10 Questions to Ask During SEO Due Diligence

Philip Ghezelbash Updated on May 13, 2024

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Due diligence is an essential part of buying any business. For website due diligence, there are various aspects the buyer should look into, including copyright, revenue, profit, etc. One aspect of due diligence that is often overlooked, or at least not scrutinized enough, is search engine optimization (SEO).

This article will go into detail on which aspects of SEO you should examine during due diligence using a 10-question checklist.

Answering these questions will help ensure that the online business you’re buying won’t give you any nasty surprises in the future, and will help you understand its true value.

What Is SEO Due Diligence?

SEO due diligence evaluates a website’s search engine optimization health. It involves assessing content quality, backlinks, and technical factors that may positively or negatively affect the website’s performance and revenue.

Along with other types of due diligence, SEO due diligence ensures the buyers understand the value of a website because they’ll potentially inherit any risks that could come post-acquisition.

Why Is SEO Due Diligence Important?

SEO due diligence is important because it helps assess the sustainability of organic search traffic and revenue, and ensures a more accurate valuation. Proper due diligence will help buyers identify technical issues, poor backlinks, thin and low-quality content, and other issues.

Understanding these issues can help protect you from buying a website that might seem robust, but actually has underlying risks that could negatively affect the business after acquisition.

As a buyer, completing proper due diligence mitigates risk. If the website’s SEO is strong, you can be confident that traffic, rankings, and other metrics are sustainable and poised for growth.

10-Question SEO Due Diligence Checklist

1. What Is the Current Organic Search Traffic, and What’s the Trend?

Review the site’s organic search traffic over the last month, six months, the last year, and all time.

Ideally, look for a consistent, gradual increase in traffic—something similar to the S&P 500. Traffic that doesn’t regularly increase isn’t necessarily a red flag, especially if it’s holding steady without dropping, and it ranks for valuable keywords.

Use the right SEO tools to research traffic (e.g., Ahrefs, Semrush, but preferably Google Search Console) due to data accuracy.

Third-party SEO tools are great, but they aren’t entirely accurate. Since you’re looking to buy the business, you should gain viewing access to Google Search Console, which will provide the most accurate data regarding clicks, impressions, click-through rates, and positioning.

Assess if traffic has been stable, growing, declining, or variable. Ask about the circumstances (e.g., did the Google Helpful Content Update cause a big dip, or was there a manual penalty?).

It’s important to ask why to determine the owner’s reasoning. It’s okay if traffic dips (just like with the S&P 500, dips can happen due to macroeconomic factors), but look for recovery from these dips and ask how they occurred. Or if traffic has yet to recover, ask why.

2. What Keywords Is the Website Ranking For?

Use an SEO tool to see which keywords the website is ranking for.
For example, with Ahrefs, you can see which keywords the website ranks highest for, the average search volume of those keywords, and its “cost-per-click,” i.e., its value in terms of how much money people pay per click for running ads to that keyword.

Check to make sure the keywords are relevant to the website’s niche and content focus and whether these keywords are driving revenue. If you’re looking to buy a B2B affiliate website, ideally, the company would rank high for a relevant keyword like “SEO agency tools,” as it’s valuable and relevant.

Be aware of high rankings for irrelevant keywords, as they likely don’t positively affect the business’s bottom line, but look good as vanity metrics.

Don’t overlook the length of time a keyword has held its position. Keyword positioning constantly changes, so don’t trust a screenshot of certain content ranking high. Go into Google Search Console, type in the keyword you’re examining, and focus on its positioning over time. You can even filter by country or examine the average positioning for a specific URL over time.

As shown in the graph above, this site ranks for “medical search engines” fairly consistently in the top 1-3 positions over the last 12 months, which demonstrates stability.

3. How Does the Website Perform on SEO Metrics like Page Speed and User Experience?

Use tools like Google PageSpeed Insights to test page load speed and compare mobile vs desktop.

The faster a website loads, the better. The better the scores on PageSpeed Insights, the better.

A site can still rank very well without checking all the boxes. However, if a site is noticeably slow (e.g., loads over five to six seconds), this should be improved as it can result in a negative user experience.

Validate mobile friendliness and check whether the site uses HTTPS and other basic technical setups. These are the basics that should be fine, but they are worth checking as a precaution because, when not implemented correctly, they can cause performance issues.

Perform a full technical SEO audit to identify other areas of concern that may cause problems. A range of technical issues might be preventing content from being indexed, slowing down the site, etc., so make sure everything runs smoothly and evaluate which resources would help solve the issue post-acquisition.

4. What Does the Backlink Profile Look Like — Quantity, Quality, Relevancy?

Use Ahrefs Site Explorer to analyze individual backlinks and referring domains.

Backlinks are an essential part of SEO. Some argue that they’re the most important; some argue they rank second after content. Regardless, assess the site to see which sites are linking to it.

Assess the quality of the backlinks based on their relevance, authority, and the proportion of dofollow to nofollow links. Ideally, you’d want a natural mix of dofollow and nofollow links relevant to your audience from authoritative sites.

Look at the types of links to see whether any dodgy link-building strategies were used that could put the site at risk post-acquisition. Red flags include farmed and bought links to money pages with over-optimized anchor text.

The example below is a website that has various high-quality sites with lots of traffic and authority linking back to it, which is a green flag.

We can also see the anchor text (the specific words linked) appear “natural,” and don’t appear to be spam, but rather genuine mentions from other brands/websites.

