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Buying a Website – Ultimate Checklist

KH-7

There are many reasons to buy websites, whether it’s to buy a complete existing business, part of a business, to grow an untapped market, acquire a passive income project or simply to acquire a regular traffic source. In most cases buying a site for these and other reasons shouldn’t be an easy decision. This is because in our experience people tend to try a range of techniques to rank sites. This does mean that we should understand the structure and marketing history of the site before buying it, to ensure that the investment made is secure.

A Note on Affiliate Sites

We work with a number of investors who buy portfolio sites, the majority of which tend to be affiliate sites. We put these sites through a rigorous vetting process. The problem with most affiliate sites in particular is that a range of techniques could have been used to build them and to rank them; just because you’re making money now they’ll keep on making money.

The same can be said with even non-affiliate sites. Therefore it’s very very important to run a complete scan and check on any site we decide to spend money to buy. There is nothing worse than buying a site and tanking in the next update.

A Note on Buying Business Websites

As well as vetting affiliate and portfolio sites, we are sometimes called in to review existing businesses with supposedly high performing sites as part of the business. In most cases these tend to be ecommerce or lead generation businesses.

Below is a site a client wanted to buy in April 2019 (it was on the market a month prior). We were a bit sceptical about its meteoric rise in organic just around the time the site was offered on the market. After investigation it appeared that the site had “rented” backlinks which gave it the spike to make it more appealing to buyers. Once these links were removed the site fell quite sharply.

buying website - organic traffic growth

With a clear strategy in place and some bad link clean up, the site is now organically moving to the direction it needs to, without the risk of search engine penalties.

Our Buying A Website Checklist

This checklist is built on years of experience in buying and vetting websites, and although no list is really exhaustive, we have included a large number of areas that need considering.

It’s important to check a site’s link profile – especially keeping in mind that it’s easy to grow a site’s rankings in the short term but make its link profile fairly toxic over its lifetime. It is important to make sure that you don’t just use one backlink checker – we prefer to use a combination of Ahrefs, Majestic, SEMrush and Search Console (if we have access to it).

Identifying bad links isn’t always easy, however there are several things that a “sniff” test does. The main ones to look out for are a large base of comment links, directory links, blogs that are full of spam, and sites that don’t rank well.

PBNs

Private blog networks are often in use on affiliate sites. This doesn’t necessarily make them a no deal, but the key is to identify if:

  1. The PBNs are well built and “hidden” as well as possible
  2. The PBNs actually come with the site purchase
  3. The PBNs aren’t the only thing holding the site’s rankings up.

If a PBN doesn’t come with a site purchase, then it is vital you find out how long those links will last, and have a plan in place to replace their loss.

It’s important to make sure that the links that are being reported by link tools are actual live links – very often these tools run behind in checking old links. If there is a large dead link base then that may be a sign that the site could imminently lose authority.

Redirects

Using expired domains to rank sites is an old trick, and this comes in two forms, either via building a PBN on them, or straightforward redirecting them to the main site. Too many redirected domains to a site could be a possible risk factor. One way to lower this risk would be to ensure that all the sites 301 redirecting to the site you are about to buy come as part of the package.

Score vs others in niche

This is an odd one, that I often see people overlooking. By scoring the site against others in the niche, not only do you get the opportunity to assess its strengths and weaknesses, you also understand the opportunities and threats.

Number of direct competitors

Keywords that are highly competitive, especially in the affiliate industry would require a lot more hands-on work and investment in content and links. The more direct competitors, the less attractive a site would be to me.

Strength of competitors

However, if you assess the competition and they tend to be significantly weaker than the site you are looking to invest in, then maybe it’s worth the investment. I would most certainly investigate the volume of content and rankings and links that the main competitors have.

Depth of Keyword Coverage

By assessing competitor keyword coverage vs the site you would like to buy, you may have an additional metric – growth opportunity – to gauge the site by. Take for example a site that ranks well for its chosen keywords (say about 20-30) and converts well. However looking at a couple of competitors, you realise that they rank for 40-100 keywords that your potential site is missing. You could use a baseline calculation to guess what the site could grow to if you put in the required effort to replicate your main competitors.

Content

Content is a key part of any website, and an important ranking factor. However there are many pitfalls that should be avoided with content. Some of the ones we list below cover areas we specifically look for.

