Anyone who currently, or previously earned their living through property will be familiar with the quote that money is made (short term) when you buy and not when you sell, and to some extent the same holds true with internet businesses. Finding a website directly for sale by the owner is almost always going to offer better value than buying through a marketplace as
- Less buyers competing avoids the price being inflated
- Some buyers simply don’t know their site’s worth, especially when it doesn’t make revenue for them
- Without having to go through a third party, all the money is kept by the buyer
If you buy sites on a regular basis, you’re about to enter a new niche or if you want to expand within one you’re currently in, it’s often worth spending the time to see what’s available privately before shopping on the general market. This article aims to take you through a simple system that you can use to identify, find details for and negotiate on websites that aren’t publically for sale. Even if you outsource the process (which is fairly straightforward) it still can be worthwhile bearing in mind that you can often pick up a ‘gem’ for many times less than what it would be worth on an open market.
Having strict criteria is crucial in saving time, even more so if you’ve chose to outsource rather than do it yourself. The types of sites that usually represent the best undervalued purchases are
- Older sites, often setup in the early dot com boom with basic HTML
- Hobby sites that still receive traffic to old content thanks to strong aged links
- Sites that receive significant traffic, but haven’t yet monetised.
If you find a site that hasn’t been updated for a while but ranks well, that’s always a good sign. These sites are usually ‘propped up’ by strong aged backlinks and often require significantly less work than a newer site to rank for more competitive terms. Finding these sites is usually 90% common sense and 10% sneakiness – here are a few simple tricks to get started.
Searching for old sites
Using a combination of Google’s date function and a filetype search, we can find likely targets that fit the criteria above.
- Set your search parameters using ‘Niche filetype:html’. For example, if I want sites in the needlework niche I’d use ‘needlework filetype:html’. This should give a list of results that are about 80% straight html pages. (Some will have since been redirected to newer structures).
- Hover over the left hand side of the screen once the results appear and select custom range from the time options (more search tools). Enter ‘1/1/1996’ in the from field and ‘1/1/2005’ (or there about) in the to field. This should give straight html pages that were updated before 2005, but will exclude sites that are returned with a date of 1/1/1975.
The list that’s returned will be a good starting point for identifying any neglected sites (you can often find when the owner last updated the site by looking for a date in the copyright statement in the footer). You’ll notice that even in the fictitious needlework example there are a few neglected PR4 and PR5 sites in the first 50 results.
An alternative, especially if you don’t want to search within a specific niche is to search for old technology. You’ll be able to add more to this list from your own personal experiences but I’d start with searches like (and for the first time in anything to do with the internet, over 30s will have the advantage here )
‘this site uses frames’ etc
Finding contact details for site owners is fairly straightforward for newer sites, in a post WordPress age where everyone has a contact form. It may not be as simple with older sites, especially if the owner has since neglected it and no longer checks their email. You should first try to eliminate the obvious and do a search for the contact details either manually or through a Google search (e.g. “Contact site: your-url.com”).
If this yields a contact page url (for a contact form) or an email address, store this in an excel spreadsheet with the URL of the site.
If you fail to find anything or, you’ve made contact but you’re unsure the email address / form submission is being checked, try one of these methods
1) Archive.org. You can sometimes find an email address in the footer of older versions of the site, especially if you can go back pre 2003.
2) WHOIS search. Check the domain’s WHOIS record at http://who.is/whois/your-url.com (replacing your-url.com with the target domain) to see if there’s an email address or telephone number listed for the domain’s owner. If you do find a working telephone number and decide to call, be respectful of the owner’s timezone, as nothing says ‘internet crazy’ more than a random caller at 2am trying to buy a site you forgot about many years ago.
3) Email Wildcard. A Google search for ‘@your-url.com’ (replacing your-url.com with the target domain) might give you other addresses listed for the domain, one of which may still be working. It’s a bit of longshot, but can sometimes give you details for a partner that may still check their email, or someone who can get in touch with the owner.
4) Analytics Code. If the site is recent enough to have Google Analytics installed, doing a search for their Analytics ID (View Source in your browser then text search for ‘UA-‘. The ‘UA-‘ plus the number after is the id) might show other sites that are using the same tracking code and hence linked to the owner.
5) Forum Search. Google Groups (http://groups.google.com/) will allow you to search multiple forums for any mention of your target domain. If you can find any posts made by the owner, you’ll be able to find their handle / id that will usually be the same across other forums and message boards. Do a search for their user id, and you can usually find something they’ve recently posted, and make contact with them through the forum’s private message feature.
6) Use tools. I’m a huge fan of SEO Power Suite right now and frequently use SEO Spyglass to help with Due Diligence. The suite comes with link assistant, which is supposed to be for finding potential link partners, but with a little hacking automates the process of finding potential acquisitions with a few clicks.
When you do make contact, try to avoid freaking out the other party at all costs (negotiation 101!). The three most common questions they will have when they see your first email are likely to be
1) Who is this person?
2) How did they get my details (if not through the site)?
3) What do they want and why?
Try and answer all of these questions and explain why you want their site / abandoned project. It’s debatable how much depth you need to go into; sending someone all the reasons why their site is worth money to you is probably not the best strategy for negotiating a good deal! However, giving the owner a credible reason should reduce the scepticism that you’ll often encounter from people who think your email is some form of scam (from a rich Nigerian army general who wants you to … I’m sure you know the script….)
While most sellers will already have a number they’re willing to accept in mind, you’ll most likely be asked to make an offer. There’s no hard and fast rules here, as it will vary from seller to seller, however from my own experience, I would usually offer 30% – 80% of the domain’s wholesale value (you can find the wholesale domain value here) for a site with no revenue and around 6 – 12x monthly net for one that’s generating more than $500 per month. If the seller declines (as most probably will on your first offer) you should ask if there’s a figure they are willing to accept. At this point, you can either decide to pay it if you want the site badly enough, or simply thank them for their time and follow up with them several months down the line (or just after they’ve had to renew a domain they no longer want). If you stay polite but persistent, any reasonable seller will eventually evaluate whether the site is actually worth anything to them and should they decide to sell, you’ll be first in line usually somewhere between your initial offer and theirs.
Finding sites for sale by owners can be pretty tedious work but the rewards in buying a solid aged site on a good domain with aged links will usually make it worthwhile, especially if you’re in a competitive niche like travel or finance. As usual, if I’ve left anything out, please let me know.