Tools for Website Buyers Due Diligence

I would like to believe that every person selling in the SitePoint Marketplace is honest and transparent with their listings. But as with all types of investments, it’s wise to avoid making assumptions about the legitimacy of claims — so you don’t get caught out.

You’ll find that on some occasions the information will be exactly as the seller details. However, knowing you’ve personally verified the information yourself puts you in a strong position to make an offer on a web site with confidence.

On most occasions when you’re considering the acquisition of a web property — whether it’s an entire web site or just a domain — it might be useful to know some details of its history. The two main reasons for needing to know what’s gone on in the past are to confirm what the seller is saying and to know about any unscrupulous dealings.

It would be great to be able to take it for granted that all the participants in SitePoint’s Marketplace are honest, that every web site seller is representing the property very clearly, and all relevant information is transparent. But, in reality, it’s dangerous to assume all this. Even with an honest seller, there might be factors that have been long forgotten, were more important to you than the seller, or have simply been overlooked while hastily writing up an auction listing description. I have even run into situations where a second or third owner of a site was unaware of problematic events that transpired prior to them owning the property.

Trust, but Verify

So, how can you find out what even the owner may be oblivious to? Or, what the owner may be hiding from you? Sometimes you’re unable to, but with some useful tools you can learn quite a bit about where a property has been.

The Internet Archive (archive.org), also known as The Wayback Machine, gives you an easily accessible overview of the long-range history of a web site. What’s truly great about the Internet Archive is that it keeps in its database a copy of each web page it accessed at a specific point in time. If it’s new to you, take a look at what it has for SitePoint. As you can see, the first instance of SitePoint in the Archive is from May 10, 2000 (bonus points to you if you know what SitePoint was called before then!). For the true beauty of the Internet Archive, you click into those dated links. There’s what SitePoint looked like more than eight years ago — quaint, huh? And, to take it a step further, you can click around and see what the internal pages looked like too. Sometimes you’ll need to cut and paste the internal urls to access them via the Archive, and some webmasters block the Archive in their robots.txt file.

The Google Cache is similar to the Internet Archive, but it’s a bit more difficult to browse; also, some sites you’ll only find in the Archive, while others, only in the Google Cache. I use my Google Toolbar to access the Cache, and one of the first things I address when I’m examining a site is what’s in the Cache for the index page. If that matches what I see when I access the page directly, I then check the date it was cached; this gives you an indication of how important Google thinks the web site is — more recently cached being good. In addition to using the Google Toolbar, the Google Cache can be accessed by clicking the “Cached” link that appears below a search result. You can also have a look at the text-only version here too where occasionally there’ll be a red flag.

The third tool I’d like to introduce you to is Domain Tools, which finds historical information about the ownership of a domain. At the heart of its database is an archive called Whois. Every time a domain name has a change in details, it creates a new record in the database. While some changes are more mundane, such as telephone numbers, others can be more revealing. You might uncover the previous owner of a domain and be able to trace how the current owner came to be the owner. The ownership may be questionable if the domain changed hands under sketchy circumstances. Domain Tools also enables you to discover what other domains a person owns.

This is far from being an exhaustive list of important tools, but these are the three I use the most. Most of the time you’ll end up just confirming what you believed you’d find in the first place, but it’s important to validate information. You may also run into situations where these tools will turn up inconsistent data, if at all, and in those cases you’ll be wondering what the seller’s trying to hide. The more information you have on a prospective acquisition, the better position you’ll be in to make a sound offer. And, the last great point I’ll make about these tools is you can do this level of research before you’ve even stated an interest to the seller.

I originally wrote this for the SitePoint Market Watch Newsletter.

Comments

  1. says

    Excellent primer on due diligence, Peter. As you say, there are several other tools. The ones I use vary depending on the site I’m buying.

    If a large proportion of the site’s value seems to be in the backlinks, I spend more time analysing those backlinks, seeing if the major sites that link in are from pages owned/controlled by the seller himself. If I see value primarily in the content and the Adsense income, I spend more time investigating how original that content is and analysing his Adsense stats relative to his website’s traffic.

    It’s an art form, isn’t it? ;) Great fun, great fun.

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