Originality

It goes without saying, duplicate content can cause significant issues when it comes to ranking a website in search results. We run several “blind” spot checks across the site to make sure that the content has a high original content ratio.

Depth

Although “deep” content can be fairly subjective, its vital to make sure that the content has enough depth to it to actually be able to be competitive. This is especially important for affiliate sites.

Quality

Originality and depth isn’t enough – quality is an extremely important factor. Although it’s hard to judge quality, it is fairly easy to spot low quality content, especially poor grammar, structure, and legibility.

Spread

In order for sites to rank well, it is necessary to have a strong spread of content around target subjects. The lighter the spread, the more it would cost to build that up. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however the possible future cost should be taken into consideration when negotiating on price.

Freshness

With most affiliate sites, it is our experience that the fresher the content the better it has a chance of retaining and growing rankings. The older the content, the higher the chances of it not being factually correct, or relevant to your audience. For example reviews that are a few years old would need re-writing, and completely redoing. This should be another significant negotiation point.

Accuracy

This leads us to the final point about accuracy. Good quality accurate content is extremely important. Not just from a user perspective, but also from a legal and moral standpoint. There should be references in place where necessary, and the more sensitive a subject, the more accurate the content ought to be. This is something we look at extensively, as having un-factual content could have significant ramifications, from drops in rankings, to being kicked out of affiliate programs.

Technical Structure

Once you buy a website – that isn’t usually the end all. Sites need updating, modifying and reworking on. This is why it is important to understand what the technical structure of the site is before buying it.

CMS

These days content management platforms are fairly cheap – however there have been a few cases where clients were looking into buying existing websites that were built on content management systems that had hefty annual licenses. In order to migrate them to license free systems the costs made the purchase of the sites less appealing. Sites built on simple and popular CMS platforms are usually a better buy, as the number of developers available to work on them are usually higher, and therefore more cost effective than working on niche sites.

Updates

We always check the last updated versions of sites our clients are looking to buy. It has been our experience that when the seller has a large inventory of sites, some suffer on the upkeep and can often cost a fair bit to update to standard. An umbraco site we bought a little while ago had not been updated in over 3 years – which means updating it to the latest version was a risk and had to be done properly by Umbraco specialists. That ate into the site’s initial profitability.

Theme licenses

There have been more than a few sites that clients have bought and then realised that the theme licenses were not transferable, in particular no access to them updates. This could be a costly mistake, especially if the originator of the theme no longer sells new licenses. Even worse, buying sites that had been bought on ripped off clones of themes could be a significant pain to deal with. Making sure that the license details are covered would save hassle further down the road.

Plugin licenses

Just like theme licenses, there are many pro plugins that aren’t transferable, or come as part of a “bulk” use policy that is locked to the original buyer. It’s important to understand how many pro and paid plugins are in play and what the cost of getting new licenses would cost. Often a small cost, but still adds up!

Custom plugins

Custom plugins or hacked plugins are a nightmare, as they often come without a codebase, may have security flaws or may simply not keep up with the CMS infrastructure. One of the key things to do would be to identify any and all custom plugins and get details of the developers that built them. If the seller built them, it would be prudent to get a support agreement in place if the plugins are key to the site’s performance.

Original code base vs modifications

It’s not only plugins that may be modified – we often come across weird CMS modifications, especially when it’s wordpress. It’s important to understand what these are and how they could be supported in the long run. More importantly, what risks there are to the modified code when running CMS updates.

We do sometimes end up buying or supporting custom builds, often in dot net or php, and these can be a nightmare – especially if badly put together. The other issue that has caused us concern in the past is the code copyright – there have been situations where the seller has entered into partnerships with devs, promising a share of revenue, and then tries to sell the site without the devs knowledge. It’s best to establish code copyright and ownership before purchase.

Security

Security is a big concern. Recently we vetted a solicitors site for purchase and found it was infected with really well hidden malware. The cost of extracting and fixing that adds to the acquisition cost. Additionally there are situations when a site isn’t really built secure, and we would have to add layers and patch it up to lok it down, which again increases the costs of purchase.

