Buying Your First Website: 9 Safety Checks to Keep You Out of Trouble
The online world is full of opportunities with a plethora of profitable websites to acquire. However, it’s the vastness of this big city-like industry which leaves its street dwellers open to exploitation.
Digital entrepreneurs tend to be pretty savvy when it comes to understanding how websites work. For a new digital investor, it can be uncomfortable dealing with a website seller who has the power to trash your investment with nefarious tactics.
While it’s hard to know whether a digital entrepreneur you’re looking to do a deal with is a scam artist or an untrustworthy person, you do have the power to quickly identify any red flags that should urge you to renegotiate the deal and clarify some areas or walk away from the deal completely.
When you make a private deal, you should certainly do thorough due diligence to make sure a website isn’t a scam. There are services that can carry out due diligence on websites and help you with this process if you don’t have the expertise. However, bear in mind that, no matter which service you use, it’s your responsibility to decide if the investment is right for you.
Another option is to purchase through a brokerage like us, because we have a vetting team that screens out scam websites.
If you decide to do it alone, look for the obvious signs. You can do a lot of this research using search engine optimization (SEO) tools like Ahrefs, so if you’d like to do a deep dive into this topic, create a free account and follow along as you read this article.
Digging into the SEO Structure to Uncover Red Flags
The growth foundations of a website are built on its SEO structure. It’s these foundations that cement the website within Google and, thus, in the niche in which it operates.
An integral part of a website’s SEO structure is backlinks.
Think of backlinks as the doors and windows of the house that is your website. They connect the house to the rest of the neighborhood; that is, they connect your website to the online neighborhood within Google’s search engine.
Google’s algorithm assesses your website’s backlinks when positioning it in search results, for quality but also for any signs of attempts to manipulate the algorithm.
With SEO tools, you can look at the areas Google assesses and spot anything out of sorts.
Pre-Check 1: Referring Domains
A referring domain is a domain that is linking to a website, in other words, one that is “referencing” a website.
Over time, a website starts to get other websites linking to it as it becomes more well-known in the niche. This is similar to when you move to a new neighborhood, and after a while, the neighbors start waving to you.
This increase in the number of referring domains should, in theory, roughly correlate with the growth of the website because the more traffic the website is getting, the more other websites in the niche become aware of it, and the more they start linking to it.
For empireflippers.com, the increase in referring domains has been gradual over the past two years.
When looking at this data for the website you’d like to acquire, if you notice any big spikes or dips in the number of referring domains, then that is something to bring up to the seller.
It doesn’t necessarily mean the seller has done anything nefarious or against Google’s policies. For example, a spike could be due to a post going viral. However, it could be nefarious, so ask the seller what happened at this time. If they are closed off about the topic or are unwilling to share details, then that could be a red flag.
Another important factor is where these links are coming from.
Pre-Check 2: Homepage Backlinks
Homepage backlinks are backlinks from homepages of other websites.
Because they come from the main page of the website, these links strongly improve the reputation of a website in Google’s eyes. A good way to think about it is to compare a celebrity replying to your comment on Instagram to them messaging you directly.
If the website you’re looking to buy has a considerable number of these links, it likely means the seller has paid for the backlink, or they own the website that’s linking to them.
Either way, if you find that a vast majority of links come from one domain, it could be a red flag.
Ask the seller about this, and if they own the other domain, make sure it is included in the sale, or make a clear agreement as part of the sale that the links will be kept in place; otherwise, after you acquire the website, the seller could remove all of those links and sink your website’s rankings overnight.
If the seller has carried out a paid deal to acquire these links, then you should learn more about the terms of this deal and decide whether you want to take on the risk of having the majority of your website’s SEO reliant on one domain.
The next step in the pre-check phase is to look a bit closer at the types of links the website has acquired.
Pre-Check 3: Dofollow and Nofollow Links
There are two main types of backlinks: dofollow and nofollow.
Domains with a certain level of authority within Google also have a level of power. This power allows authoritative domains to help trusted websites receive a better ranking from Google through backlinks.
For example, if The New York Times website links to a small publication website, that’s a sign that the publication is a good source of information, so Google will apply some of the NYT website’s authority to the smaller website. This is the reasoning behind “link juice,” a common term in the SEO industry.
