There are a number of things to take into consideration when buying a website. For purposes of this article, I don’t mean the usual business considerations such as price, terms, etc. Let’s dig into how you need to look at this from an SEO perspective. You can also use this thinking to evaluate whether or not to keep a site you already own.
There are a few things that are different from a normal SEO audit. Some of the key ones are:
- You are not committed to the site. Make sure to stay dispassionate about the way you look at the site. Obviously, you are interested in the site, but as you start this process make sure you are looking for reasons why it is a bad investment.
- You are not looking for small things to tweak. You are looking for bigger things that impact the overall value of the site.
This type of audit is not just about the site itself. It is also about the place the site occupies in the larger market. As a result, there are a number of things that you need to check out. Some of these are:
- Map the competition and the space they control. Who are the clear market leaders?
- Is the site you are looking to buy one of the market leaders? If not, can you get it there quickly?
- For the site’s market space, is there a high degree of term diversity and a high overall search volume?
Looking For Unrealized Downsides
This is where you try to convince yourself that the site is a bad investment. Approach this like you want to succeed. Remember, if this site is a bad investment you can always find others. You want your money and time to bring you a strong ROI, and doing this well is how you drive the highest possible ROI. Key things to check for:
1. Check algo hits in traffic history. Get analytics for the website and look for noticeable traffic drops that are not seasonal in nature. Mark down the dates in which these have occurred. Even small drops in the 10% range matter during this investigation. From there, I like to look at Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History chart and match up the dates to see what algo updates may have driven the problems.
2. Panda concerns. If you have found out that a site has been likely hit by Panda, you are already in a deep hole. Panda examinations are tough because there is not a lot of information published about sites that have recovered from Panda. You can see lots of articles with very general, non-specific advice on what to look for. Unless you have someone who has experience leading Panda recoveries working with you, this might be time to punt.
The reason is that Panda hits are often indicators of a fundamental business structural problem, so major changes are needed to recover. Sites that have taken past Panda hits often get hit by each succeeding update to that algo. In addition, the scope of the repair work and the cost to the traffic of the website that result from the repair are very difficult to predict up front.
3. Penguin and bad link concerns. Like Panda, sites that have been hit by Penguin or Unnatural Links messages are also susceptible to ongoing incremental hits over time. However, there are more stories published about recovery from these types of issues than there are for Panda. Nonetheless, you need to realize that this is going to be hard and painful to fix.
You have to look at the site’s links with a very critical eye, and you need to cut very deeply into the link profile. Since Google does not give you a perfect roadmap to what to remove, you often remove some good links along the way. In addition, since there is no source that gives you all of your backlinks, you may have difficulty in removing enough to make Google happy. So, while this may be more easily recoverable than Panda, it may be a clear indicator of a non-investment opportunity.
4. Other Issues. There are many other things to look for, and here are a few of the top ones:
- Doorway pages. A common variant of this is building out lots of city pages with not much difference in the content on all of the pages. Google can quite readily see these as doorway pages, and you can see Matt Cutts discuss this issue at length here. If a substantial amount of site traffic comes from these types of pages you should be aware that there is a real downside potential in play with the site.
- Poor quality on site content. Sites can also have a lot of content that is really not of much value. Even if the site has not yet been hit with a penalty, it may be susceptible to that in the future. So, the same question arises, if you simply delete all the thin content pages, how does that impact the value of the site?
- As yet unpunished bad links. This goes to the same issue. Are the majority of the links pretty crappy? Is this a future link building penalty waiting to happen?
Stay true to your purpose here, you are trying to talk yourself out of buying this site. When you can’t, the chances you have a good one have gone way up.
Looking For Upsides
You can find upsides in this type of audit in the form of “non-punishable, bad SEO.” If the site is getting “X” thousands of visitors per month, which drives “Y” dollars of revenue, and it has easily corrected bad SEO practices, you are in luck! You can buy the site for its fair market value based on current revenue, fix the bad SEO, and see a nearly immediate upside. There are people who make a very tidy living playing exactly this game. I have done it myself more than once. Here are some things to look for:
- Massive duplicate content. This is the kind of thing you really like to see. Cleaning up really bad duplicate content often brings nice traffic and revenue results.
- Poor site architecture. A really bad linking structure is a nice to see, as well. If the content is poorly organized and you find pages way too many clicks from the home page, then there are probably things to be gained here, too.
- Lots of 404 errors. It is surprising how many sites do a poor job of keeping these under control. Finding lots of 404 errors is always a plus.
- Really bad titling strategies. if the titles are too generic or don’t accurately capture the content of the given page, fixing these is an easy win.
- Pages ranking with not-so-good content. Ok, this is very similar to one of the items in the list of major downsides; but, there is a fine line here. If the site has 50 or fewer pages that are thin on content, and they are drawing traffic, fixing those pages is not so hard to do. It is only 50, right? If the number of pages we are talking about is 2,000 that is another story (back to the downsides list in that case).
- Are there major topics not addressed on the site? Basically, a site should have a page or section for every major topic of interest to the people looking for a product or services like yours. If it does not, and you buy it, there is short term upside potential in addressing that shortcoming.
- Is the link profile clean (no bad links), but weak? Another great opportunity. If you buy a site based on its current value and know how to rapidly scale its visibility and links you have some serious upside in front of you.
Not finding a downside is a good thing, but good website purchases always have an easy upside to them, too. Sometimes, that upside may be non-SEO in nature, which is fine, but having SEO-based upsides is a good thing.
Wrapping It Up
The above is meant to be a set of guidelines on how to approach the purchase of a website. You can also use it to guide your decision making if you have a portfolio of sites and want to trim down your investment to a narrower set of sites.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.