Language Version

If English is your first language then buying English sites does make sense, and the majority of affiliate sites that come on the market tend to be in English anyway. However this doesn’t mean you should discount opportunities for other language sites – in fact, there may be more profit to be had if a site is in a non-english language / region, as these tend to have lower competition. Buying one may get tricky if you don’t speak the language, and this is where we would urge caution, get a local language specialist to review the site for you instead of relying on google translate and just site data.

Hosting

Nowadays hosting is less of a concern, however we have come across instances where sites cannot be moved from their current hosting environments due to contractual reasons. Additionally some sites need a very complicated database set up – and while hosting is cheap, running a small affiliate site on Amazon Web Servers may not be profitable or convenient. You should also look into what sort of access the hosting environment offers – I tend to prefer web-based environments for making changes rather than having to constantly connect via FTP.

You may also want to move the site away from its current host if it has a toxic IP or a shared IP with a number of low quality sites.

Site UX

Small one man band affiliate sites tend to be a UX nightmare, as these are usually built as the owner adds more content. This may make the UX journey a nightmare. Not necessarily a bad thing if the sites are already profitable – UX improvements may significantly boost your earnings – however factor in the time and effort needed to to make those changes.

I recall once buying a profitable site simply because its UX was terrible – after a week of hard work rebuilding the navigation, user journeys, internal linking, affiliate plugins and proper CTAs, the site started generating an additional 10-15% in revenue.

Domain

You aren’t buying just a website – the domain is the primary equity on any money making affiliate site. As such, you should pay special attention to its metrics.

Extension

Although most SEOs argue TLDs aren’t important, experience dictates otherwise. The number of affiliate sites that were on dot info, dot org extensions have dwindled. And these struggle to rank unlike before. Getting the right extension would be key to the sites longevity, and in most cases a dot com or a local top tier domain would be ideal (for example dot co dot uk in the UK).

We would also advise against “gimmicky” domains – most of these are held privately, and you never know what’s going to happen to them, and as such we feel its better to be safe than sorry.

History

A domain’s history is important to check, especially as many affiliate sites that come on the market are made by using dropped domains. Any historical toxicity, or negative connotations with the domain, we would recommend that you simply look elsewhere.

This is one I have seen people bumble on a few times. Once a “passive” investor bought a site built on a drop domain, the trademark of which was owned by a large multinational who let it drop. A few months after buying the site they got hit with a legal CnD and official request to transfer back to ™ owner along with costs involved with the transfer. Suffice to say they lost the site and all the future earnings.

Ownership

It doesn’t matter where you buy the site from, or from whom, always ensure that the seller can prove legal ownership of the domain. This could be as simple as a video of them logging into the domain registrar and showing you the reg details (not the fact that they have access to it).

Brandability

If you are dropping high numbers on a site purchase, then you may want to consider the long term growth capability and brandability of the domain. Some domains, especially those built on weird exact match keywords aren’t very brandable.

Scalability

We usually advise clients to consider the value beyond existing revenue and traffic. Can the site expand its niche? If it can, would the domain relate to the new niches? From two like-for-like sites, both at the same price, we would always recommend the domain that has a scalable opportunity, making it significantly a better buy.

Traffic

If you are buying a site, traffic should be one of the key areas to try and figure out how real the opportunity is.

Channel breakdown

I would always insist on getting access to channel data – preferably direct access. The main reason for this being that some businesses like to pump paid search traffic into other channels, which is entirely possible by manipulating tracking. In particular I would overlay actual organic traffic with search console and third party data such as (SEMRush)

History

It’s important to understand how long the site has been getting steady traffic – for example I for one wouldn’t buy a site that has only had steady traffic for three months. Look for data markers for the age of the traffic relative to the site. It is important to to also understand the historical source versus the current source. I have seen too many sites up for sale that had high revenue figures supported by “stealth” paid search channels.

Conversion

A site’s conversion rate is important to understand – more so if you are buying an affiliate site – the key metric I like to keep an eye on is visitor to revenue ratio. Using a baseline from the site’s inception to date it paints an interesting picture of how the site has performed over time. Interestingly it’s a good metric to pick up on underperforming sites to buy.