A website has the option to signal to Google that it trusts the website it’s linking to by giving juice to the link. This type of link is called a dofollow link.
However, not all links are full of juice.
Websites only have a limited amount of authority, and if they add too many dofollow links to their website, it will hurt its own performance. That’s why dofollow links are such a strong ranking factor.
If a website doesn’t want to give up any of its authority, but would like to link to another website—maybe an article has been posted that includes some data from an external source and the website owner would like to link to that source—they create a nofollow link.
These types of links are on almost all websites, but what you want to look out for is a high number of dofollows coming from one domain because the website’s rankings in Google will be heavily reliant on that domain.
Similar to homepage links, the domain is likely owned by the seller, as there are few cases where an external domain would link so heavily to one website. The only other real explanation is that the seller has carried out some sort of paid deal with the owner of the other domain.
This is something to be discussed with the seller further.
While you’re checking the sources of backlinks, you also want to check the country code top-level domains (CCTLDs).
Pre-Check 4: CCTLD Distribution
A CCTLD is a placeholder that indicates in which country the domain operates. The most common example is .com for the US.
If the website you’re looking at is a US website, then you would expect the vast majority of domains that refer to that website to be .com domains, right? This is what the CCTLD distribution looks like for our website.
If the majority of CCTLDs referring to the website come from other countries, that’s a red flag. This is something you should bring up with the seller as it could be a sign of nefarious activity.
The next pre-check is to assess how the backlinks are presented on the referring websites.
Pre-Check 5: Anchor Text
Usually, when a website links to another, the link is embedded in the text through anchor text.
For example, if I were to link to a website about anchor text, then I would embed the link in a word like “anchor text.” If a brand is particularly well known, like Nike, then I would likely use the word Nike in the text and link through that word. This type of linking fits in with the context of the content topic, as opposed to linking to a pet care website by simply copying and pasting its full URL.
When assessing the anchor links that refer to a website, check that they are related to the website’s niche. Below is an example of the anchor texts that refer to our website.
The majority of these pre-checks are related to backlinks, as they are a key element in SEO and the security of a website’s earnings.
The rest of the pre-checks are focused on other areas that Google assesses.
Keywords, Domains, and Traffic
Pre-Check 6: Keywords
The keywords, or put simply, search queries, a website ranks for are important to the SEO structure. These are the bricks of the home; if a website stops ranking for too many of the keywords it targets, then the house will eventually collapse as it loses all of its bricks. Similarly, when targeting keywords, you are collecting those bricks to build your home (i.e., your website presence on Google).
To establish a strong authority within Google’s search engine, it’s important to rank for keywords relevant to the website’s niche. For example, good keywords that a website focused on dog training can rank for are “dog training” and “how to train my dog.”
The keywords a website ranks for are signs of its SEO strength. The keyword examples above will be searched for a lot, so if your website ranks on page one for these types of keywords, then Google considers the content you’re sharing to be some of the best content on the subject available.
A problem arises when a website ranks for irrelevant keywords. If the same dog training website was ranking for keywords like “used car parts”, that’s a sign that the website is targeting the wrong audience.
Pre-Check 7: 301 Redirects
A 301 redirect is a domain that is used to redirect the user to a different domain. You might have seen this for a brand that has changed its name. It might keep the old branded domain, but when people search for the old one, they are redirected to the brand’s new domain.
These types of links are common and aren’t usually causes for concern.
The only time you should be concerned is if you find a 301 redirect the seller hasn’t told you about. That redirect link will be a big influencer in the website’s SEO, so you need to make sure the redirect is included in the sale; otherwise, the seller could take down the redirect after selling the website to you and impact its traffic.
Pre-Check 8: Expired Domains
An expired domain is simply one that is no longer being used.
A quick way to see whether the domain for the website you’d like to purchase is expired is to use a tool like waybackmachine.com. With this tool, you can search the history of the domain and the websites it was associated with. Simply select a date on the calendar when the domain was active, and it will show you screenshots of what the website looked like at that time.
Looking at the gaps on the timeline above, you can see when the domain expired.
If you see that the domain has periods of expiration, be aware that the content from previous websites might be unrelated to the current website that the domain is associated with.
Having an expired domain is a big benefit with a risk.
