy of it may still be stored in Google’s cache. If a listing is returned for the site’s homepage, click the “Cached” link next to it to see Google’s copy of the old site.
- Try Googling for the full site URL, including the “www”. Put the whole search in quotes i.e. “www.examplecompany.co.uk”. This should turn up any incoming links on third party sites that are pointing at the site you’re trying to find. Visit each result in turn, looking for clues (a description of the site that used to be hosted there, or the name of its owner, or any information about the company behind it) as sometimes other sites will provide enough information to track down the original site’s owners.
A Grab Bag of Tactics
- Try emailing a short message to “info@”, “postmaster@” and “webmaster@” the domain name. These are some of the most common email accounts so there’s at least a chance that one may be set up for the domain name in question.
- If you have a contact address but your attempts to elicit a response to your enquiries have gone unanswered, then consider visiting the address or paying a local firm to hand-deliver your letter/proposal to that address. As a minimum, send a letter by recorded delivery with a signature required so that you can be certain that SOMEBODY received it.
- Try finding a business nearby – in the same building, the same street, or round the corner. Is there anything you can buy from them or any service you can offer them that would entitle you to ask them for the favour of telling you who’s currently occupying the address of interest to you? If they’re in the same building, they may even know the owner personally.
- Bring out the big guns: send a gift of some kind, such as a hamper, chocolates, or a sample of one of your products (if you sell something that’s of interest to a wide audience). A personal approach will sometimes get you more attention than a letter.
- Never be afraid to work the telephone, if you can keep a calm, polite, professional phone manner. A simple call to anyone whose contact details you’ve turned up during the hunt may help narrow down the options – or eliminate that clue.
- If you don’t get a reply of any kind, you’re dealing with a black box. It may be that the domain owner doesn’t know the value of what they’re sitting on – or it may be that your approach was the tenth that day and it’s all getting very tiresome. Try setting down your very, very best offer in plain terms, and specify a deadline after which that offer is no longer valid (make it long enough so that the recipient doesn’t feel herded towards making a decision they may find very difficult to make, short enough that you’re not left hanging for months)
Good luck with your hunt! And remember: there’s only ONE chance to make that all-important first impression.