During my time at Centurica, a due diligence service, I have come across a number of different due diligence cases. While the majority of the websites that we analyse have only minor red flags and shortcomings, we occasionally come across sites that surprise even us.
Below is a case study on a website that was listed right here on Flippa. It looked fine on the surface, but when we performed an initial due diligence on the site, it resulted in quite a few shocking discoveries!
I’m publishing this case study to illustrate not only the importance of performing due diligence when purchasing web assets, but also that it’s always worth going the extra mile and digging just a tiny bit deeper, as it may mean saving you several thousands of dollars further down the line.
On the surface, it seems like a solid site. It gets a fair bit of traffic each month (15,000 monthly uniques, according to the seller’s claims). It makes nearly $1,000 per month, and best of all, the owner doesn’t spend any time on maintaining it.
And it’s growing, too! In June it already made $1,500 and it’s on track to generate a similar amount in August.
Looks good, right?
The Not So Good
Whenever I analyze a site, I first look at the traffic and revenue claims. I want to check whether they appear to be accurate and if they can be sufficiently proven.
Traffic: Lack of Third Party Analytics
With this site, the first red flag was the lack of third party analytics. The seller doesn’t have any third party tracking scripts (such as Google Analytics) installed, which means that the buyer will have to rely on self-hosted analytics tools, which are notoriously easy to tamper with. For example, I conducted this experiment a year ago, where it took me 35 minutes to put together a good looking set of AW Stats traffic proofs that showed completely inaccurate data.
Furthermore, the seller has only provided traffic statistics for less than one month, which may suggest that the site has only recently reached its current level of traffic and hasn’t yet stabilized.
Daily Statistics for June 2013
I also took a look at the claimed traffic figures in comparison to the site’s Alexa rank and the result was slightly worrying. Whilst Alexa alone can’t be relied upon as a direct measure of traffic, sites that receive around 15,000 unique visits per month typically have an Alexa rank much lower than 1.4 million.
Revenue: Potentially Misleading Revenue Proofs
The revenue proof that the seller has provided is interesting too. Whilst the proofs date back six months, there is no way to verify whether it was this website that had generated the revenue, as opposed to another site that the same seller may operate.
It’s also impossible to tell whether the provided screenshots are actual screenshots made of the (undisclosed) revenue source’s reporting backend or something created in Excel, as there is no reference to the actual revenue source itself.
Revenue Proof Sheet 2013
Click on the table above to open it in a new tab.
A main concern to me is that the site uses a single revenue source, which the seller is not willing to publicly disclose. This creates a situation where it’s impossible for potential buyers to evaluate whether the revenue source is stable and sustainable enough, or one that is likely to drop soon and leave the site with no income.
Other Red Flags
There were a few other minor red flags, such as the Pages-per-visit being abnormally high (an average of 6 pages per visit, for a website that provides questionably “useful” content). The seller also claimed previously that should the auction not be won, they wouldn’t relist the site, but then proceeded to relist it a month later.
Let’s cut them some slack though and ignore these issues for now.
All of the issues above could be deemed circumstantial. After all, it’s possible that the seller has a valid reason for not using Google Analytics and that they’re in fact perfectly happy to provide further revenue proofs to potential buyers.
However, the situation gets even more interesting when you start digging deeper and looking at the site itself.
Since the seller claims that the site gets the majority of its traffic from search engines, it’s important to take a look at the backlink profile, so we can see how sustainable this traffic seems in general.
The Link Profile
Having done a little bit of research using ahrefs.com, it seems that the link profile would cause even the most risk-loving SEO a few sleepless nights.
Not only has the site acquired most of its backlinks very recently (it had a total of less than 1,000 links in the beginning of June vs. nearly 4,000 at the end of June), the majority (65%) of its backlinks are with the anchor text “payday loans and cash advance”, which indicates a strong possibility that unnatural link building has taken place. The majority of the site’s backlinks is also “site-wide”, which often suggests that links have been purchased solely for SEO purposes.
Based on the graph above, it’s reasonable to assume that most of the link building has been done recently, and as such the site’s search rankings haven’t had time to stabilize. It’s very likely, especially if link building is stopped, that the site will lose many of its rankings in a month or two.
SEO vs. Maintenance and Expenses
Assuming some (heavy) link building has been done, let’s take a quick look at the declared maintenance time and expenses.
The seller claims that the site is “hands off”, as well as that its total expenditure is $20 per month (which I’m assuming is mostly web hosting), and that seems about right at first glance. However, an important aspect that the seller has conveniently missed is that it takes continuous SEO work for the site to maintain its current rankings.
With link building, especially in the case of relatively young sites, there is no such thing as “set and forget”. Whilst that’s not what many sellers like to hear or admit, the reality is that if link building suddenly stops, a drop in search rankings is in most cases imminent.
The seller has also admitted in the comments of the original version of the listing (prior to relisting it), that he has purchased “a few high quality links”. It’s important to understand that not only is buying links a dangerous game, links are bought for a certain period, meaning that the links that the seller has bought will either be taken down (likely affecting the site’s rankings) or the new owner will need to continue paying for them.
Because of this, potential buyers need to either account for a sizeable monthly SEO spend, or put aside several hours each week if they wish to do the link building themselves (providing they have the skills to do it).
Google’s Quality Guidelines
Last but not least, I had a look through Google’s Quality Guidelines to check whether the site complies. This also gives some indication of the risk of Google penalizing the site as soon as it goes through a manual review (which many sites do sooner or later), and needless to say, there was more than a few raised eyebrows!
Google’s Quality Guidelines document is a long read, so for the sake of not boring you, I’ll bring up only the most relevant and important violations.
Firstly, the site is in clear violation with the guideline that reads:
“Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.”
When you navigate to the front page of the site, all that you see is a lead capture form, a link to a longer lead capture form and a couple of links to “recent articles”, with no way to reach other pages of the site, other than through the sitemap.
The sitemap itself isn’t a particularly good one either as instead of containing links to the whole website, it contains only a bunch of keyword links to content that is obviously there only to game search engines. Take a look at it, since it’s guaranteed to bring a smile to your afternoon!
Another important quality guideline is that every site has to have content that is “useful and information-rich”. Whilst it’s debatable whether the site is in violation of this, my subjective opinion (which is likely to coincide with the opinion of Google’s manual review team) is that the site’s keyword-rich content is written first and foremost for search engines, rather than for humans.
There are a few more guidelines that are worth pointing out, but as the conclusions are quite obvious, I will leave it for the readers to decide whether the site is likely to be in violation of these or not. They are:
“Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.“
“Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, ‘Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?’“
“Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.“
Considering all of the above, I’m relatively sure that despite the unlikelihood of the listing being fraudulent, it is an extremely risky investment. There’s a significant chance that the website will lose the majority of its rankings (and therefore traffic) very soon, either as a result of an automated movement in search rankings or due to a manual review by Google’s web spam team.
Photo credit: Erkin Agsaran