An expired domain is powered by the backlink profile it has built up. Because that profile was built up on the previous website, there are risks of the links being taken down by websites as it becomes apparent that the content for the domain has changed. Also, Google can recognize this change and penalize the website because technically the domain was associated with a different website with different content.
Pre-Check 9: Traffic
Traffic history is a strong indicator of a website’s viability as an investment. A good traffic history is a sign that a website has a strong SEO structure and is well-established within the niche. If the website you’re evaluating has a consistent trend of gradual growth, then that is the gold standard.
Take notice of spikes and dips. You should always question the seller about these, but some of the common reasons for a spike in traffic include:
- a piece of content going viral
- the website receiving a strong backlink that suddenly drives a lot of traffic
- a Google update
- a jump in ranking
Some common reasons for a dip in traffic is the opposite of the above changes.
These changes are normal and generally not causes for concern. If the website has been penalized by Google, or the seller has carried out some risky tactics to drive a ton of traffic to the website, like a mass purchase of backlinks, these are red flags.
Overall, when assessing a website as an investment, you should be aware of the fundamentals of how content websites and search engines work together to help keep you safe.
Awareness of the above factors should increase your chances of avoiding acquiring a dud website or one from an untrustworthy seller.
Where to Find Websites for Sale
So, where do you find a good website to buy? You might already have a website in mind. If so, please bear in mind the above advice before diving in.
Otherwise, if you’re searching for a good website investment, there are specific places where many websites are listed for sale.
First, there are online communities dedicated to the sales and acquisitions of websites and other online businesses. In these communities, you’ll find website sellers to connect with, and if you are knowledgeable about websites and how they operate as online businesses, you can potentially find a good website to acquire.
However, these are not places for a newbie buyer.
Acquiring a website is a complex process with a lot of hurdles that can trip up a deal. One of those hurdles is negotiating a fair price with the seller. If you don’t have experience with online business valuation or negotiation, then this will be a difficult part of the acquisition process.
On the search side, these communities are largely unregulated, so you don’t know what types of websites you’re looking at. The advice in this article can be helpful in preventing you from looking further into an unworthy website, but it can’t prevent you from failing with an acquisition if you decide to go ahead—that’s where acquisition experience comes into play.
Communities are the Wild West, but there are some places closer to home.
Second, we have marketplaces, which are more convenient for finding websites for sale, since the websites are listed with key information. You can search through the catalogue to find a website that’s within your budget and fits other acquisition criteria.
For example, on our marketplace, you can filter searches and save search filters to narrow in on your ideal website within minutes, instead of the hours or days it would take searching the web.
While marketplaces aren’t as wild as communities, most aren’t regulated, so you are still fully responsible for vetting websites: be aware that scam artists still operate in these areas.
What marketplaces lack is a brokerage to keep them more business-friendly.
The best and easiest way to find websites for sale, especially if you’ve never acquired a website before, is through a brokerage. This is because the broker already has websites for sale in their pipeline and they can connect you with the owners of those websites quickly.
Usually, a broker helps the seller with the valuation of their website, which makes it easier for all parties to agree on a good deal.
That said, not all brokers value websites effectively and some promise the world to sellers just to get them in their books. Having a basic understanding of how websites are valued will help you avoid overpaying.
At Empire Flippers, we have dedicated teams at all stages of the buying and selling process. This means the websites we have are of the highest quality and are ready for acquisition, which we will carry out for you in terms of handing over the website assets to you and even collecting the funds.
The services that brokerages offer do come at a fee; but that fee is charged to the seller, and even they are likely to make more money than they would if they sold privately. A broker knows how to value their website in the best possible way, so sellers won’t have to worry about their websites being mispriced and bought for less than they’re worth.
When buying your first website, leveraging the resources and experience of a broker to help you make the right deal is a good way to go.
Finding Your Ideal Website
Hopefully this article has prepared you to make a safe website investment.
If you do opt to go for a private purchase, then please be careful and bear the nine pre-checks in mind at all steps of the process. Although they aren’t foolproof, they will help reduce your chances of going deeper into an illegitimate website and potentially ending up with a doomed investment.
If you’d like to see what websites we currently have available, register for a free account and use our search filters to find a website that fits your buying criteria in minutes.