Time on site

Most affiliate sites these days focus on long form content. If the dwell time is low comparative to the content then you know that the site’s content has an issue. This also means that the site’s conversion and revenue figures may be lower than they should be. It’s a good opportunity to revive and re-organise a site’s content if the time on site is low, to see if you can make it more “sticky”, and get more people to consume the content longer.

Depth of traffic

Depth is a metric that refers to the number of pages / content that gets traffic. Often enough lightweight or under optimised content doesn’t get as much traffic as it should and this could be an opportunity. On the other hand, if the current owner has done all they can to get low traffic pages to get traffic, then you may need to dig into why it’s not working.

Seasonal variance in traffic

Seasonal sites are great, however they aren’t all round earners. If a site relies on seasonal traffic for most of its revenue, you would want to consider whether it is worth buying. Seasonal traffic can get extremely competitive, and one hit wonders are often placed on market places, without any guarantee of a repeat performance.

You may want to assess if the site can be repurposed for more year round traffic. If it could then it may be a good buy.

Keyword Variation

Investigating a site’s organic traffic and the keywords that drive traffic to it is one of the most important areas you could look at. This is a massive area, however what you are looking includes:

  • Short tail vs long tail
  • The actual number of keywords with regular search volume
  • Category of keywords and how many
  • How well each category is represented
  • What keywords are not in the top 20
  • Commercial versus non commercial keywords

Channel Optimisation

From time to time affiliate and ecommerce sites rely on a range of inbound traffic sources. I have seen many sites on the market that rely on a single and often paid source of traffic. Understanding the channel mix and how it’s optimised for profitability is key. For example if paid search or paid social are part of the mix, do those accounts come with the site purchase?

Lead Funnels

Just because revenue is a site’s immediate goal, this does not mean that there are opportunities for building a recurring traffic source. You would be surprised how many affiliate and ecommerce sites do not effectively build lead funnels to capture contact permissions and details.

A well built email list could be used very profitably. If the site does have good lead funnels, it would be useful to review the setup and the permissions.

Revenue

The single most important reason to buy a site, it makes money or has the potential to make money!

Sources

A pure ecommerce site usually relies on a single source of income – sales. Affiliate sites on the other hand can benefit from a range of sources, different affiliate programs as well as adsense and display advertising. In recent years partnerships are good sources of income. A complete breakdown of existing revenue sources and considering other revenue sources may increase the benefits of acquiring a site.

Revenue risks

When it comes to revenue sources there is always a risk, but it’s how well you assess that risk is what makes the difference. For example if buying a drop shipping site it would be important to make sure that the drop shipper is stable. Or if buying an affiliate site then making sure that revenue tiers are stable. After amazon dropped its commission tiers, many sites in the dropped tiers became high risk by association.

Opportunities

Weighing out and listing the above is not only a good indicator if a site is a good buy or not, it also allows you to assess opportunities for missed monetization models. For example I recently bought an amazon affiliate site that had a lot of traffic but just wasn’t converting on amazon. I switched out the source to eBay instead and saw a 100% boost in revenue in a month, and still going.

Costs

Hosting and Maintenance

You would discover some of the costs associated with hosting and management of a site when you run the technical analysis part of this review. Keep in mind that custom builds may end up costing more than off shelf and free CMS systems. Similarly, hosting costs aren’t much but if the seller is using a cheap shared hosting account, you may want to consider upgrading that, which obviously adds to the ongoing cost.

I often see sites that are offered with PBNs in place. You may want to consider the costs of not only maintaining, but running and improving that PBN – if allowed to stagnate these could become toxic or less powerful over time.
Similarly you may want to consider adding in link building costs if the seller is currently not doing any.

Content and Uploading

It’s a small part of the equation but an important one. Content can be procured cheap, however in some niches, you may need to hire specialists, which may actually cost more. Working out the cost of ongoing content and uploading it (this factors in time of running the site) is a prudent metric to have in place when deciding on which site to buy.

Software licenses

If the site is using custom scripts or software, you may want to consider those costs in your ongoing management of the site. Similarly I have seen people making the mistake of thinking that site themes, plugin licenses are all transferable Unless the seller has a resale license these additional piece of software isn’t actually legally transferable and you may have to budget for buying your own copies and the cost of migrating the site over to your licenses. In most cases this is straightforward, but in rare instances I have seen the process of changing the license break sites.

Insights by Rishi Lakhani

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