5. Is the Site Architecture Allowing Bots to Easily Crawl and Index Important Pages?

It’s critical to determine if bots can easily access and index key pages on the site.

Run Screaming Frog to uncover any crawl errors that could block bots from discovering important content (crawl errors like 404s or blocked resources prevent search engines from fully accessing content).

Check for noindex tags, password protections, broken links, or other barriers that might prevent indexing high-value pages like product and service pages. Ensure these essential money pages and other important content are freely crawlable and indexable.

An optimized site architecture with a clear internal linking structure guides bots to key pages. Any issues could result in lost organic visibility for pivotal pages.

6. Are There Any Red Flags/black Hat Tactics Used That Could Lead to Google Penalties Post-Sale?

When reviewing an acquisition target, it’s critical to scrutinize its link profile and tactics that may put the site at risk of a manual penalty, even if it has yet to happen.

Examine the top referring domains and watch for an overreliance on web 2.0s, blog comments, foreign domains, paid links, or other manipulative tactics intended to boost rankings. For example, a large percentage of backlinks coming from low-quality web 2.0 properties or blog comments with over-optimized anchor text would be concerning.

While some link-building is normal, aggressive strategies that violate Google’s guidelines should raise red flags.

A penalty could dramatically affect the financials post-sale if a significant portion of revenue depends on organic search. If the potential damage appears too great, you may want to reconsider acquiring the website at the proposed valuation.

7. How Unique and High-Quality Is the Content?

Content is king. Ensure that all content on the site is high quality, authoritative, and factually accurate. It should (ideally) be written and reviewed by subject matter experts, especially for YMYL topics.

Look for thin content with little value that may degrade user experience, which might be machine-generated at scale, riddled with inaccuracies, or irrelevant to the intent of searches.
I’d recommend checking content manually (find a good editor!), as “AI checkers” are notoriously inaccurate.

Use plagiarism checkers like Grammarly Premium or Copyscape to scan important pages for plagiarism. Additionally, assess content for factual accuracy, cited sources, helpfulness, uniqueness, etc.

Check for potential “keyword cannibalism” that could harm search rankings (i.e., multiple content pieces competing for similar focus keywords/search intents). Keyword cannibalization isn’t always bad—it could be an opportunity to get some quick wins post-sale by consolidating multiple content pieces into more comprehensive content that performs better.

8. How Sophisticated Is the Internal Linking Structure?

A good internal link structure is important as it helps search engines crawl and index (show) pages, passes authority and equity between pages, and, importantly, adds valuable pages for the bottom line. It also creates a logical site architecture that improves navigation and user experience. Additionally, it creates context about page topics.

To evaluate the internal link structure, crawl the site using Screaming Frog or a similar tool to map the connections between pages. Analyze if there is a logical user flow with internal links that facilitates navigation to the most valuable content pages.

User flow refers to a person’s journey through a site, and how internal links facilitate that journey—for example, linking from the home page to product category pages, to individual product pages, and finally, to the purchase checkout page.

Also, assess if anchor text usage appears over-optimized through exact match keyword stuffing or is used naturally to indicate context. A sound internal linking structure should have descriptive anchor text that adds user value.

9. Are There Any Manual or Algorithmic Penalties Applied to the Site?

Google penalties or “manual actions” cause negative effects on a website’s rankings and are based on a human reviewer’s decision if a website doesn’t comply with Google Search Essentials.

To check, look at the Google Search Console account for any messages about manual actions or penalties. If there are none, that’s a good sign.

If there are any manual penalties, never ignore them.

To dig deeper:

  • Review the site’s backlink profile and on-page optimization for any spammy or manipulative links or content that could have triggered a penalty.
  • Analyze the site’s organic traffic and rankings to see if any unexplained drops coincide with Google algorithm updates. Significant drops could indicate an algorithmic penalty.
  • If you find any past penalties, request proof from the site owners that the issues were properly addressed through reconsideration requests and cleaning up low-quality content or links.

10. Who Handles SEO Currently, and What’s the Strategy?

Understanding the existing search engine optimization strategy and resource allocation for the website is key.

Ask about the budget over time to gauge commitment, whether there are dedicated staff like content managers or technical SEOs, and if they will remain post-acquisition.

Core focuses may include content creation, link building, and site optimizations. Understanding the costs and time investments into current organic growth efforts is important.

Are they using specific content writing services or hiring freelance writers? Understanding budgets, staff hours, and regular time investments will help you understand whether SEO is a priority or not. Knowing this information will help you understand what your expenses might look like post-sale.

The Bottom Line

SEO due diligence is crucial. It minimizes the risk when buying an online business and helps ensure an accurate valuation. If a site depends on its organic search traffic to generate revenue and profit, it’s necessary to look at its SEO health.

The most important factors to assess are:

  • The traffic over time, and how it correlates to revenue/profit
  • Which keywords does the website rank for and their relevance/value
  • The quality and diversity of backlinks
  • The website architecture, performance, and technical health
  • The quality of the content

In the ideal scenario, look for steady, increasing, relevant traffic that directly correlates to increasing revenue/profit.

If you’re not an SEO expert or need more confidence, consider getting a professional SEO audit from a consultant or agency.

You can save even more time by using Empire Flippers’ services.

They help assess some of the points in this checklist when vetting online businesses for sale on their marketplace—it makes the whole process much more manageable.

That said, there’s a big difference between vetting a site and doing thorough due diligence, so make sure you run through all of the questions on this checklist before committing to an acquisition.

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